“As your circle of concern becomes larger, the field of loneliness for yourself and others will become smaller.”
You never know what you might find at a rummage sale.
Last year, I found a lonely soul. I was one of the vendors at a rummage sale hosted by our local community center. It was the end of the day, and I was already packing up my leftover items when Eva, a potential buyer, asked about a coffee maker I had for sale.
“I live alone,” she said, “but I make six cups of coffee every morning. I drink just one or two cups, but I make more hoping someone might stop by. Never one ever does.”
I sensed a sadness and loneliness in her voice. Since that incident, I read reports about a loneliness epidemic in our country and other places around the world.
How could anyone feel lonely in such a connected world? We have technology for connecting people around the globe—the internet, Facebook, and instant messaging. Yet, we seem starved for relationships.
The Loneliness Epidemic
Loneliness is a negative experience, an absence of something we need and want—a relationship, a sense of belonging. Technology alone can never solve our belongingness need. Belonginess is found in families, friendships, and community. We can be engulfed in technology and surrounded by a crowd of people, yet still feel lonely.
Loneliness and social isolation exert a heavy toll on our physical health and psychological wellbeing. People who are lonely are more at risk for high blood pressure, obesity, depression, decreased life satisfaction, and other physical and mental illnesses.
While we all experience short-term bouts of loneliness, we should be aware of signs the condition is becoming a serious problem. Symptoms include weight gain, sleep problems, negative feelings of self-worth, trouble concentrating, and loss of interest in activities or hobbies we once enjoyed.
Some people respond to loneliness by withdrawing from social situations. Being around people who are enjoying each other’s company reminds them of what they’re missing. This response perpetuates the loneliness problem.
An alternative response seeks to reduce the problem by actively pursuing social interactions and connections. This “reduction approach” works for some people, but not for everyone. When you’re feeling lonely, it’s not always easy to reach out to others. Reaching out puts you at risk of being rejected or ignored. And if you’re feeling lonely, you may also be feeling unworthy or unwanted.
Combatting Loneliness: The Rummage Sale Revelation
After the rummage sale, I realized there are two ways to combat loneliness. As we know, first, you can reach out to help others. But you can also ask someone else to help you. As your circle of concern becomes larger, the field of loneliness for yourself and others will become smaller.
You might think that expanding your circle of friends is the answer to loneliness. Since that can be hard to do, try focusing on expanding your circle of concern versus your circle of friends. Expanding your circle of concern shifts the focus away from self to outside of self.
This approach also draws on the power of empathy, which, by definition of understanding and sharing the feeling of others, involves some form of connection. The “other” in your expanded circle may be a person or even a plant or animal.
Your empathetic response might take the form of checking in on a neighbor, fostering a shelter dog, or keeping fresh water in a birdbath during the heat of summer. As you expand your circle of concern, you’ll discover the benefits of doing so flow in two directions. You’ll be helping others; but you’ll also find some of the heaviness and isolation you feel when you’re lonely begins to disappear.
Being Needed: The Loneliness-Buster
My interaction with Eva at the rummage sale taught me something else about easing the pain of loneliness. After helping her pack up the coffeepot, I asked her to watch my table while I carried items to my car, and she willingly agreed. She seemed happy to be of assistance.
Eva and I chatted for a while after I got back. We left the community center together and shared a hug before we went our separate ways. I watched as she got into her car. She no longer seemed sad.
I was reminded of how reaching out to others doesn’t always involve being the giver. Asking someone else for help—even in simple things—is one way to tap into their sense of empathy and ease their burden or risk of loneliness. We may need the help, but everyone needs to be needed.
So, after the coffeepot experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that being needed is a loneliness-buster.
Read about rituals for transcending loneliness.