I have been reading a lot about the latest health crisis in the Western world — the epidemic of loneliness. Despite being more technologically advanced than ever before, with much of the world now digitally connected, we have paradoxically become more and more isolated as individuals. This endemic loneliness is perhaps felt most keenly by people who rely on social media and technology instead of face-to-face interaction as their primary form of connection. In my life on the road, I have become one of those people.
THE LONELINESS EPIDEMIC
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Vivek Murthy, the former US surgeon general, warns of the dangers we are facing. Now that loneliness rates have doubled since the 1980s, Murthy warns us: “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. . . Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces tasks performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.”
Although I choose to be intentionally homeless and live my life on the road, although I love being alone, I have found myself struggling lately with a kind of sadness I have never experienced — for reasons that seemed inexplicable to me until I began reading about the loneliness epidemic. That has forced me to look deeply at my choices — and my own family history.
ONCE A LONER, ALWAYS A LONER
My mother was a loner and a hider. So am I. My parents taught me from the time I was a little girl to go off and spend long periods of time alone — on the beach, in my room, by a hotel pool, eating meals by myself — so I could “learn to enjoy my own company.” I have. I am grateful that I enjoy solitude. I always have. But lately something feels different. My clue as to what came when my friend Diane shared something astonishing that she had read.
Diane told me that many social media interactions — Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram likes, shares and comments — engender in us the same kind of dopamine high that we get from some forms of exercise or hugging or achieving goals. Except that those are actual experiential interactions — whereas a like or a share or a heart emoji is not. In other words, we are addicted to false highs, and yet we keep seeking them.
So, we are living more and more of our lives in isolation, believing we are more connected through global social media, and yet the connection we seek is, in fact, an illusion. It’s like living a double emotional negative. We spend more and more time connecting with one another digitally, looking for what we think will make us feel good, when in fact we feel further and further apart and more and more disconnected.
I know this is true, because this is how it's been playing out in my own life.
CASE STUDY #1: ME
I am promoting my new book, which will be out next week, as well as planning and booking my cross-country book tour. I have way too much to do in way too little time, so I see fewer and fewer people in an attempt to work and work more. Yet much of my work these days has been rebuilding websites, making promo trailers, creating social media event pages to promote my actual upcoming events. I spend most of my time alone in front of a screen, while my dog stares at me hoping against hope that we will actually go outside and walk under the sun and see other sentient beings. At some point, we do, and the highlight of my day is usually a conversation with a total stranger and their dog.
Once I have done my tasks for the day and posted everything, I check the responses — ostensibly to see whether my “work” is working. If it works, then I am doing my job and I should feel good. But I have no idea whether my work is working because it just goes out into the ether and that's that. People respond to my posts, but I don't have time to check the responses, because I am too busy creating new posts.
Then, at some point, in my desperation to feel connected, I decide to check the interactions to my posts. Usually there are some hearts or a like or a sweet comment. And that's lovely. But it's not a conversation. It's not a hug. It's not a laugh face to face or a walk with the dogs. Eventually I come to realize that no amount of likes or shares or clicks can take the place of real connection. But I don't have time for real connection, and so I feel more and more lonely.
THE SECRET SAUCE OF ISOLATION
But that's not all. There's a secret sauce -- shame!
"Shame," Brene Brown tells us, "is the most powerful master emotion. It's the fear that we're not good enough."
Most of us become addicted to whatever we're addicted to -- in my case work, and lately checking social media to see if my work is working! -- because we feel inherently unworthy. Not good enough. When my life fell apart twelve years ago, I began working working working ostensibly to get back on my feet. But I was also working to assuage my guilt and shame at having lost everything. And work, as it all turned out, gave me the excuse to hide my shame and guilt and loss from everyone I loved. Because sure, they might love me, but not enough to make me feel less guilt or shame.
Like my mother, I have hidden away in shame for almost a decade. But it hasn't been until recently that I have come to realize that what I thought was a proclivity toward solitude coupled with an industrial-strength work ethic had morphed into something different. An isolation supervirus that has started making me pretty darn miserable.
And yet, there's been nothing I could do about it. The voices in my head tell me that I don't have time to do anything but work work work. So I do.
CUE THE UNIVERSE
Enter the Universe with a big ass wake-up call in the form of people I love.
This week I got a gorgeous email from someone to whom I had written a much-needed amends for having disappeared from her life due to my shame and fear about some old financial issues. In it, she wrote so lovingly about her sadness at my increasing isolation and reminded me that her door is always open to me.
Then I got on two planes, on which I had lovely conversations with real people, and went to give a talk where I had powerful exchanges about life and prayer and social justice with real people.
The next morning, half asleep at 4AM, I got up and made this video:
As I drove to the airport the next day, I realized that I was feeling better about things that I had in a long time.
Then, while standing in line for my flight back, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to hear a woman say, “Excuse me, is this the A line?“ Except that when she saw my face and I saw hers, we both lit up and simultaneously said, "Oh my God, I can't believe it‘s you!“
I was face to face with Nan, one of my dearest friends in the world, whom I really hadn‘t seen in a decade. We Facebook message or email from time to time, but we had just fallen out of touch.
Nan is like a sister to me. We owned a horse trailer together for a decade and drove to every horse show and talked talked talked talked about everything deep and marvelous all the way there and all the way back. Our dads had been in the same class at Yale and lived two doors from one another their freshman year. Nan‘s path and mine have been very similar -- and so we understand one another in profoundly healing ways. She is one of the few people left who knew my mother. I think of Nan almost daily — our amazing conversations and incredible adventures together. But when my life fell apart, I pulled away.
On Friday, we sat on the plane and talked as though no time had passed, like we were still in the truck pulling the horse trailer on our way to a show. I got off that plane a different person than the person who got on it — lit up in joy and love from the inside out. Grateful beyond measure.
We took these pictures together at the Albuquerque airport. Two people who hadn't really talked in almost a decade, reunited as though no time had passed. And, as if to make the point even clearer, we were both wearing the EXACT SAME SHOES! My mother, the costume designer, who loved Nan, was bellylaughing somewhere for sure.
THE NATURE OF ADDICTION
The next morning, I sat down to work and deal with money stuff. Within two minutes, all of Friday's joy had gone out the window, only to be replaced by seven hours of self-flagellating hell. All that good seemingly replaced by fear and shame and work work work.
By the afternoon, I had to take Allie for a walk; so we went over to REI, because I needed to buy a special laundry detergent for down jackets. From there, I thought we'd head outside.
When I got there, the parking machine took $3 of my money, when all I pressed was $1, and then told me that it was "impossible to print a ticket". Two cars over, a cop was busily writing out parking tickets, so I told him what was happening. "I'll be right with you," he said. And then kept writing tickets.
Ten minutes later, I'm still waiting, getting testy, and he's still writing tickets. Five more minutes after that, he finally lends me a pen and tells me to write a note on my dash and that I won't get a ticket. I tell you all this, because I got into REI fifteen testy minutes later than I had planned.
Which is precisely why I ran into my next gift from the Universe.
LOUD & CLEAR
As I was heading toward the cash register, I saw two attractive young women walking toward the back of the store. I smiled at them, they smiled at me. Then one of them turned around and said, "Victoria?" I realized it was Sam and Sarah -- whom I have known since they were girls. We all rode horses together, and then their mom asked me to come help teach French at the school she was starting.
I fell in love with the school, and Linda and I went on to co-create an incredible alternative program for students from fifth through ninth grade. It was the most gratifying "work" experience of my life. I taught both Sam and Sarah for years, and we very very remained very very close after that. Until my life fell apart and I went into hiding.
Sarah was literally in town for two days, from Ireland, where she is doing her post-doctoral work! Sam is now a teacher herself -- of fifth graders. They told me they had been talking about me that morning and the night before. I told them that I think of them all the time and wonder how they're doing.
And then, I realized, I had to apologize -- for falling out of their lives. Missing weddings and major life events. We all had tears in our eyes. Tears of joy at our reunion -- at this beautiful opportunity to make up for years of lost time.
In that moment, I got it. Shame tries to tell us that the world is better off without our personal toxicity, and so we hide it away. When, in fact, what really hurts is that we had disappeared. Because love doesn't see toxic. Love sees absence and only wishes to replace it with the presence of Love.
Then and there, my former students became my teachers.
A few minutes later, Linda came -- and we had another amazing reunion. Laughing about the past and catching up with what all of our students are doing now. Then, I got to meet Sarah's partner Robert, and Sam's husband Daniel. Ten years of hiding unraveled in the most beautiful of ways in one "chance" meeting at REI.
As we were chatting, Sam said, "You know some of my favorite memories were when we had a small enough class, and you would pile us in your car and we would go have class someplace else. Once we were at Starbucks, and we were reading poetry. A man behind us leaned in and said, 'I just want to thank you for reading that poem. I haven't heard it in a really long time, and I'd forgotten how much I love it.' That was one of the first times I truly understood the power of words."
THE POWER OF WORDS
Last summer I got another tattoo. A dragonfly. A symbol of transformation. On the cusp of the completion of a book I have longed to write for decades, it seemed the perfect totem. My friend Kim drew it for me, but when I got there, the tattoo artist and I realized that there was something missing. It needed words.
These are the words that came to me. These are the words I have had tattooed on me since August in my own handwriting: Everything is waiting for you.
These words are the title and the last lines of a poem I love by David Whyte.
The power of words can only affect us if we really let them in. And we can only really let them in if we crack our hearts open to all the love that is always all around us.
It took five days of connecting with people through love to help remember what I have always known. . .and what we all know: We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone.
But in order to remember that, we have to risk acting as if we are not alone. We have to push ourselves past all the voices that tell us to button it up, stay in isolation, be like everyone else and just connect digitally, be ashamed, hide out, stay in fear. Whatever the voice is saying, we have to remember: It isn't true. Because, for you, for me, this is what is true:
EVERYTHING IS WAITING FOR YOU
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.