Are You Lonely Tonight?
by Liz Flaherty
Have you ever thought about the difference between being alone and being lonely? I have, this morning, when I’ve sat here working, alone but certainly not lonely.
When it’s just me at home, writing or sewing or baking — all things I really like doing — I’m never lonely. If I want noise, I turn on the TV or music, but usually I like the silence. Not that it’s silent in the country; it’s not. For one thing, our house creaks. I don’t know that everyone’s does, but ours certainly does. The furnace runs periodically, or in happier months, the air conditioner does. From outside, the birds talk and scold and sing and the cats worry about them, mumbling meows as they climb the trees, ever vigilant against the feathered marauders. Sometimes I’ll be so involved with what I’m doing that if the telephone rings, I’m startled, and look around for the unannounced intruder into my space before my mind grasps that it’s the phone, dummy, and I should answer it.
And then there are other times, when the hours I’m going to be alone stretch before me as though they were days. I answer the phone before it finishes its first ring, and scan the TV looking for a show that will be company. That’s when I hope Andy Griffith will be on, because I’ve known those people for so long it’s like having family members in the room with me. It is during times like this that no amount of noise will fill the silence. This is when it’s lonely.
Anyone can be lonely. I remember when a girl I knew a long time ago was anxious to be married so that she never had to be lonely anymore. Another one couldn’t wait to have her first child because then she would always have someone who belonged to her.
It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, even if your marriage is strong and healthy, you look at the other person and think, What am I doing here? You sit in the same room, perhaps touching, perhaps making conversation, and yet you are lonely. This doesn’t mean you don’t love the other person or that you don’t want to be with him or her. What is means is — stay with me here; I’m almost sure I’m right — you’re not supposed to depend on him to fulfill your every need. She can’t always kiss it and make it better. Sometimes — gasp! — it’s just up to you. This is hard and this is lonely and this is, thank goodness, not the way it is most of the time.
There are your children, who belong to you, right? After all, you gave them life, fed, watered, and housebroke them, and spent much more than you could afford on their clothes. You did, you may feel free to proclaim dramatically, give them the best years of your life. The least they can do is be there when you want them to be. So that you won’t be, you know, lonely.
And, oh, no, it doesn’t work that way, either, because they have lives of their own, and if you raised them right, they’re out there living them.
Sometimes you’re just left sitting on the couch, staring out the window at the empty birdfeeders, and being lonely. The silence closes in on you and the clouds — it’s always cloudy when you’re lonely — all have dark linings. You have regrets. You don’t feel very well. You’re hungry. Andy Griffith isn’t on.
It’s time. It’s time to fill the birdfeeders, read a good book, volunteer at a place that benefits those less fortunate than you. Call a friend. Take a walk — if it’s too cold, go walk at the mall and make friends with someone else doing the same thing. Or don’t. Just walk along and smell the roses. No roses? Find some. Go to church. Call the school nearest you and ask if there’s someone you can read to. Go to a nursing home and hold someone’s hand and listen to their whispered, disjointed stories. Sometimes no one ever touches them — you want to talk about lonely? Find something to laugh at, even if it’s only your own ineptitude at learning something new. Count your blessings.
It comes down to choice. When we’re alone, we choose it. And we relish it, enjoying our own company to a disgusting degree, and feeling mildly resentful when someone comes along and interrupts it. And when we’re lonely? Well, I think we choose that, too. At least, most of us do, most of the time. There are, of course, times of grief and illness that create a loneliness that’s not self-induced and can’t be so easily fixed. Those aren’t the times I’m talking about, although I wish I knew some magic words that could fix them, too.
There’s another part to this, too, where if you know someone else is lonely, give them a call, go see them, ask them out to lunch or to go to the grocery store with you because the aisles are more fun when you’re talking all the way from produce to the deli. C. S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? Thought I was the only one.’ ” You could do nothing kinder than let another person know she’s not the only one.
Till next time.
Married for thirty-some years to Duane, her own personal hero, and mother of three and grandmother of six, Liz Flaherty has written a column from her Window Over the Sink off and on for over ten years. She hopes you enjoy her essays. You can email her at email@example.com