One of my favorite bits about loneliness is in the Monty Python comedy musical, “Spamalot.” King Arthur and his loyal — and very non-royal — sidekick Patsy are lost in a dark forest. All of his other knights have fled and Arthur feels very bereft. He launches into one of the show’s funniest tunes, “I’m All Alone,” in which he laments his solitary state, totally oblivious to his loyal friend’s presence.
“You know it seems quite clear to me, because I’m working class,” sings Patsy, “I’m just the horse’s ass.” The song ends with a large chorus singing, “He’s all alone..except for us.”
I was happy that WordPress’s daily writing prompt was to write about loneliness. It is something that I feel more often than I would like, even though on the surface I have no excuse to be lonely. I have a devoted husband and children, a mom and siblings who love me, great friends, interests. Through blogging I’ve made wonderful connections with people who inspire me every day.
Yet sometimes I feel like the guy with the white sport coat and the pink carnation, all alone at the dance.
At times in my life I have felt legitimately lonely…post-breakups in my teen and young adult years when loneliness is felt more keenly; weekends after my first marriage ended when the kids were not with me; the time I babysat on New Year’s Eve for a colicky infant. Also the time when I decided to postpone my entry into college and all my friends had gone…I soon felt like I had been left behind at a bus stop.
But more often, loneliness comes when I make myself too busy and preoccupied to engage with the world. This is incredibly easy to do, even if you are surrounded by those you love. Just think about your bills, your commitments, your next work project, the dust balls under your bed, the last petty slight someone doled out to you, your kid’s struggles at school or on the ball field, the sad state of American politics. Dwell on them for a while. Let them stew around in your brain. Immerse yourself in your computer screen and smart phone as an escape. Pretty soon you just zone out and your mind is too distracted and numb to think about people. Until the numbness narcotic wears off and you’re left with yourself, feeling painfully solitary.
I feel the loneliest when I haven’t been a good friend to people who are legitimately lonely. Plenty of them are out there. They are housebound stroke victims, newly-divorced people, folks who lack social skills and probably have undiagnosed Asperger’s. They are shy people who make you row the boat for the whole conversation. Sometimes you need to reach out to them even when you are busy and need to be alone.
The truth is that being engaged, and keeping loneliness away, takes work. It means being able to read people, to tune into what they might be feeling, to read between the lines of what they say, to remember their birthdays and troubles and things that are important to them. It means picking up the phone when you see the caller ID of a friend who has been going through a hard time, even when you have no mental energy to deal with her problems. It means putting aside the petty distractions of everyday living and the temptations of the Web and making a commitment to focus on human beings.
Yes, we all feel abjectly lonely from time to time. But many times we don’t have to be. As King Arthur also sang: “We can be lonely side by side; it’s the perfect way to hide.”