The Face in a Jar by the Door

Why Is Social Isolation and Loneliness a Growing Epidemic?

He probably said this while we lived on the farm, when I was in my 20s. Heck, it could’ve even been earlier, when he gave me some advice about a high school girlfriend. Who knows?

I do know one thing.

The man was as wrong as wrong can be.

A person can have the most connected life — always consumed by “something larger than oneself,” with money, friends, travel, family and career — but never feel lonely?

Oh, no. Not on your life.

My late father, project manager par excellence, was an expert at solitude. When angry, rather than stew about it, he’d just yell. Get it out of his system. Then take off in his boat and go fishing.

I think early in life he quickly learned to deal with upsets by cultivating solitude — something I’ve tried to do, too.

Like right now. Things aren’t the best, but I’m writing and happy. That’s the white-hot fiery core of my solitude, when its edges are unsinged by loneliness.

Loneliness is absence. It’s loss. It’s “the pain of being alone.”

And it’s going to be an epidemic as the world gets older.

***

Ask me a question and I’m curious to know if there’s an answer. Or maybe another question to ask based on the previous question.

I first heard The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” in the late 1960s, when I was almost 10. I’d never heard a song so packed with questions.

Two people, a woman named Eleanor and a priest, Father McKenzie, are doing things we all do: she’s been to a wedding, and waiting for something or someone; McKenzie is busy writing his weekly sermon, and later, all alone, repairing his socks.

The isolation is intense and unrelenting: nobody comes to Eleanor’s door; Father McKenzie’s sermon goes unheard.

Where do they both belong?

Where do any of us belong?

***

While the general perception of social isolation is that it’s a problem of the elderly, it is creeping into the lives of much younger people.

According to a 2012 Canadian study of “34,000 Canadian university students, almost two-thirds reported feeling ‘very lonely’ in the past 12 months. More Canadians are living alone than at any other point in history, and half again as many of them (21 per cent) are more likely to report feeling lonely than those who are part of a couple (14 per cent).”

In the US, a Washington Post article (almost ten years old now) states that “…nearly three-quarters of people in 1985 reported they had a friend in whom they could confide, only half in 2004 said they could count on such support. The number of people who said they counted a neighbor as a confidant dropped by more than half, from about 19 percent to about 8 percent.”

All those lonely people. Where do they all come from?

And what’s really going on here?

Is the Internet, movies and videos, gaming, and social media to blame? An increase in divorce, separations, and breakups? Stress and overwork? Lack of funding to support social services, churches, and charitable organizations?

Or something deeper, maybe in every lonely person?

***

David Crowley, 29, had shot his 28-year-old wife Komel, then killed their 5-year-old daughter Rani before taking the gun to himself.

While a murder-suicide is horrific enough, the truly shocking detail was that their bodies weren’t discovered for nearly a month.

Minneapolis StarTribune columnist Gail Rosenblum wrote: “The Crowleys’ neighbors likely assumed (as I would have, if I’m being honest) that the family was on vacation, or that Crowley, a filmmaker, was off pursuing a movie project.”

Or, back in 2003, the jaw-dropping story of a 38-year-old British woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, who was found dead in her north London flat, alone.

Three years had passed before her body was even discovered.

On May 25, 2008, my father was alone. Mother had died the previous day, a Saturday, so I’m fairly certain he went to church that Sunday.

We always talked on the phone after he returned home from worship services — something we continued to do after Mom passed away. I don’t recall him speaking much about her over that summer. And I wished he had come to stay with us in Minnesota, or traveled to Paris, France, as a neighbor friend urged him to do.

I can’t know what he was thinking or feeling those 15 weeks before he died on Sept. 7, 2008, of a myocardial infarction. But I concur with what his doctor said to me when I arrived in South Florida shortly thereafter.

“The man died of a broken heart.”

***

says lonely people have “a higher vigilance for social threats.”

That vigilance morphs into “social evasion” — avoiding interaction with others, and ensuring a downward cycle of loneliness, depression, and illnesses such as hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease — all leading to the possibility of premature death.

If our homes, houses or apartments, are like our bodies — places of refuge away from the threats of the outside world — what then are our windows, our doors?

Block upon block of houses with the window shades drawn.

No one outside on their lawns, their porches, their stoops, smiling at strangers.

Just closed doors, bolted and locked.

We observe events like National Night Out every August. But that only works for the folks who step outside their door. What about the ones who choose not to? What are they thinking as they peer out their windows, under the blinds, crouching in the dark?

Actor David Sutcliffe (Gilmore Girls, Cracked) is on a mission to nip the stigma of loneliness at its core.

“I saw a very lonely guy,” he stated after first viewing his appearance on Cracked, “and I know that pain wasn’t the character; it was me. But I was glad to put it out there, because it’s important for people to know they’re not alone. We’re all struggling.”

Sutcliffe calls bullshit on what he regards as “society’s tranquility mask,” the tendency many of us have to claim that “everything is okay.”

Maybe that mask was the face Dad kept in a jar by his door.

I know I have one. Maybe we all do.

Who is it for?

Michael Maupin is chief storyteller at StoryShed Learning & Media LLC, and blogs from Minneapolis, Minn. A recovering screenwriter, he launched his WordPress blog Completely in the Dark (completelydark.com) in 2001 to explore narrative in filmmaking. In 2008, however, his parents died, so he switched focus to family stories — trying to make sense of life while still being “completely in the dark.”

Writer, editor, and media maker. Blogs at Completely in the Dark (www.completelydark.com) and lives in Minneapolis, MN. I notice things.

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