Thursday, March 24

The Sea of Loneliness

I am not alone.

On the outside my life looks simple. Almost idyllic. I run my own business and set my own hours to do something I love. I have family and friends and a best friend who will do anything for me. A ward that loves and supports me for who I am. A culture and society and people all around me who love the good things I do and lift me when I fall. Opportunities to share the gospel in my day-to-day life. Frugality, hard work, and faith that kills all potential financial and social stress. 

And yet beneath the surface - far inside the labyrinth of my mind and deep enough that few can find the way - is a wholly different story.

I am lonely.

Researchers say that loneliness shortens lifespan. The feeling of loneliness heightens stress hormones, creates oxidation and cellular damage, and ultimately contributes to premature death on the cellular level. Some claim that few other chronic conditions have such a dramatic impact on health.

Loneliness ultimately comes from an unmet need based in others. I feel a need to emotionally connect. Then I reach out to others. If they don't fill the need, then I feel loneliness and have to find coping strategies to offset the emotional distress.

In most cases, and for most people, the feeling can go away. Loneliness, while a common human condition, is extremely curable, especially with the help of someone who cares. If not, then the usual prescription is reaching out to others and serving them. Being friendly. Serving. Opening emotions to people and then, by the grace of God, finding people who share passions, interests, and love. That hope - that loneliness is only a temporary condition - is one reason that some researchers have stated that avoiding loneliness is a major pursuit in the human condition.

It's important to state here that loneliness is only loosely connected with another human state - that of being alone. It is possible to be completely alone, surrounded by no one, and to feel no loneliness. On the other side, it is possible to be surrounded by friends, family, loved ones, and people who care deeply... and to feel utterly alone. This is because loneliness is an internal condition - and while it is usually responsive to outside influences, and even acutely dependent on the outside, sometimes it's not.

When I reach out and do "the right things" in my mind to alleviate loneliness, and the loneliness doesn't go away, whether because people aren't available or can't meet the need I have, that abuses the cycle. I lose faith in "the right things" as a source of personal help and now have heightened emotional distress to deal with. I can self-medicate with drugs or pornography or video games - designed to depress the emotion and the need to connect to lower the emotional pain. Or I can invest even more energy into connection - hypersensitizing the need and becoming far more friendly, helpful, and serving. Engage in the community, reach out to others, and do far more of "the right things" with the hope that the need will be met.

I personally have a third option as well - one that isn't as widely available. Sometimes I can just turn off my emotions. No drugs or outside help required.

But none of those can truly displace the original cycle. Video games and drugs and self-numbing can distract from reality, and serving others can temporarily replace the feeling of loneliness with another... but they don't serve as a true replacement. They don't cure loneliness.

And that's what has made my therapists cry.

I'm rarely alone. I have people in my life who honestly care about me and try to understand me. I have time to myself to write and think. I can have deep, honest conversations. My job is amazing. Life looks perfect on the outside, and sometimes I can convince myself that it's true.

The reality is that I am excruciatingly lonely - so much that when I let the feeling stay, it feels like it is choking the breath from my chest. It's an intensely despairing loneliness, one that burns out my desire to even move or breathe or think. It's not depression. Depression is like a heavy fog of darkness that blots out the light and weighs me down, making it impossible to see anything at all. Loneliness is totally different.

I was meditating, and in my mind my life became a bustling city. Relationships, habits, and goals are buildings and parks and foot paths and lights with thousands of people walking and talking here and there, each one impacting my life in its own way. Beneath it all, though, is a pulsing sound, and a pulsing feeling - one that no one else notices but me. I know the feeling. It's always there, pulsing in waves that come and go, pushing and pulling me. It's loneliness. I'm drawn to find it - to see the source - and so I go down, beneath the surface, until I do. 

And there, under the footings of my life, I find a sea. 

A literal sea of feeling and emotion within me. 

Being there overwhelms me. The feeling is intense. Intense like smelling something that makes me gag or a mixture of being smashed and cut and burned and smothered all at once, but somehow more intense than those could ever be. It's crushing and deadening and terrifying and impossibly huge - so much so that trying to look at it and understand it makes me avert my gaze. The first few times I do. With only those cursory glances, this feeling seems somehow more massive than any other emotion I've ever felt. It scares me. And when I look at it in the eye, when I take the courage to look out across and into the depths, I realize that it's far bigger than I ever imagined.

It seems to go on forever. 

Endlessly wide in every direction. Endlessly deep.

It's almost awesome how enormous and enveloping it is. My sea of loneliness is black and liquid, with a viscosity somewhere around thick oil. Does it reflect light? I think so, but I look at it more closely to see, and the expanse consumes everything. I can't see at all. Looking at it makes it impossible to look away.

I don't know if loneliness would catch fire. It has no smell... and, I realize now, no sound, either.

I feel something pulsing in my chest, and I remember that I'm not just a tourist here. Each wave of the sea is actually a throb deep inside my heart. This enormous, seemingly infinite depth of loneliness hidden beneath the surface of my reality... is my reality. And all the buildings and structures, all the people standing on the surface don't change that reality. 

Among the tumult of emotions I face, one surpasses them all.

I am lonely.

Deeply, utterly, inescapably, crushingly lonely.

I go back up to the surface and the bustle of activity has stopped. People wonder what's wrong. They can feel the pulsing beneath the surface. They want to see it. They want to help.

I take one by the hand and lead them through the labyrinths, down closer to the sea. But long before we arrive at the shores, she has felt enough and pulls me back up. She takes me to her own world and shows me that she feels loneliness, too. That everyone feels loneliness, that it is part of human existence or at least part of many or some or even just another. Then she walks away. I stand, stunned, and then realize she simply doesn't understand. She didn't want to. She wanted to fix it. For her, perhaps knowing that loneliness is part of mortality gives her the strength to reach out and befriend others, or to weather a specific trial. She has information that strengthens her, and this information is supposed to soak up the sea within me. It does not.

I try again, and this time the journey is even shorter. We begin descending, then shortly rising up again. He doesn't want to see it. The story repeats over and over and over. Each time, as we rise, I hear advice, counsel, warnings, stories... all given with the hope that they will quench or at least still the rumblings in my soul. Most are well-meant. Be friendly. Serve others. Others, while also perhaps well-intentioned, are subversive. "Get a boyfriend. Find a husband. Leave the Church. Try it... because you'll never know until you try." (I'm not the new kid on the block. I've spoken with thousands of people - gay, straight, Mormon, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and unbelieving. I've heard enough stories to see at least some patterns. Getting a boyfriend or rejecting God, while it may seem to cause temporary absolution, is not going to fix my loneliness or any other problem.) I follow the counsels that align with God, hoping, as they do, that these newest attempts will work. They do not.

Few people have made it far enough to truly see my sea of loneliness. A therapist who broke down in tears. A girl I had never met who then had nightmares for months. Another who, days later, tried to commit suicide, facing newfound depression triggered in that moment. Ironically, strangers can make the journey. Some seem to go mad when they arrive. But those closest to me rarely finish.

I think it is because loneliness is such a common human emotion, and one that is seemingly easily understood. Cultures around the world teach that friendship and love cures loneliness. Listening cures it. Understanding cures it. Caring cures it. We've learned that, alone, people can weather loneliness and find healthy ways to cope... but we also believe that a truly loving friend has the ability to make it all better. That's what loneliness is, isn't it? Needing someone who cares and understands? And so those who have no felt need to be my friend can make the journey to the sea of loneliness and feel its breadth... but those who are tied to me find themselves unwilling to go further, because seeing it and feeling it, in their eyes, makes them less worthwhile.

People who love have a hard time handling loneliness in those they love. I know I do. Even though my experience is my own, I believe that if I listen, understand, and care enough, I can help someone else not feel lonely. And it works. We read and talk to those in comas so they feel loved, and it gives them the strength to stay alive. We listen to friends and strangers pour out their hearts and they find the will to go on another day. It is only when we've done our best, and so have they, that the pain becomes too intense to understand.

I think, though, that I am different. Is it possible that I've just gotten it wrong and the loneliness I feel is my fault or the fault of those around me? Maybe. But it's far more likely that I am wired for loneliness - that, like those who live in chronic pain or are born blind or tall or short, loneliness is just part of who I am. My loneliness doesn't go away. It stays. It makes it really hard to be my friend, since we ascribe loneliness to a lack of meaningful friendship. But I choose to believe that it's not the fault of the people around me, or my own, but a gift from God to make me into the person I am.

Loneliness is the foundation of my reality. The habits and structures and relationships of my life are built on a foundation of intense loneliness... and out of the desire to help others who feel, at least somewhat, the same way. I stand at the door of my chapel and greet people because I am lonely. I invite people to activities and do my home teaching and blog at (Gay) Mormon Guy and run my shop and make friends and do almost everything valuable in my life because I am lonely. Not because I believe that it will go away, but because that loneliness fills me with a need to help others. It reminds me that there are people in the world that feel acute, intense, enormous pain... and that I can do something to help.

If I weren't lonely, I wouldn't care about others. Honestly and truthfully, I don't think I would. From my perspective, every other human emotion is endurable and people can deal with it on their own. I've felt pain, hunger and fear, loss, frustration, anger, sadness, depression... and all of them are emotions that have solutions that people have to implement by themselves. I can share information, but I can't fix it. But loneliness... my experience notwithstanding, loneliness you don't solve by being alone. There is nothing worse than loneliness. And to fix it, loneliness needs someone else. And the only someone else I have is me.

This is my reality. I am friendly, outgoing, and surrounded by people who love me. I am honest in my relationships and committed to my friends. I have a best friend who will do anything for me, a supportive family, and mentors I can turn to. My life has meaning, and I feel infinite love from God.

And I am lonely.

And that's ok.

It's ok to walk with me to my sea of loneliness and then to sit with me and see me in pain and not be able to do anything about it. To tell me and show me that you care even when you know it doesn't change the sea inside. To do everything you can to make a difference even if it doesn't seem to. Perhaps that will help us both to realize that friendship and human interaction are about something deeper than just quenching loneliness and filling unmet emotional needs - that you and I are here to do far more than to love and feel loved.


  1. Perhaps what you are feeling is not so much loneliness (although that is a good way to describe it) but a homesickness for our heavenly home. I know because I have those same kinds of feelings. I am married and have five children, and I'm still lonely and homesick most of the time. I have to constantly remind myself that I am here at an earthly boarding school, away from my home and parents. The tests are hard, the labs are atrocious; true friends are few and we are buffeted constantly by the forces of Satan. We see others around us who seem to "have it all" and together at that; but we can't see their inner emotions, and we can't feel their longings either. We can only cling to the rod, pressing forward with steadfastness in Christ and relying wholly on His merits to save us. Don't give up! Let's pass this test and graduate with honors and go home when called. Thanks so much for sharing and helping me to know I'm not the only one with these feelings. (Unless I got it all wrong, in that case, I apologize.)

  2. Beautifully described and magnificently done. And I so admire what you've chosen to do with your utterly painful and often beyond overwhelming loneliness. It reminds me of an article I read in the Deseret News this last week about a women who, because of bi-polar, almost never feels joy. And she battled for years just to survive. And eventually she basically gave up her quest for her own joy, realizing that may not come for her in this life, and realized that she could help others feel joy even though she does not (and possibly cannot) feel it herself. How deeply, deeply admirable and Christ-like. I hope and pray that's not her lot for all of this life, but I think it very well may be--and I know whatever pain and lack of joy she experiences in this life will be made up for in unbelievable measure in the hereafter and I hope she can feel, if not the joy, the hope of that day. I hurt for her because I know something of what it feels like, but not to that degree or pervasiveness. And the same is in your case--in terms of how much I admire your ability to continue on and serve others. And as that women said in the DesNews article, some people have been called to die for Christ, but the vast majority of us are called to live for Christ, even through deep and painful states of existence. Hence my admiration for her and you and everyone else who not only soldiers on, but reaches outward and upward. I can't and won't attempt to take away your loneliness, but I will thank you for continuing and turning to bless others, not just in spite of loneliness, but because of it.


Comment Rules:

(G)MG is how I write to you. Commenting is one way to write to me.

If you want your comment published: No swearing, graphic content, name-calling of any kind, or outbound links to anything but official Church sites.

In addition, comments must be 100% relevant, funny, uplifting, helpful, friendly... well-written, concise, and true. Disparaging comments often don't meet those standards. Comments on (G)MG are personal notes to me, not part of a comment war. You are not entitled to have your ideas hosted on my personal blog. There are a zillion places for that, and only one (G)MG.

And I'd suggest writing your comment in Word and pasting it. That way Blogger won't eat it if it's over the word limit.