Never Underestimate The Power Of – A Sidewalk?

Last night, on my walk, it occurred to me that, while I could easily continue to write about loneliness for the next several days/weeks, it’s time to move on – at least for now.  That said, I thought I would offer one final thought in my capacity as the self-appointed “Loneliness Czar:”  We need more sidewalks!  I’m always leery of people who claim to have surveyed the landscape of their lives and concluded that they “have no regrets,” that even if given a second chance – the proverbial “life mulligan” – they would do everything and make precisely the same choices as they did the first time around.  I’m not one of those people.  I have regrets – a number of them actually.  Some are quite personal, others more practical.  Some pertain to my own life, some have affected the lives of others – many of whom I cared (and still care) deeply about.  But among them is the fact that I “allowed” my children to grow up in a place that didn’t understand the importance of sidewalks.

Like so many other regrets on my list, this one happened mostly by default – ignorance really.  You see, I never fully appreciated the role that sidewalks play in the creation and maintenance of a sense of community.  It never occurred to me that a four foot ribbon of poured concrete winding its way through a neighborhood was such a critical thread in connecting the patchwork lives of the people who occupied the houses along its route.  That is until I visited Columbus, Ohio one Spring, when my children were much older, and saw firsthand the difference that sidewalks can make.  In the “neighborhoods” we’d come from, the ones my children were growing up in, no one ventured out of their houses without having a destination – perhaps one of the few locals park for some form of organized sport (or because there were sidewalks there!), the mall, a play group or simply to a friend’s house for a few more hours of indoor video games.

Not so in Columbus, Ohio.  They had sidewalks – and people were using them, lots of people were using them!  Adults were using them for walking, for running, for pushing their newborn infants and toddlers in strollers.  And, believe it or not, from time to time, they were actually stopping and talking to their neighbors, who were out working in their yards or simply sitting there lounging, enjoying the sights and the sounds and the activities that sidewalks encourage.  Imagine that!  There were children, who already knew how to ride their bikes, safely riding 2-wheelers and tricycles up and down the block and, in some instances, sharing the sidewalk with those learning to ride for the first time.  There were others on skateboards and roller blades and still others enjoying games of hop-scotch and box ball.  Every few blocks or so I also saw small sections of sidewalks being occupied by “stands” selling lemonade or baked goods – and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

In short, the neighborhoods were alive.  There was a sense of community.  Most importantly, relationships were being built, friendships were being formed – loneliness was on the run.  That simply wasn’t happening in the neighborhood(s) where we lived, where my children grew up – and it’s really not that surprising, in retrospect, when you consider how difficult it is to ride a bike, roller-blade, skate-board, push a stroller or even walk through 6-inch high St. Augustine grass!  I’m not sure how I “missed” that at the time.  Part of it was that I just wasn’t as sensitive to these kinds of things back then.  I wasn’t paying attention, but I’m certainly paying attention to them now and I want to encourage others to do the same.  That’s one of the few benefits, it seems to me, to looking back and reflecting on things you might have done differently – others have a chance to learn from your experiences, your mistakes.

We need more sidewalks!

We All Need (And Need To Be) James Taylor’s Kind Of “Friend”

Those who have studied and published on the subject are almost uniform in their assessment that when it comes to staving off loneliness in children and adults (young and old) it is the quality and not the quantity of friends that matters most. In fact, many researchers believe that as few as 1 – 3 close friends are all that is required to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of loneliness. Viewed from this perspective, our war on loneliness seems eminently “win-able” save for one fairly significant obstacle: People seem to have forgotten what it means and how critical it is to be a true friend.

Friends take the time to get to know one another.  They take a genuine interest in learning each other’s likes and dislikes, their interests, the things that matter to them, where they’ve been, where they are and where they aspire to be, the things that make them angry or sad – and, most importantly, the things that bring them joy.  They appreciate the fact that getting to truly know one another takes time and patience, but they also realize how essential this step is in building the foundation of a lasting friendship and to their ability to support, encourage, comfort, understand and enjoy each other’s company down the road.

Over time, friends learn to trust one another – implicitly – and to value and honor that trust.  They would never consider disparaging one another behind the other’s back or, worse yet, breaching the confidences with which they have been entrusted.  Friends are loyal to and respect one another.  They don’t make plans to do something with one another and then cancel for no reason or simply fail to show up, without an explanation, having forgotten they made plans at all. When they make a commitment to each other, friends follow through on it, absent a compelling reason, because they understand their value to one another.

Friends don’t support unhealthy behaviors in one another – even if it is one they may share.  Instead, they care enough about each of other to work to be an instrument of change in the other’s life.  They support each other.  They are always seeking first to build the other up, rather than searching for ways to (or through their indifference) tear the other down.  Friends are sufficiently comfortable in their own skin to be able to share in each other’s joys and successes – without jealousy.  Friends understand the importance of truth telling and of communication – it is the cornerstone of their relationship.  When they communicate, they do it lovingly – not with hurtful words.

Friends are grateful to have someone in their life with whom they can feel comfortable sharing their problems and frustrations, even if they pertain to one another.  But, they never take that gift for granted and they certainly don’t abuse it.  To the contrary, friends are just as focused on giving as they are on receiving in all aspects of their friendship, but especially when it comes to being a loving (and non-judgmental) listener, someone who is fully present when it’s the other’s “turn” to speak, when their friend is in need, when their friend’s heart longs to express itself.  Simply put, friends understand (and embrace) the importance of selflessness in relationship.

Forty years ago (really, Don – it was 40 years ago?!?), Carole King wrote “You’ve Got A Friend.” In it, she observed that:  “People can be so cold.  They’ll hurt you, yes, and desert you.  They’ll take your soul if you let them.  Oh, BUT DON’T YOU LET THEM.  You’ve got a friend” – someone who is committed to being there in the barrenness of Winter, in the creativity and newness of Spring, in the sometimes seemingly unbearable “heat” of Summer and in the beauty of Fall.  In short, someone you can count on to be there in every “season” of your life.  Maybe that someone is already on your “List.”  Maybe it’s someone you will meet today.  If not, keep searching.  It’s important.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BePDQ5iFi88&feature=fvst

Winning The War On Loneliness Requires That We Be Sensitive And Responsive To The Enemy Within And Around Us

Over the past ten years, medical and scientific research has led to the development of a number of highly sophisticated radiographic, genetic and blood tests designed to detect heart disease and various forms of cancer at their earliest stages. The development of these tests has been motivated by two irrefutable facts: (1) cancer and heart disease are two of the leading causes of death among adult Americans; and (2) the sooner those conditions are diagnosed the more likely it is that the patient will have a favorable outcome. Still, as valuable as those tests have proven to be in reducing the number of deaths associated with those and other life-threatening diseases, they are only as effective as the vigilance of those who may be suffering from those ailments.  Stated otherwise, if the people at risk of contracting cancer or being stricken by heart disease aren’t attentive and responsive to the early warning signs associated with those diseases, which, in many instances, will be known only to them or, alternatively, fail to see their doctors for “check-ups” on regular basis, the tests will be useless.

Obviously, I’m not a doctor or a clinical psychologist, but I have to believe that loneliness (left untreated) has the same capacity to compromise, if not ultimately destroy, the lives of those it infects as do many of its more “physical”/traditional counterparts.  In fact, researchers have identified loneliness as a contributing factor in depression and suicide (the 3rd leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults), cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress levels and alcoholism and drug addiction – to name just a few.  However, research also has shown that, like cancer and heart disease, the sooner loneliness is recognized and properly addressed the less likely it is to gain a foothold in our or another sufferer’s life. The problem, of course, is that are no diagnostic tests to help us ferret out loneliness. It tends to be much more subtle and varied in its “presentation.”  It has no common cause.  Indeed, the events to which it often is linked can trigger a profound sense of loneliness in one person and have no appreciable effect on another.

For all of these reasons, it is incumbent on us to be our own hyper-vigilant “diagnosticians” when it comes to recognizing the seeds of loneliness within us and in those around us, not only those we care about, but those who obviously need someone to care (or care a little more) about them.  It is equally critical that we promptly and effectively respond to its presence.  Here are just a handful of the “warning signs” to be aware of:  (1) poor quality sleep patterns; (2) persistent feelings of fatigue; (3) being self-conscious about everything we do and say; (4) being unusually defensive or angry in our dealings with others; (5) a profound sense that we are alone in the way that we feel about things (i.e., that no one understands or is capable of understanding us); (6) recent changes in life circumstances that are known to bring on or exacerbate feelings of loneliness (e.g., divorce or the end of a significant relationship, a move to a new city, a new school or a new job, the death of a loved one, etc.); and (7) outward expressions that we often associate with sadness (e.g., tearfulness, a tendency to isolate, etc.).

Several years ago, I attended a legal seminar at a very fancy resort in Arizona.  Like most events of its kind, there were lots of organized festivities designed to facilitate socializing between attorneys and their clients and clients and their vendors.  During the course of the three day event, my attention was drawn to a young lawyer who, simply put, seemed to be disconnected/disengaged from the “fun and frivolity” that the rest of us were experiencing.  She was often by herself at the “mingling” events and during breaks in the presentations.  She politely, but consistently, “opted out” when invited to attend large (or more intimate) dinner gatherings with colleagues and prospective clients.  One afternoon, towards the end of the seminar, I saw her (a complete stranger to me – save for my connection with her obvious sense of loneliness) sitting on a couch in a corner of the lobby first on her cell phone and, moments after she hung up, in tears.  I remember my  heart breaking for her, but I also remember, vividly and, in retrospect, disappointingly not reaching out to her.

Had that happened today, I’d like to think I would have approached her, at least offered (if not insisted) that she allow me to try and console her, let her know that she was not alone, that none of us are truly alone, that I cared, that I had shed the same tears she was shedding many times in my life, that I knew intimately the place from which she was crying out.  Maybe if I had taken those simple steps, I could have made a difference.  I had met the enemy head on.  I had him dead in my sights.  I had “won” half the battle (recognizing his presence) – and then I walked away.  It was a cowardly act on my part and one none of us can afford to repeat if we are to have any hope of winning this war.

Identifying And Avoiding The Land Mines

No “battlefield” is free of land mines and the landscape upon which we’re waging our campaign to root out and destroy loneliness is certainly no exception.  So I thought I’d take a minute to touch on what I consider to be several obstacles that all of us have encountered (or are likely to encounter) in our ongoing struggle to feel more connected and less alone – and share my thoughts on some strategies for overcoming them.  First, it’s important to understand that none of the things we’ve “talked” about thus far are going to happen overnight.  It is terribly unrealistic to expect that we are going to go to bed one night with a distorted or broken view of “me” and wake up the next morning to find our new “best friend” smiling back at us in the mirror.  Make no mistake:  I believe we are all capable of making the transition to a healthier, more gentle, life-affirming acceptance of ourselves.  I also am convinced that it is essential that we do so if we are to achieve victory over this enemy called loneliness.  But, it is very much a process that takes time, effort, desire and commitment on our part – all of which, in turn, require PATIENCE.  Don’t abandon the mission over this one.  Trust me, it will be well worth it in the end.

If you’re like most, the second obstacle you’re likely to encounter, which is closely tied to the first, is one borne of impatience.  It typically arises when our real or imagined sense that we are (albeit temporarily) alone and our corresponding desire/need for companionship combine to create a sense of desperation.  The result: We convince ourselves that we simply “can’t wait” any longer for the proverbial “knock on the door,” for the phone to ring or our text messages to be answered. We have to have company and we have to have it NOW!  And so we set out “in search of” or, worse yet, reach out to someone who already (likely time and time again) has demonstrated that they don’t have our best interests at heart. Sometimes, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves clinging to them, fearful that without them we will once again be alone.  Inevitably, however, these “forays” leave us feeling wholly unsatisfied.  They add to, rather than satiate, our (very human) need for real/true companionship.  In time, our increasing love of self should diminish this sense of restlessness.  In the meantime, simply be sensitive to and try to fight the urge – or, better yet, refer to “The List” and send someone on it a note telling them how much you value them.

This next “land mine” is hard for me to write about objectively, because it is one that strikes very close to home.  Some (mistakenly I believe) attribute it to pride and ego. Others to stubbornness.  But, in my mind, it’s much more complicated than that – its roots much more deep seated.  Simply put, it is a “willingness” to “choose” being alone, rather than once again be the one who always has to be the relationship-initiator.  It is the voice inside that says: “Why am I always the one reaching out?  Why doesn’t ______________ pick up the phone and call me to suggest we get together?  They must not care, so why should I?”  I get it and there is merit in those sentiments.  But there are also lots of potentially mistaken assumptions built into them.  What if . . . that someone is sitting next to their phone harboring the same thoughts?  What if . . . that someone is hurting and alone and simply can’t muster the “strength” to reach out?  What if . . . that someone is simply absent-minded or preoccupied and, while they might love to “hang out” if asked, simply hasn’t thought to call?  Bottom line:  There is a time (and you likely will know when it is), when you have reached out to someone “often enough” to warrant not taking the initiative any more.  When that time comes, listen to your heart.  Until then, go ahead and take the initiative.

Finally, at least for today, beware of this tripwire:  While the person who dies with the most “Facebook Friends” may win some award, quantity does not equal quality when it comes to the winning the war on loneliness.  Simply put, one really good friend is far more valuable than dozens of “not so good” friends or acquaintances.  More on this later!

It’s Time To Step Away From The Keyboards In Your Life

Now that we’ve started to get our own act together and have begun to not only be more comfortable in our own skin, but to actually enjoy our own company, the time has come to take our battle (and our new found love for our own awesomeness) “to the streets.”  It’s time to meet our adversary (loneliness) head-on in a world that, regrettably, is growing increasingly more impersonal and less intimate by the minute, particularly, but not exclusively, where those most in need of true intimacy are concerned – our young people.  Believe me, time is of the essence.

What once was an after-school knock on the door asking if a friend or neighbor could “come out to play” has long since been replaced by text and instant messaging, “tweeting” and endless hours on social networking sites.  In fact, these forms of “communication” have fundamentally altered the way all of us interact with each other and have become not only the principal, but the preferred means by which children, adolescents and young adults communicate with each another.  They also are a common method of communicating for adults, for business people, for spouses, for friends, for next door neighbors and even, in too many instances, for parents and their children.

Along the way, words, indeed entire sentences, have been replaced by acronyms, thoughts and feelings have been reduced to what can be expressed in 140 characters or less, and “symbols” have been substituted, in the name of expediency, for the warmth of an in-person touch or the smile of a friend or lover.  Cell phones, the Pad du jour, and laptops are our new lifeline to the outside world, a world we don’t even have to leave the security of our bedrooms to explore.  It’s all right there at our fingertips, a few key strokes away – everything, that is, except true friendship and physical companionship, the most fundamental needs of the human heart.

Don’t get me wrong, properly utilized, all of the technologies that have been (and are being) developed with an eye towards enhancing our ability to “stay connected” with one another have the potential to be valuable weapons in our battle to rid the world of loneliness. Too often, however, they facilitate the spread of the disease.  Their users begin isolating, allowing the technologies to serve as a substitute for true relationship- building, for genuine human contact (e.g., face-to-face time, actually speaking with one another, etc.) either out of insecurity, fear of the prospect of presenting themselves to the “outside” world, convenience or, dare I say it, laziness.

It’s a recipe for loneliness.  Inevitably, those who fall into the trap feel fundamentally (and quite understandably) unsatisfied and unfulfilled. They long, as all of us do, for physical companionship, for the sound of a friend’s voice, to feel wanted and needed in ways that even the “likings” of 1,000 Facebook friends of a clever or heartfelt “post” can never provide.  In short, they long for a knock on their bedroom, an invitation to “come out and play.”  All of us have a human, indeed, I would argue moral obligation to extend that “invitation” to one another, particularly to those who are (or who we may want) to call our friend – and we need to do that sooner, rather than later, and with regularity.

If I’m right on this (and I believe I am), then stepping away from the multiple keyboards that exist in all of our lives and allowing ourselves to be fully present in the lives of others (e.g., calling each other from time to time, rather than texting, to simply check-in with one another or, better yet, to arrange to actually meet to share a cup of coffee, a walk in the park, a visit to the local dog park,  a day or evening out (or in) to just hang out, see a movie, listen to music, etc.) could make all the difference in the world.  It certainly will make an important difference in our quest to rid our and others’ lives of loneliness.  Take a chance!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkljLxddVI4

Embracing, Rather Than Lamenting, The Opportunity To Spend Some Quality Time With Your “New” Best Friend

Now that we’re well on our way to developing a healthy and self-affirming relationship with our constant companion and “new” best friend – OURSELVES – implementing the second strategic step in our battle to rid our (and others’) lives of loneliness should be relatively easy: Learning to embrace, rather than lament, the time we spend by ourselves (with ourselves). Simply put, we have to be careful not to confuse loneliness with the fact that we, like most of our fellow Earth-occupiers, often find ourselves outside the physical or “electronic” company of others. There IS a difference and it’s very important that we understand that distinction if we are to avoid stepping into the quick sand of despair that can often accompany confusing the two.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post (“Learning To Be Your Own Best Friend”), it’s an objective and irrefutable fact that, whether you currently are in a relationship with someone or not, most of your day will be spent by (and with) yourself. Obviously, that’s equally (if not even more likely to be) true if you happen to be single at the moment. However, that doesn’t mean you’re “alone” and it certainly doesn’t have to lead to the common misperception that if you aren’t in the company of a friend (or some other “random” human being) or being bombarded by text messages every waking moment of your day you’re destined for loneliness.

To the contrary, the truth is there are a number of people in the world – your world – who love and care about you, who are (or, if offered the chance, would be) there to support you, who value you, who want you to be healthy, happy and successful – people who, on a moment’s notice, would drop what they’re doing if they learned that you needed them at your side. The fact those people aren’t at your side at a particular moment in time or, perhaps, haven’t been present or “checked-in” for an extended period of time because of geography, circumstance, your or their “life stuff,” relational neglect (which all of us are guilty of at one time or another). etc. doesn’t mean they don’t care or that they want you to be alone. 

If you don’t believe those people exist in your life, take a piece of paper and going back 10 years if you’re in your 20’s and 30’s (20 if you’re in your 40’s and 50’s) jot down the names of everyone who you believe cares or cared about you during that time period. There likely will be a few dozen people on that list – or more. If there aren’t ask a parent or a friend who has known you that long to help, because you’re likely not being objective in surveying the landscape of your life. Once you’ve collected the names, try and find current contact information for each of them – an e-mail address or phone number will suffice – and use the opportunity your information gathering initiative affords to just say “hi” and let them know how and what you’re doing. When the list is finished, keep it handy as a “reminder” that though you may be by yourself, you’re not alone.

Finally, rather than lamenting the time you have to yourself, embrace it and use the time wisely. It’s a great opportunity to reflect, in a positive way, on where you are and where you want to go in life. It’s a chance to organize your thoughts, your calendar and your living space. It’s a chance to relationship build (with yourself and via e-mail or phone call) with someone on your “list” who you may have fallen out of touch with or been meaning to reach out to.  Someone who you sense might be in need of a kind word or a friendly voice.  Maybe it’s a time to catch up on some much needed rest, to watch or go see a movie you’ve been wanting to see or to simply “chill” on the coach with your dog and the music you enjoy. Maybe it’s a time to write, to get caught up on world events, to paint, to play or take a walk. Maybe it’s all of these things – and more.

But what intermittent “alone time” is not, even on a Friday or Saturday night when you may be convinced that “everyone” else in the world is out doing something fun with someone, is a sign that you are all alone in the world, because you’re not – I promise!

Learning To Be Your Own Best Friend

Several years ago, when my son was being recruited to play major college golf, a prospective coach came up to me at a junior tournament and offered this unsolicited observation:  “Don, Once Greg learns to be his own best friend on the golf course, the sky will be the limit!”  The comment, which was well-intended, was precipitated by our both having watched Greg express obvious displeasure over a beautiful 4-iron shot that he had just hit 195 yards over a ravine to a spot on the green 20 feet below a guarded pin placement, believing, I suspect, that he could/should have gotten it inside 15 feet!  The coach was really saying two things:  (1) your son is an exceptionally talented young man; and (2) competitive golf is often a very singular pursuit (i.e., while fellow competitors will (or should) be quick to acknowledge a “good shot” or “a round well-played,” at the end of day, most would rather not see you succeed or at least not succeed to the level they aspire to).  Consequently, to be a successful competitive golfer at any level you have to be able to rely on yourself to be your most dependable, unconditional and enthusiastic supporter and cheerleader – or the game will consume you.

I believe the coach’s comment applies with equal (if not greater) force to the “game of life.” In fact, I am convinced that “learning to be your own best friend” is the single most critical (and achievable) first line of attack in the battle to overcome loneliness.  Why?  Because no matter how “connected” you may be (or think you are), no matter how many “real” or Facebook friends you may have, no matter how much others may want you to be part of their lives and their social calendars, the inescapable reality is that if you’re like most of us (and you are!) you will spend the majority of the 24 hours each of us is allotted today engaged in very singular pursuits (e.g., getting up, getting ready, eating breakfast, sitting at an office desk, sitting in a classroom, doing homework, walking the dog, reading, writing, hanging out around the house, going to bed, etc.), during which your closest companion, the person you will have to rely on to entertain you, to motivate you, to provide you with the emotional support you need, to reinforce a positive self-image is – wait for it – YOU!  Consequently, you have to learn to always be there for “you.”  You have to be willing to recognize the good in “you.”  You have to embrace the fact that “you” are imperfect – and be O.K. with that.

I don’t believe “learning to be your own best friend” comes naturally.  To the contrary, I believe most of us are more inclined to be (and have a much easier time being) critical of ourselves.  Consciously or subconsciously, we seek out what we perceive to be our “deficiencies.” We dwell on, even obsess about, the mistakes we make (or have made), while barely pausing over all the good that we do, all we have to be proud of, our many accomplishments, large and small, our talents – the things that make us unique.  For that reason, at least in the beginning, becoming our own best friend will require a conscious effort on our part.  Just like we do in forming friendships with others, we will need to seek out the good in ourselves, the things we like, if not love, about ourselves, the things that, if we saw them in another, we would immediately be attracted to, want more of.  When we find them (and, believe me, they’re there to be found!), we need to nurture them, constantly “remind” ourselves of their existence, give ourselves the credit we deserve for them and appreciate them, so that, in time, they will dwarf/suffocate our disproportionately smaller/fewer “shortcomings.”  Perhaps a final illustration, borrowed again from my son and the game of golf, will illustrate these points.

A year after the encounter I used to introduce this post, I was watching my son play a round at Colbert Hills, one of the most beautiful (and difficult) courses in the United States.  He hit an approach shot into the par 4 9th hole with a 9-iron from approximately 140 yards that came to rest 6 inches from the hole!  It was a spectacular shot – one that maybe .01% of the golfers in the United States are capable of hitting.  In response, Greg simply tapped down his small divot and headed towards the cart.  Not a pause, not a smile, just sort of a “that’s just what I do and expect from myself” response.  He may remember me stopping him in his tracks from 50 yards away.  “Excuse me,” I said.  “Do you realize just how magnificent that shot is?”  A slight smile.  “You have to allow yourself to appreciate the fact that it was ‘you’ that just hit that shot.”  A slightly bigger smile – some positive “relationship building with self” beginning to take place.  “I’m going to have to insist that you pause for a moment and allow that shot to sink in, to take up residence in your soul.”  And so it is with each of us.  Our ability to succeed in this battle we have decided to wage against loneliness in our own lives and, ultimately, in the lives of others, depends first on our ability to love ourselves.  It can’t happen without it!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYzlVDlE72w