Struggling With Loneliness


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

I see a lot of loneliness in our society.  Ironically, it is everywhere, and often found in the busiest places of our communities.  With all of our personal technology, and seemingly effortless tools to “keep in touch”, we struggle with an epidemic of isolation. Loneliness is often invisible, seldom talked about, and not an easy topic of conversation. There’s a social taboo on vocalizing our emotional states, anyway, and falling silent and withdrawing is one of the traits of the lonely and isolated.

Three quarters of Americans have experienced moderate to acute loneliness. And, a quarter of us are at the high end of that emotional range.

Loneliness is most prevalent in ages under 25 and over 65. US News and World Report.

I recently came upon a friend, sitting by himself, head in his hands, in the middle of the busiest part of a big store.

Instead of tending to my shopping list and a busy day, I sat with him, and honored the silence between us.  He looked up, barely acknowledging me, and then resumed staring at his hands and the floor. He’s normally talkative with me, telling stories of his kids, his work, and his art. Now, just silence, and a lot of pain. I felt his loneliness in the air we breathed, and from the bench where we sat.

My friend isn’t usually like this, brooding and silent. There’s something deep going on, I thought, and I best take the time to just be here with my friend.

The silence deepened, but it felt comfortable. I could tell that my presence was welcome, and that I should stay.

People whirled around us, the noise of shopping carts and kids, lots of conversations filling up the space.  My friend’s silence became even more noteworthy in all the chaos and tumult. Intuitively, I decided to stay, my friend needing someone to just be with.  Just being present is a valuable, and often greatly appreciated act of friendship.

My friend took a deep breath and sighed, and then began to talk, his voice barely above a whisper.  He told a tale of anxiety and despair, how life has been a struggle, and that no one cared about him.

“I care,” I said.

“I know,” he replied.  He talked more, the emotional dam letting loose, dark thoughts and pent up feelings spilling out, filling up the comfortable silence that we had. He looked me in the eye, and told a funny story on himself.

We laughed and he said he felt better, just being able to talk about life with someone.

“I’m better now,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about me now.  I’ll be alright.”

“And thanks,” he said. “Thanks for sitting with me and being my friend.”

A few years ago, I took an empowering training on being sensitive to depression and suicidal ideation. QPR Training. That experience gave me the confidence to tune up my intuition and my compassion, and be able to be of some help to those in need of help in dark times. I asked a few questions, and said I knew of some resources if he needed them. He said he wasn’t at risk, but he appreciated my concern and the offer.

He thanked me for being a friend, and for taking the time to care.

Isn’t that task in the job description of being a human being and living in society? We all need to be aware and to take the time to help a fellow human being.

The rest of the day, I was more aware of the loneliness around me, and in my community.  I made it a point to talk to people in the store, and say “hi”, how are you doing?”, and really meaning it.

The checkout clerk and I had a good conversation, and I realized that even though she was inundated with customers throughout her shift, the work can be lonely and isolating.

“There’s a misperception that loneliness means social isolation,” Dr. Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego, said. “Loneliness is subjective. It is what you feel. The definition of loneliness is distress because of a discrepancy between actual social relationships and desired social relationships. There’s a discrepancy between what I want and what I have.”

Like most of us, I experience loneliness and depression.  Those emotions are part of my humanity, and likely are at least partly influenced by the turmoil and pressures of our society, which corrode my efforts to take care of myself and be healthy.  I’ve tried to build into my self-care regimen some tools to be less lonely, more connected with others. Among those tools are exercise, nutrition, taking time to be in nature, creativity, and engaging with others.

Volunteerism is suggested by Dr. Kasley Killam, in her article, A Solution for Loneliness, in  the May, 2019 edition of Psychology Today. She urges us to volunteer at least two hours a week, which can reduce our sense of loss of meaning, and reverse cognitive decline.  2/3 of volunteers reported they now felt less isolated, which addresses the fact that a fourth to half of all Americans feel lonely a lot of the time.  Loneliness makes many of us more prone to developing a wide range of physical and mental illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression.

Self care, and community care.  They go hand in hand and make a better world for all of us.

 

6/24/19

Holding Space


 

 

 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

These are not gentle times. And, having a mean streak seems almost a requirement these days, as we navigate social media and the cultural and political climate.

Our culture, and so many commentators and “leaders”, are so quick to make judgement, to express opinions, and eagerly offer criticism and condemnation of others’ points of view.  Political, social, and artistic criticism now is so often unkind, harsh, even vicious to the point of hostility and intolerance.

It is an easy train to climb aboard, and my snarky and off-handed comments are often a computer click away from getting out into the world, showing up on the social media “news feeds” that have become the path by which most of us engage with others. Be quick, spontaneous, “get it out there”, and move on to something else.  The popular term, “click bait” comes to mind as having a meaning larger than how we define the term. Is being polite too time consuming, too unfashionable? It seems easier just to fire off a salvo, and “let it fly”.

We’ve come a long way from the days when social commentary and personal expression in public came after laboring over a sheet of linen paper with a quill pen, and a pot of ink.  A letter to the editor not only took time to compose and hand write, but also required an envelope, a stamp, and a trip to the post office. Public expression took time and effort, and hopefully a lot of thought in the process.

I am realizing I’ve been conditioned to be the Pavlovian dog, to respond to stimuli in an expected, routine “in a New York minute” way, simply becoming a product of this age of advertising, manipulation, and conditioning.

But what if I was, instead, calm, supportive, caring, and expressed unconditional compassion and love? Perhaps just being present, in a kind way, should be my response to others in conflict and crisis. Can I just suspend judgement and criticism? Maybe not feeding my ego with my unappreciated and intrusive opinions when simply being there for someone, and exuding gentle support and kindness would be much more appreciated and needed in the situation.

            “You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go. You give your heart, let go of control, and offer unconditional support.”

    —Lynn Hauka  —Coach

In life, we have numerous job titles and duties, and often, those are multiple roles, calling upon our experiences and our ability to navigate the complexities and subtleties of modern life. Being the son, the father, the uncle, the spouse, the friend, the mentor, the teacher, the confidante is a role more appropriate by just quietly being there for someone.  Unwanted and often uninformed advice often taints the situation, and shame, guilt, and a sense of failure soon follows.

Holding space “…means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

—Heather Plett

 

What the situation really often calls for is compassion and unconditional love, a holding of sacred space to just “let it be”. That may not be what our culture seems to expect, yet it is a revolutionary and culture-changing response.

For me, I need to take a breath, and let it out slowly, taking my time to plan my response, and to put myself in the most effective position of the supporting, compassionate friend and listening post that the person in need is really needing to have around when the crisis is at hand.

We don’t have to rush in, armed with our snap judgements and fire hose responses, issuing our breathless bulletins on social media, or even feeding the local gossip mill.  Time is on our side, and is an ally for the managers of crisis and personal angst. Time will tell if I need to voice an opinion, or give some wise counsel, and if I do, then the wait will be worthwhile, and the Universe will give me that guidance.  And, I can frame the most appropriate, the most effective action.

Or, I can simply be there, offering support quietly, by my presence, exuding kindness and love and understanding, and offering the balm of friendship and compassion.

Silence, often, becomes the best tool, the most effective fix to the matter at hand. One kind, thoughtful, compassionate soul become an ally, rather than an unwelcome new factor, the volatile instigator of an even larger conflagration.

Simply by holding space, by being the calm in the storm, you can make a better world.

 

5/28/2019

 

The Extra Chair


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

(also published today in the Tillamook County Pioneer)

One year at Thanksgiving, Mom told me to set an extra place setting.  We’d counted up all the relatives who would be coming, and I was curious as to who she was adding. By my count, we hadn’t forgotten anyone and the place settings matched the numbers of who was coming.

“Oh, it’s nice to have an extra setting, just in case,” she said.  “You never know who might come.”

I was very curious, but she wouldn’t answer my persistent questions.

Thanksgiving morning came and we were all put to work on preparations for the meal. My dad had to go into work for an hour, and not long after he left, the phone rang. It was my dad.

“That’s fine,” she said.  “Of course. No problem.  The table’s already set and there’s an extra chair.”

She turned to us after she hung up the phone.

“We’ll be having another guest for dinner,” she said. She smiled then, and started humming a tune, as she turned back to the stove.

Sure enough, my dad arrived home with our mystery guest.  She was a co-worker, and had no other place to go for Thanksgiving. Her smile said it all, how grateful she was to be included.

Every year after that, we always set an extra place for Thanksgiving.  One year there was a flood and some neighbors couldn’t make it to their family dinner, so we set up another table and had another half dozen dinner guests.

One year, it was one of my friends in high school, needing a refuge from a tough time on the home front.

As always, my folks asked no questions, and passed no judgement.  The unexpected guest was welcomed with open arms and the first serving of turkey.

My wife and I continued the tradition, welcoming friends, making sure there was a place at the table.

The first Thanksgiving we had our foster son, we made sure he felt welcome, as family gathered to enjoy the holiday.

And, as if on cue, the phone rang, and I heard myself saying, “Sure, of course there’s room.  We’d love to have him.”

I made a special trip while the turkey was cooking, and brought his brother home for the weekend. We made sure to make him feel welcome, a part of the family. He responded with a tear running down his cheek, as he sat down in the extra chair.

Years later, after my folks had passed away, and our kids were starting their own families and had moved away, it was just my wife and I who would be home for dinner.

“Let’s set another place,” my wife said.  “You never know.”

A few days before, she called first one and then another friend, friends who were single, and who, it turned out, would be alone for Thanksgiving.

“Of course, you’re invited.  We’ll expect you at 1,” I heard her say.

We set two extra plates that year, and the Thanksgiving celebration became even more special, as two lonely people found a warm home and bountiful table to share, and our friendship grew. Thanksgiving took on a new, richer meaning that year.

One of our traditions, just as we sit down for the meal, is for everyone to share their gratitudes with the rest of us. There is so much to be grateful in our lives, and we so often tend to skip over giving thanks on Thanksgiving. Instead, we slide into talk about a lot of other subjects, forgetting what the day is really about.

Thanksgiving truly is a day to celebrate our gratitudes and to give thanks. And, often what I am most grateful for is that extra chair, that extra place setting.  I’m grateful for the company of someone who would otherwise be alone on the day we gather and give thanks for all that we have.  And that list begins with being thankful for each other.

 

The Real Presents Under the Tree


 

 

Christmas Eve, 2017

 

I’m sitting by the fire, with a mug of coffee, watching the cold rain fall outside, almost turning to snow.

The presents are wrapped and under the tree, brightening up the living room. Soon, dinner will be in the oven, and the merriment of Christmas will begin.

The real joy of the season, and the real presents to be enjoyed, won’t be found under the tree. The true gifts of Christmas have already been given, and our hearts are already filled with the joy of the season.

That joy, that “reason for the season” is found in relationships.

It has been a year of reaching out, reconnecting, and opening our hearts to one another. Friends and family have shared their fears, their uncertainties, their doubts. Many have had their lives turned upside down, and have been left fearful of their future, and their own abilities to captain their ships through storm-tossed seas.

This year, I’ve made it a point to reach out and share time with many people. Being a good listener, offering comfort and solace. Realizing that each of us is an instrument of change. One person can make a difference. It’s a simple truth.

Often, simply showing up and being there for someone has warmed our hearts and provided a safe harbor during the storm.

Last week, I visited two young men in prison. Both of them were filled with doubt and uncertainty, feeling lost and unsupported in their journeys. We talked, we laughed, we shared our stories of our struggles and doubts during this year.

We each took comfort in the other’s big hearts and willingness to extend hands of friendship.

Behind cold walls topped with razor wire, I found the light of personal commitment to a better world. Young men, with great courage and great wisdom, speaking from their hearts gave me hope for the future.

We are not alone. None of us are fully confident in our ability to weather the storms of life. Yet, we have each other, and we believe in each other. In our community, by coming together and sharing our hearts and our talents, we will change the world.

This year, I celebrate the gift of friendship, the gift of unconditional love.

What really is important this year is not found in politics, and is rarely talked about on the pages of newspapers, social media posts, or on TV. Yet, I hear it from friends and family, over coffee, and in new books that come my way.

The real treasure we have, and the true power that we hold in our own hands and in our hearts, is the ability to care about each other, to support each other, and to act with compassion and respect.

The answers to the world’s problems won’t be found in the marble halls of Washington, but they will be found in our hearts and in the strength of hands holding hands, people walking alongside other people, and working towards our common goals and implementing our common values in the work that we do.

This is a time of rebuilding, and restarting the relationships and the social institutions that have served us so well in the past. In our commonality, our common goodness, there is hope and there is our future.

–Neal Lemery

Really Listening


I listen to the quiet between the words. In that interval between the sounds of us talking, the true, deep meaning is to be found, if only I am gentle with myself, and the speaker, moving into the space of the depth of true understanding.

If I listen to myself and to you, truly listen, then I will hear your true voice, and mine. I will hear the message that I need to listen, deeply, intentionally, and with love and understanding. In that lies my intention. I will connect with the heart of our true conversation.

Yes, the words have meaning, and stories are told from the words, and then some. More. I listen to the sentences, the rhythm of the speaker, inflections, the rising and falling of the cadence of the words. I am led gently down the path of the storyteller, and shown the meaning of the words.

What is really being told here, I wonder. There is more, there is always more. My task is that of the explorer, the miner digging for the gold in the midst of the rubble, the ordinary chit-chat that often passes for conversation. Herein lies something even greater. So, truly listen.

Go deeper, I am sensing. There is more to this than just what I am hearing, what is being said.

Underneath this, there is more. I can feel it deep within me.
There are many layers to this tale, and I listen harder, taking in the silence, strewn among the spoken words, wanting everything that is revealed. I am seeking the message of the silence, exploring its vocabulary, its nuances. What are you really saying here? And, what am I being called to really hear?

We feel the silence now; the spoken words uttered. There is tension, the tension of the anticipated, the expected, the comforting patter of more words, more sounds.

I am on edge; we both are. This space between these words is new, irritating, literally dis-quieting. I find myself yearning for a word, a phrase, to keep the banter going. Part of me is reticent, to not really listen. Do I prefer banality? Being on the surface, and not going deep. Can’t I stay here, gliding on the mere surface of our conversation? Then, I won’t have to ponder the silences, and hear in my heart the real meaning of what your heart is saying.

Now I hear your breath, and mine. There are other sounds, too. Clothes, papers rustling, air moving, the ordinary background noises of whatever kind of place we are in, the place of normal, everyday conversations, the detritus of our daily lives.

Yet, when I go deeper, beyond this ordinary sound clutter, my mind literally opens up, expands, so that I can take in all that you are expressing to me, the stuff beyond conversation, beyond the plain words of everyday conversation.

My senses broaden — feeling, seeing, hearing, touching, and yes, even smelling all that you are offering me, in this near vacuum of experience between us. Yet, it is rich and full, and not vacuous, a contradiction. Or is it? This is rich territory, and, so often, new to me.

If I would only truly sense what you are offering me, I would understand so much more. You have so much information, so many ideas to express to me, if only I would be open to you, truly open. If I do this right, my senses, my intuition, the entirety of my entire array of sensory neurons would be on fire, overloaded with all that you are telling me.

You share with me in so many ways, ways that we both would agree would be of such enormity that neither of us would be deemed to be competent to assess, even measure.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “Somewhere, we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening, speaking no longer heals; that without distance, closeness cannot cure.

He calls us to visit that “somewhere”, which is beyond our daily, mundane experience, and open ourselves as far as we believe we can go, into new territory of our existence, our humanity.

He calls us to embrace the silence, and truly listen, to stake out that space between us, and let us be able to reach out to each other within that emptiness, and finally grow.

Now, I can’t reach any further out and listen harder, for the harder I work at this, the more difficult it becomes. Another conundrum. But isn’t that life?

The more I try, the less I succeed. No, I need to be now, just be, in all my humanity. I must listen more gently, easier, more fully with all of my senses, with all of my feelings, on the edges of my soul, my very being. On the rim of my existence, I must stretch further, letting the experience become in and of itself, beyond mere thought.

In that, I will truly listen to what you are telling me, and I will, at last, hear you, in all of your wonderful mystery and beauty.
–Neal Lemery
11/11/15

Friendship


Friendship is a wonderful gift. Being present, listening, truly listening to another person, is part of that gift. I focus on my intention to suspend judgment, and just accept my friend for who they are, where they are at, and where they are headed.

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” –Albert Camus.
I try to just be present with my friends. Show up, and connect. Nothing more is required of me, and I don’t ask anything more of my friends.

The rules of friendship aren’t complicated. Having a real friend is one of the simple joys of life, and I don’t take it for granted. We may not have each other for long, so every moment is precious, a treasure.

When I am with a friend, my task is to connect, to open my heart, hear what they are saying, and also speak my truth, and share what is troubling me. Oh, we talk about our joys, but we also talk about our sorrows. And, in the telling, we are able to see the beauty and wonder that life offers us, and celebrate our friendship and our lives.
–Neal Lemery, November 5, 2015