A Long Talk with a Good Stranger

If you’ve read between the lines of my past couple of articles, you’ve probably gathered I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch. I’m broken hearted. At first, destroyed, then just devastated, now simply hurt. Notice I say that I hurt, not that “he hurt me”. It is how I am reacting to the situation, how I choose to react, there is no blame, just a feeling, and one that will pass, will heal. I’m doing much better, now. I didn’t cry once yesterday. Or so far, today. And before I go any further, let me be clear, what happened was destined to happen. I guess. It is what it is and I am fine. I still do, and always will, love and respect the man I lost. We have just taken things back to where we started from; friendship. Hurt and hate do not equate. And for this, I am incredibly grateful. I have nothing but good words and happy thoughts about all we shared and about the friendship that lies ahead. Cool. But it has been quiet, no talk, no exchange. In weeks, or has it only been a week? Seems an eternity.

When things get rough, though, I usually retreat a bit, meditate more, run more, sleep more, eat more conscientiously and drink less beer and more water. That things all unraveled during three consecutive weeks of intense travel and stressful work assignments prevented me from my self-prescribed therapy.  So, I unplugged. Traveling, I couldn’t eat as healthy as I should, run outdoors, sleep nearly enough, meditate quietly, or even think clearly, so retreating, unplugging, was my only recourse.

In unplugging, I did pry myself away from social media for a whole week, until I was certain I wouldn’t say something regrettable or publicize an invitation to my pity party, spurring a potential online flash mob of regret. I unplugged. I do this in times of hurt, I either unplug by removing myself from public view, or I unplug from you, if you happen to be the party I need to retreat from, for healing. Unplugging can be subtle, like just not being available, or more substantial; “unfriending” or maybe even “blocking” on social media, or removing conversations and contact information from my devices, not to be hurtful, but to be safe. I need time to reason and there is that period of unreasonableness where I may say something I don’t mean. I just unplug for a bit, regain perspective, and plug back in (unblock, refriend, restore contact information). It’s a “me problem”, and that’s how I deal.

In times of difficulty, we often seek solace in long conversations with good friends, our confidants, the people we trust will listen compassionately and advise with exactly what we want to hear! Or better, yet, sound advice. Cross country travel, long work hours and time zone differences hinder such luxuries. Fortunately, I was able to resort to an equally nourishing and enriching option, on more than one occasion; a long talk with a good stranger.

I am a frequent flier, and am, in fact, somewhere 30,000 feet over Middle America just now. I am, sometimes, a jaded, cynical, traveler. I expect everyone to know and adhere to the unwritten code of conduct aboard an airplane or seated in an airport bar; head down, gaze affixed on some device, or, eyes closed, feigning sleep, means “do not disturb”, and I hang this sign out more often than not. Being out of communication with friends, family, and the man I lost, caused me, perhaps, to lower that sign a little. Or maybe I looked ragged and torn and on the verge of something drastic and people sought to intervene. Whatever the cause, I’ve had some of the deepest, richest, most meaningful, soul-baring conversations I’ve ever had. And with complete strangers. And I haven’t just been on the telling side, I’ve listened, and advised, like the best of friends would. It has been so enriching, so nourishing. I’ve learned a lot, about myself, and others, too.

An Effort to Evolve

A U.S. Marine Corps reservist and young father headed to Chicago on a quick, connecting flight from Minneapolis, a quiet, well-spoken gentleman from Amsterdam at a sushi bar in O’Hare, we spoke of politics and religion, of culture and relationships, of career, and love, an angry, young, middle-eastern traveler and a compassionate, elderly Christian man, engrossed in nurturing and consoling conversation with each other, an exuberant, young Mormon man, just finishing his two-year mission and headed home, a woman near my age, and a kindred spirit, on a long, late, flight home, a unique and wonderful, very married man, brimming with intelligence and witty conversation, on a very long flight home, a recovering cashier at a dollar store, formerly a strong and independent business woman, who I knew was unique with her use of the word “antiquated” in an exchange with the customer before me, a brief and lively conversation with an distinguished older man in the Whole Foods beer aisle; everywhere I turn, another interesting person, another great conversation, a long, long talk with a good stranger.

Again, I’ll find myself, this week, three-thousand miles from home, alone in a hotel room, with only my thoughts, social media, an occasional text or Facebook notification, and the idea of an article to share, to prevent me from the full realization of my aloneness. During the day, with work and my clients and business lunches with familiar, client associates, I am fine. It is in the quiet nights in my room that I am reminded of my solitude and I can hardly wait for my next long, flight home or chance meeting in a restaurant, and, hopefully, a long talk with a good stranger.

 

Only the Lonely

Let’s banish loneliness from the world, shall we? Sounds like some ideal, like something a large non-profit organization might be pursuing, with ads on television and fund-raising efforts, and efforts at raising awareness. I can see the commercials now; silhouettes of singular people, sitting alone, and some catchy phrase to make you feel guilty, pull out your credit card and donate.

I agree. I think loneliness should be banished. But, as with many things, I believe banishing loneliness begins with the lonely. You. Me. Whoever.

Let’s assume you’re lonely. Why? What is it that makes you lonely? Identify the specifics of your loneliness first, then work to solve it. Is it because you don’t have friends? Because you don’t have a significant other? A soulmate? Fine. So, fix it.

If you spend your free time at home, busying yourself with solitary tasks; television, video games, reading, etc., is it reasonable to expect people to knock on your door and seek out your companionship? Probably not.

I once knew a chronically unemployed man. He sat home all day, every day, un-showered, unshaven, drinking pot after pot of coffee, “looking for jobs online”. True, he would, occasionally, submit online applications, usually for the same job with the same company. The result? Still unemployed, with no recent job experience, no new knowledge, stale skills, no network, no leads, and no hope. I used to ask him, “do you expect some employer with a $120,000 per year job to march up your driveway in search of you?” So, what do YOU expect?

Loneliness is a lot like unemployment. In order to find a job, you need to be out there, shaking hands, making contact, making connections, building your network. You need to be active and relevant. You need to be a face with a name and a firm, comfortable handshake and a genuine smile, not a name on an application, a website or social media. You need to be real. The same is true of companionship.

There are more solutions out there than there are lonely people, I’m pretty sure. If you are lonely, get out a pen and a piece of paper. Write down things you enjoy doing; walking dogs, knitting, debating politics, hiking, driving, watching soap operas, wine tasting, walking, running, cycling, cooking, giving back to the community, worshipping, dancing. Now prioritize your list, circle the top two or three items on your list. Now, find a place where people with similar interests go on a regular basis. A church, a volunteer organization, a hiking club, cycling club, etc.

A great resource I use is MeetUp.com. You sign up, peruse MeetUp groups by interest, sign up for the groups that interest you, and attend some functions. I’ve gone hiking, dancing, running, walking, to happy hour, to concerts, wine tasting, zip lining and I’ve met a lot of folks along the way. The hardest part is showing up to the first function without a “wingman”, but once you get through that, you’ll have several acquaintances and you’ll never be flying solo again. Fear is the only thing holding you back from taking that first step by yourself. Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt says about fear:

“Do one thing every day that scares you” and

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. Do the thing you think you cannot do.”

My point is, loneliness shouldn’t exist if we all take responsibility for ourselves. Which we should be doing, here, and for most things in life. There are 7 billion people in the world, make an acquaintance with one of them, today. Everyday. They may introduce you to another. And another. Now you have a circle of acquaintances, from which friends and significant others may develop.

True, there are people out there, unlikely to evolve, to become enlightened, who will remain lonely because they don’t know they have to power to change their plight, and if you know anyone who fits that description, reach out to them. In so doing you could relieve their loneliness, and yours.

It IS that simple. And if you say it isn’t, you’re just making excuses. The only thing standing in the way is one, singular, lonely person. You. Get out of your way.