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Part II: Take It From The Honeybee
On Loss and Loneliness
Happy Tuesday, F-WORDERS!
This week, on The F WORD: Social Isolation! Overly-generalized scientific studies! Extended metaphors! HUZZAH!
A big, weekly a-thank-you to everyone who has come along on this journey with me. Some of you are reading (awesome) some of you are paying to read this (FRIGGIN awesome) and to those of you who were sent a random link by someone you haven’t talked to in a few months but you decided to open this newsletter anyways to see what this is:
Hello! SOMEONE THOUGHT OF YOU and they THOUGHT OF ME and they’re trying to BRING US TOGETHER!
*Internet wave across the cyber ether!*
While you’re here, I’d love to spam you every Tuesday!
Without further ado—
You’re at a party.
There’s cake! And streamers! And punch in a bowl!
There’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey! A piñata! GOODIE BAGS!
But! You look around.
There is no one else there. No friends. No family. Not even that weird cousin you invited out of obligation.
This party is LONELINESS, PARTY OF ONE!
You look closer at the punch—it’s filled with diabetes! The piñata is stuffed with heart disease! The goodie bags, instead of the temporary tattoos and the glow sticks you were hoping for, is filled with Depression! Stroke! Inflammation! You cut open the cake—inside is PREMATURE DEATH! With Funfetti icing!
Loneliness, as a state of being, brings all of these things to the party.
Loneliness is as real as this extended party metaphor is a dramatization.
Loneliness manifests physically. All of the above health issues are directly tied to loneliness. (The statistics are staggering. For more information and specifics seek out Dr. Gabor Maté’s The Myth of Normal or Dr. Stephanie Caccioppo’s Wired For Love. F*cking WILD).
Loneliness, in our everyday lives, has less to do with the manifestation of literally being physically alone, and has more to do with a lack of connection. In reality, that party room can be filled with friends, with family, with coworkers and romantic partners. They can all be wearing party hats. They can all be singing you Happy Birthday, and you can STILL. BE. LONELY. You can still take home a goodie bag of health problems; can still cut into a cake of early death.
Loneliness is the great equalizer.
It is not partial to introversion or extroversion; to youth or to age, to wealth or to poverty.
As we talked about in the last issue (PART I: The Barnacle In All Of Us):
Loneliness, much like loss, is disconnection. And that is why loss throws us into loneliness. When we lose someone through death, or through distance, or through mental illness, that loss leads to loneliness. When we lose our daily routine because we have moved, or we get a new roommate, or when someone we rely on is not there for us in the ways that we need, that loss evolves into loneliness.
But loneliness, in and of itself, is not a permanent identity. It is not a prison sentence: it is not life without parole.
We have agency in our loneliness.
“The power, instead, lies in seeing loneliness as a transitory experience; one that is natural, and normal, but one that is not a static state of being.”
“The concept of “Loneliness”: of not being seen, of feeling invisible—these are the outcomes of comparison, and that comparison is rooted in a value system we are TAUGHT to believe; not one that is inherently true.”
In a 2015 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo details the different categories of loneliness: intimate, relational, and collective.
Intimate loneliness derives from a lack of connection with a romantic partner or family member.
Relational loneliness stems from friendships and those you socially interact with outside of the home.
Collective loneliness relates to teams or clubs that you associate with.
There are paths we can forge to combat these pervasive tides. After chronic disconnection; wave after wave that leaves us gasping for air, we can feel the sting of paralysis; can feel our will or our agency slipping from our fingers. We begin to believe that the waves are the thing: that the waves are somehow our home. The waves are where we exist, rather than something happening TO us.
We become overwhelmed. The current is too strong, the ocean too big for us to find our way back to the shore. We forget that we are not born of the waves, that we are born of land.
The land is outreach. The land is connection. The land is finding places and people with which we are seen, and valued, and wanted.
And the real kick in the balls is that this process of reaching out can, ironically, make us feel even more lonely. When we cannot find the feeling of home with people we try and connect with, it can draw us further out to sea.
But we keep swimming. We must.
We are social creatures; our brains hardwired for connection. This is as important to us as air, as food, as clean drinking water and shelter. Love is not mere desire, it is a basic human need.
This fact is established both scientifically and culturally.
However—there is an often unturned stone in the garden of loneliness (yes, loneliness is now a garden and no longer an ocean. EMBRACE THE ART OF THE MIXED METAPHOR! )
That unturned stone is: looking at the reasons we are lonely beyond the lack of connection. There is another contributor that is far more sneaky than Dr. Cacioppo’s brilliant three categories.
She’s tricky! She’s devious! She’s malicious!
Her name is…
We are lonely when we are disconnected. We are disconnected when we don’t feel seen. When we don’t feel seen we question our worth.
And worth comes down to the values we hold.
When are we valuable? When are we worthy?
If we value kindness, we are worthy when we are kind.
If we value achievement, we are worthy when we work hard.
If we value professional success, we are worthy when we get a promotion.
If we value admiration, we are worthy when we impress others.
This is when loneliness can stem from comparison. If we are NOT BEING THE THING WE VALUE or if SOMEONE IS BEING THE THING WE VALUE “““BETTER””” THAN WE ARE (please note the three sets of quotation marks for sarcastic emphasis)…
…then we feel we are not valuable.
…then we do not feel we are worthy.
…this is the fertile breeding ground for loneliness; because we feel disconnected.
And what is the point in all of this?
Let’s turn to the honeybee, to the ant, to the flamingo, to the (yes, ew) cockroach.
In a 2019 publication in the Journal of Experimental Biology, social interactions among honeybees were studied. Bees who were placed in isolation during a crucial time for social development underwent changes to the dopamine structures in their brain, as opposed to bees who were in social groups.
In other words, we know that social interactions are crucial in the development of social creatures—invertebrate and vertebrates alike. Social interactions are required for social development, and social isolation from these communities leads to atypical brain development and behavior.
When creatures who are meant to be social are not allowed to participate in social connection, they develop abnormalities. Their brains change in ways that threaten their ability to survive.
This does not mean that if you are lonely, or chronically lonely, something is WRONG with YOU.
What it does mean is that we are meant to have connection. It is our right as human beings, because we cannot function without it.
And when comparison and our value systems as a society actively UNDERMINE our ability to feel connected, then there is a deep, deep problem: one that does not lie with US, inherently, but with the ways we are forced to live and move in the world that are out of our individual control.
All we can do is seek.
We do not know if we will find connection in the ways we need or deserve it, but by seeking we are at least assuming agency.
All we can do is remember that while we might be at the mercy of the waves, land exists, somewhere.
And we can try to get back to it, can fight to put our feet on solid ground.
That’s all for this week, folks. Thanks for reading.
Love, light, and life rafts,
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