All of us have experienced loneliness at some point in our lives. Everyone has had times when they’ve been ignored or felt left out in some way. It is an unfortunate part of life that we have all shared as human beings. But for some people, feelings of life altering loneliness never stop. Because of their particular circumstances in life they feel trapped with no way of escaping. They can become marginalized, forced to live on the fringes of society.
Extreme loneliness is the feeling of being lost in the world without a way to connect to others. It is the diminished hope of finding a person to share your struggles and victories with. It is painful and discouraging. It can be limiting, preventing us from being active and participating in the things we enjoy. It often occurs when someone is made to believe that they are different and they don’t fit in. It can make people feel unwanted and unappreciated. Loneliness can create a sense of emptiness that is difficult to overcome.
Thanks to technology we have never been more connected and yet loneliness is rampant in our society. People of all ages and from every walk of life are afflicted. Sometimes loneliness is thrust on us by a sudden turn of events, while other times it happens gradually. It can occur anytime a person is facing challenges, no matter what the reason, or when they experience a sense of loss or disappointment.
If someone becomes convinced that no one cares about them, the resulting loneliness can create psychological issues. It can harm their self-esteem. It can make them lose their confidence and make them feel unworthy of respect. Extreme isolation can lead to emotional distress as a person disconnects and withdraws from life.
The following cases illustrate some of the damaging effects that can be caused by loneliness.
Jim and Sherry had been married for two years when their daughter Muriel was born. It had been a difficult pregnancy, and Sherry was worried about the health of her baby. It turned out that her fears were well founded. When Muriel was a year old she was diagnosed with physical and intellectual challenges. Her health issues proved to be too much for the marriage to survive. Jim moved out when Muriel was three. Heartbroken and scared, Sherry tried to pick up the pieces and move forward, but the loneliness of being a single parent of a child with multiple health issues left her feeling exhausted and in despair. Sherry needed someone to talk to, to confide in and to lean on for support, but she was alone.
Katherine’s crippling shyness had defined her life. Because of a physically abusive childhood, she found it impossible to trust people. She had tried various therapies and programs, but nothing seemed to help. Now at the age of thirty-nine, she was resigned to a life with limited human interaction. Each day the consequences of her loneliness made her feel increasingly vulnerable and hopeless. As she became more reclusive, she gave up her dream that someone would reach out to her and have the patience to give her the time she needed to become comfortable with them. Unfortunately, the world moved at too fast a pace for people to make that kind of effort with Katherine. Over time she began to believe she was unlovable, and that caused her to stop loving herself.
At fifty-one years of age, Daniel had spent his entire adult life living with the constant fear that someone would discover he could not read. His secret was so humiliating that he was convinced he did not fit into society. Being illiterate had completely dominated Daniel’s life. Due to his self-consciousness, he avoided situations where his lack of education could become an issue. He longed to be understood, but he was afraid of being judged. Consequently, he did not have the confidence to interact with people. He believed they would think he was less of a person. Daniel had never dated, and he had no friends. He lived in his small world as a virtual prisoner simply because he could not comprehend written words. His unrelenting loneliness made Daniel feel inferior and undeserving of acceptance.
Joanna lived in a small town where everyone knew about her past, therefore she was constantly being unfairly judged. Her history of mental health issues provided a steady source of fodder for idle gossip and malicious innuendo. However, no one seemed interested in the fact that she had sought appropriate treatment and had rebuilt her life. What she wanted now more than anything was to develop healthy relationships based on mutual respect. But sadly everyone continued to behave as though she did not deserve to be part of the community. They were unwilling to look beyond her challenges to see the person who had been courageous enough to seek help. She had fought bravely to overcome her illness, but now the overpowering loneliness was slowly destroying the progress she had made, making Joanna feel worthless.
Jamal was 42 years old. Born with a developmental disability, he had been nonverbal his entire life. Because it was difficult for him to process his feelings, he sometimes acted out in ways that others did not approve of in order to gain the attention he so desperately wanted. As a result of these actions, he had been labeled a trouble maker and was often judged harshly without any thought being given to the possible causes for his behavior. His world had collapsed inward due to misunderstandings and a lack of patience on the part of those around him, leaving him trapped in a never-ending cycle that resulted in severe loneliness. Because Jamal had spent his life suffering in silence while a world filled with noise passed him by, his only prayer each night was to find one true friend.
Gerald and Hannah had been married twenty-six years when Hannah had the stroke that changed both of their lives. Incapacitated by her loss of memory and the devastation to her motor functions, she was unable to be left unattended for any length of time. Fortunately, Gerald was able to work from home so he could be with Hannah around the clock. But as the years went by, the physical and mental toll of looking after her began to wear him down. Slowly their friends drifted away and his previous life became a memory. Worst of all, he felt a crushing sense of isolation as he faced the difficult challenges of being a caregiver alone. However, Hannah was the love of his life, so Gerald willingly accepted the pain of his loneliness as the price he had to pay to ensure his wife lived with dignity.
Madison’s life was unraveling, and she was only twenty-two. Diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, her behavior caused people to refer to her as strange, peculiar and odd. They believed she was someone to be avoided. Although there was a legitimate medical diagnosis for why she washed her hands until they were raw, counted objects to the exclusion of other activities and engaged in repetitive behaviors such as checking and rechecking locks – the explanation did nothing to change the way people chose to perceive her. The forced solitude that resulted from their reaction to her disorder increased her anxiety which intensified her compulsions. Madison’s loneliness caused her to descend into a mental state controlled by her OCD. Sadly she was no longer living, she was only existing.
Lucas sat on the sidewalk shivering in the brutal cold. The tattered jacket did little to provide warmth against the unrelenting wind, and he had no hat to protect him from the snow that fell in silence. He tried to cover himself with newspaper, but the swirling breeze quickly scattered it. Lucas had been in the Army, but upon returning to the states he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His life rapidly disintegrated, and he eventually became homeless. Now only one thing dominated his thoughts and that was how incredibly lonely he was. After fighting courageously in fierce combat, he now seemed to be invisible to the nation he had served. All day long people passed by without really seeing him. Some looked away while others just pretended like he wasn’t there. Lucas could stand the cold, the hunger and the filth, but the lack of human contact was killing him.
All of these individuals shared the unbearable heartache that results from loneliness. Each one of them experienced needless suffering because of behaviors and circumstances in life that kept people from reaching out and connecting with them.
Thankfully, loneliness, like most conditions that afflict humanity, can be eased by compassion. But that compassion must take many forms. We must be willing to practice inclusion to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the activities that have meaning for them. We must learn to appreciate each person for who they are. We must realize that every human being struggles in some way, and therefore we need to have empathy for those who have been cast aside. We must refuse to pass judgment and instead embrace each person with respect so that being lonely never interferes with their happiness and well-being.
Our society needs to switch its focus from those who are the center of attention to individuals who are left on the sidelines. We need to seek out those who have been forgotten and pushed aside. We simply cannot let some people slip away and live their lives in unnecessary pain. Each person, without exception, deserves to be acknowledged, understood and accepted as an equal human being.
We should never allow loneliness to isolate a person.
Life is meant to be shared.