Shame on shame

Shame

While listening to Monica Lewinsky’s moving presentation on shame and cyber-bullying on a recent TED Talk, I wondered if our culture will ever transcend being so shame-based. Can we turn the corner on this situation that has plagued and sometimes ruined thousands if not millions of lives?

I am actually more hopeful than not. While the Internet gives anonymous attackers the freedom to do their dirty work, it also opens up a delivery system for the spread of healthy consciousness. The carrier for cyber-bullying can also be used to create solutions!

With more attention paid to helping people, the Internet could provide a major tool for lending emotional support to victims of cyber-bullying.

The forces of shame have been in control. Shaming is very popular. As Lewinsky suggested, shaming is the backbone of an industry. People make money off it. Media shame people and attract viewers or clicks, which in turn generates cash from advertisers. Media manipulators have learned that controversy and humiliation into a winning formula for luring the masses to view things, so they artificially inject shaming into gobs of content.

THE POPULARITY OF SHAMING

Many news stories and documentaries are designed around the agenda of shaming someone. It is often promoted that this storytelling is for the common good. Exposing scandalous behavior, corruption, fraud, and so on is intended to shed light on a situation that needs fixing. It’s supposed to rile people up enough to cause some positive solutions.

At some level, this is a good thing. Exposing evil as a means to improve the situation probably helps. However, sometimes evil is exposed only because it is show business.—shaming as a spectator sport or freak show. That is not such a good thing, especially when the real purpose is to entertain for profit.

People are often shamed and ridiculed for simply being different. This depends on the context of the shaming, but every minority group experiences it. Common ones are being obese, gay, transgendered, the “wrong” race, the “wrong” religion, the “wrong” political affiliation, deformed, non-conformist, non-monogamous, mentally challenged, mentally advantaged, emotionally vulnerable, and so on.

SHAME IN ACTION

I became more interested in the impact of  public shaming after watching a few poignant documentaries about a few high-profile cases of people being humiliated.

In Lady Valor: The Kristen Beck Story, we meet a guy who was a Navy SEAL for 20 years, regarded as one of the bravest of the brave in combat situations. Shortly after retiring from the Navy, he revealed to the world that he was transgender. He proceeded to become Kristin Beck, living 24/7 as a woman. The shaming she endured was relentless. (We also now have former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner coming out transgender.)

Jay Reinke was a pastor featured in the documentary The Overnighters about Williston, North Dakota, currently a boom town in the fracking oil industry. The film showed how Reinke opened up his church to homeless job-seekers to provide them with shelter overnight in a town with a huge shortage of vacant rooms. His Christian-based generosity came under fire from congregants and townspeople who felt threatened by this practice. Shaming ramped up when he allowed a sex offender to stay at his home, and later when the pastor made a startling revelation about his own personal life.

Fall to Grace was for me a fascinating look at former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey who resigned from office in disgrace. He admitted to having had an extramarital affair with a man, an admission that led to a bitter divorce and massive shaming and ridicule. He ended up following his passion, which led him to becoming a teacher for female prison inmates. At the same time be began studying to become an Episcopal priest

Ted Haggard was a popular fundamentalist evangelical preacher who kept it a secret that he was gay (bisexual is probably a closer term) while also being married to a woman. The Trials of Ted Haggard showed him in crisis mode dealing with having been banished from his church and the state of Colorado.

All of these documentaries gave intimate portrayals of how these people were forced to deal with massive humiliation. One could argue that some of them brought shame upon themselves by their actions. Maybe so. However, documentaries like this take the viewer behind the headlines and show the struggle of pursuing redemption or social acceptance. How people recover from shame is usually is not part of the public narrative.

I believe that the recovery process is a much more worthwhile story to tell, and I wish it was told much more. The vast majority of us have skeletons in the closet that could be converted into humiliating stories, especially given how shame-driven stories are designed, written, and edited.

SHAMING AND CREATIVITY

I would like to add something else to the story about shaming—how it affects creativity. Being creative means looking at the same thing other people look at and seeing something different. Often it’s seeing where an improvement can be made. However, in our shame-based society, different ideas or different ways of doing things often meet ridicule and derision.

How many people are not exercising their creativity because they were once (or still are) too severely shamed for their non-conformity? How many great innovations large and small have been aborted when people gave up after suffering mental and emotional injuries through shaming?

This is not just about breakthrough inventions that never happen. It’s also about all those people so shamed that they drop out and tune in to deep despair. They feel no compulsion to help save the planet because they already feel excluded and unappreciated. How many conversations were not started, laughs not shared, and hugs not given as a ripple effect from  attacks that knocked the joy out of these people?

As a society, meanwhile, I think we should ask how many acts of violence were sown from the seeds of someone being tormented with shame, especially during childhood? I am not talking about just violent murders and rapes. How often does shame lead to the creation of narcissistic selfishness and obsessive revenge? How often do people once ridiculed and unappreciated turn into shaming zealots and cruel neighbors? How many others become swallowed up in addictions and anti-social activities?

WHAT CAN WE DO?

In her speech, Lewinsky said, “The shift begins with something simple, but it’s not easy: We need to return to a long-held value of compassion.”

And how do we get to compassion? That usually requires empathy. And empathy often involves education.

Perhaps it would be useful to use an analogy that is currently being applied to porn, which some people (including Russel Brand) are calling “the new drug.” The idea is that modern porn affects brain chemistry as some psychoactive drugs do. Shaming or watching shaming as a blood sport might also fall into this category. We might be addicted to shame.

Watch someone in the heat of shaming, like on a cable TV show or YouTube video! That person is awash in excitement. It’s a rush, a big woo-hoo blast of adrenaline. As with much combat, the victim is often not seen as a multidimensional human being; the victim is seen as a punching bag.

Our media culture’s example often teaches us that shaming behavior is acceptable, all part of healthy debate and competition. It often gets into white hats versus black hats, the Patriots (fans) versus the Seahawks (fans), the Left versus the Right.

But our media culture now includes social media, and more people than ever before can weigh in on topics of their choice. Some people like Monica Lewinsky are weighing in on shaming and cyber-bullying.

In my vision of a better world, I see a place where it is easier for mentally and emotionally injured people to find help. There would be more readily available content for people to turn to when they needed it. Help is already available for those who seek it, but I would like to see much more of it, easier for victims of it to find.

The majority of shaming probably does not produce unrecoverable wounding. People can and do bounce back. However, I would like to see more helpful material easier to access for those who are slipping fast into the dark side.

Benefit from loneliness

Benefit from lonelinessSwimming the wrong way? Or is it the right way?

Something I often hear — and something I say myself — is that when dealing with unpleasant situations, it helps to look for the gifts being offered. Hard as it is to do sometimes when it feels as if life’s prime objective is to punish people, I find that when I focus on the blessings in disguise, I start healing.

I have been dealing with soul loneliness. I have missed deep connection with friends or a lover. I’ve already written much about it. Today I want to focus on accentuating the positive. The truth is that our struggles have both positive and negative aspects, so what has being lonely been good for?

FINDING MYSELF

Living alone with little outside social contact has been one of the best ways to discover who I really am and what I really want. Normally I tend to be a people pleaser. When I live with someone, I want to see them being happy. That often means that I sacrifice my own desires and play a second fiddle support role. i am so good at it that I do not even think of it as a sacrifice.

Another way to say this is that I was conditioned to be a follower. I was trained to respond to someone else’s lead. As my social circle shrinks, I rely more on myself for stimulation and support than ever. As a result, I am discovering more about me as my own leader.

Playing second fiddle is not just about personal relationships. Career is another huge area. Even as a freelancer, the demands of producing income have frequently persuaded me to sacrifice being myself to play a role in the marketplace. How many of us cannot be our true selves, expressing our true opinions and feelings, when we’re at work? How many of us feel required to wear personality masks when we do our jobs?

It is a great gift to be able to slowly discover who I really am when I am not encouraged to play a support role or to bend to the demands of economic pressures.

FINDING OTHERS

My search for my own truth leads me to perceive others on a different level as well. The more I become the real me, the more I attract realness in others. Those who wish to share on a more genuine level seem to come forth — while those who do not wish for emotional intimacy retreat into their comfort zone.

I confess that I have not been very aggressive at locating venues where I could find people who want to share at such an unmasked level of openness. However I recognize that a transition takes time. I will find new kindred spirits somewhere down the line. I am still finding myself.

People who have suffered a deeply felt loss through death, break-up, job termination, disease, or other situation are often told that this crisis could lead to better situations, hard as it may be to see at first. A major loss or setback in life often causes us so much pain that we are too raw to keep up our normal go get ’em attitude. We open up to new options to handle our trauma.

One of those ways is frequently to become more real, direct, and courageous. We suck it up and do what we have to do. That process often attracts a different breed of friend.  It could manifest as a current friendship that expands from where it was. Or it could manifest as new friendships that meet our new needs.

CHANGING THE FILTER

Loneliness is taking a condition of solitude and casting it in a negative or painful light. In a positive light, it is great for clarity of thinking without interruption from others.

This fundamental change in filter means altering the negative self-talk around loneliness. It means not buying into any of the cliches and stereotypes about being lonely. When I make the effort to consciously intervene when my monkey mind screams that I am so lonely, boo-hoo, my morale improves. I see this as an opportunity to grow.

The prison system, as many movies and documentaries tell us, use solitary confinement as a form of punishment. It has even come under fire for causing people to go mad. At the same time, other people pay handsomely to attend various spiritual retreats where the whole point is to stop the busy world and to tune in to inner voices.

NEW PASSIONS

Loneliness forces self-reflection. There is only so much I can do with the usual distractions designed to keep my head buried in the sand. My personality is not too fond of mindless television, hack movies, pro sports, shopping, etc. Many of the institutions commonplace to American society are like foreign customs to this 12th-generation American.

So when I have grown bored of the distractions that I do enjoy, there is a void that I need to fill by searching for new interests and passions. For example, when I felt that I had exhausted finding videos featuring positive spiritual input, I decided to start meditating again. I had gotten out of the meditation habit because the partners I lived with were not into it. Being the follower, I blended more into their lifestyle than vice versa.

Ironically, most of the hobbies that I have are much more solitary than social. I like writing, photography, reading, art. These are my go-to activities that generally have not provided much in the way of friendship.

Although most of my pursuits are independent studies, the vastness of the time and space around me has been great for self-reflection and life review. I am still in the discovery phase of finding new passions.

NEW PERCEPTIONS

Along with new passions come new perceptions. For example, I have found that the lack of romantic and/or sexual connection has created amazing new perceptions about those experiences.

For example, my unplanned celibacy has given me a revitalized appreciation for what sex can be. I have been knocked out of anything habitual; no pleasure as usual. Loneliness is like a time out. As I see anything from romantic movies to (supposed) erotica, I find that I no longer wish to follow the herd. It seems counter-intuitive, but not having a sexual partner and daydreaming about the spiritual potential of lovemaking has made me even choosier about the relationship I would want if the opportunity came along.

Another new perception for me is the goldmine of alternative media that is out there challenging the status quo. I had gotten very sick of mainstream media pushing mainstream agendas which included shame, violence, materialism, and separation. Solitude helped me focus on different media sources (YouTube, Udemy, Netflix, HBO Go) where I could select viewing material more to my liking. Besides exposing me to interesting stories, it helped me see how my world view changes when I take charge over what mind food I ingest.

EARTH SCHOOL

Whenever I am feeling particularly blue about certain life events, it helps me greatly to think of this time and place as Earth School. We are here to learn. The school paradigm works well for me because it focuses my mind on this premise: if [this situation] is part of a planned curriculum, what is the lesson? What is the gift?

I find this approach much more useful than blaming someone else for causing me misery. It helps me focus on solving the problem as if I were a university student being challenged to work my way through the professor’s obstacle course.

So far I have been approaching my current state of loneliness as an opportunity to find my real self, and I am starting to see good results. I am learning and growing.

My nemesis the phone

Phone PhobiaIn my quest to deal in a positive way with my current state of loneliness, the writing is on the wall. I need to deal with my nemesis — the phone.

By not being phone friendly, especially with people I do not know from personal encounters, I am cutting off a major source of social interaction. On more than one occasion I have been told variations on, “Well, duh, if you’re going to hide from talking on the phone, you cannot expect to make and maintain quality friendships.”

I do take some comfort in knowing that my sister dislikes the phone, too. Perhaps it is genetic, although it did not come from my late father’s genes. He liked to gab. He was the extrovert of the family. He would even talk to telemarketers, despite the fact that due to his poor 95 year-old hearing he could not understand half of what they were saying. “What? What? Would you repeat that? Please talk slower.”

UNRAVELING THE MYSTERY

It is not perfectly clear to me why I dislike talking on the phone so much. Here are some guesses:

If the connection is bad, and even if only one word in ten gets dropped, especially on cell phones, it takes extra concentration just to listen and comprehend the other person. Such concentration takes energy away from what could otherwise be used in actually conversing.

This is especially annoying when people start laughing after just saying something, and I have no clue what the punchline was. Even worse is when I am conversing with someone in the midst of an emotional crisis, and I cannot hear what’s going on.

While phones give wonderful feedback in the form of tone of voice, they do not provide visual body language. As someone who is sensitive to nonverbal cues, not having them is frustrating. The other person is equally handicapped, but they don’t have my programming

So yeah, there’s Skype or Facetime or whatever else. It’s not the same as being in person, but it’s better than the visual void.

Then I have to deal with another obstacle: sitting still. When I talk on the phone, I like to move. I can’t stay still any more than Robin Williams or Richard Pryor could deliver a passionate monologue sitting in a chair.

THE INTROVERT CARD

I am a card-carrying introvert. One common characteristic of many introverts is a difficulty dealing with small talk. Just not encoded in my DNA. Small talk is like having to sit through a hundred back-to-back TV commercials for prescription drugs. The 16th time in a row that I hear “Ask your doctor,” my brain becomes unhinged and I fire off sarcastic retorts about profiteering and mass hypnosis.

Small talk too often arms my brain’s detonator. I attempt to be polite and cordial, but my inner voice sometimes goes nuts. Then I have to deal with my inner critic who pokes its stick at me for being a judgmental bastard. You don’t want to mess with my inner critic!

I suspect that years of writer’s training shaped my inner guidance systems to go for the essence of life. I like to play with the big questions. Does life have a purpose? What happens after we die? How is your emotional life going? What makes you ecstatic? What do you struggle with in life? Big questions.

I used to sit down and watch DVD extras where actors, writers, and directors talked about the movie I just saw. Often these conversations would get my creative juices flowing. They often pondered big questions. They got into the guts of their emotions. This is what I wanted my normal life to look like.

I often ruminate on a cultural phenomenon of ours: you often have to pay huge sums of money to have deep, insightful conversations. You have to pay a therapist, an expert, a medium, a counselor, or a coach to go deeper than the thin veneer normal chit-chat allows. In these wired times, that conversation could be via the phone, creating a problem for this guy.

THE WRITER CARD

Being a writer probably has something else to do with it. I have been trained not to be boring. This doesn’t mean that I don’t bore the crap out of some people anyway, but it does mean that I nevertheless stress out when someone is waiting for me to say something brilliant.

When an introvert has nothing to say, it often means that s/he is thinking of too much to say. There are too many reply options. We’re the kind of people who are agog at cable TV shows that are rhetorical gunfights at the Not OK Corral. We see this display as more about grandstanding and showmanship than well-considered discourse or helpful problem-solving.

Ask an extrovert how they are, and many will quickly respond. “Great!”

If you are already questioning that last sentence, then you may be an introvert. You may think, “Why would an extrovert say ‘Great’ if s/he’s feeling shitty?” Over-thinking.

When a person asks me how I am, I first wonder how deep do they want my answer to go. Superficial, non-threatening politeness or deep end of the pool? Any unsafe topics I should avoid in my response? Any secrets I need to keep?

Extroverts are more accustomed to external processing — bouncing ideas off others and thinking out loud. Introverts like to issue fully processed thoughts as if they were press releases. We don’t like to have someone come back later and challenge us with “but you said…” So we like to make sure that we mean what we say, and that takes time and energy.

VOICES FROM THE PAST

At one point in my life, I had achieved some success as a national magazine writer, and that opened the doors for correspondence relationships in the pre-Internet days. One time I got a phone call from someone I had been writing to. After about five minutes, she sad, “I didn’t expect you to be so quiet.”

Which I heard as, “Man, you’re a loser at giving good phone.”

My writing personality is much stronger than my up close and personal personality with strangers. In writing I can organize my thoughts and shape each sentence. There is pacing and flow and the opportunity for precision. On the phone it’s all raw and unorganized. Sometimes when I listen to myself talk, I become majorly embarrassed at how inefficient I can be with words.

I become human. Gasp.

TURNING THE CORNER

I accept that beliefs shape my reality and that much of my phone resistance is due to the narrative I created for myself. Despite what I have written here, I do enjoy chatting with good friends on the phone. I just enjoy more getting out with them and having a full face-to-face experience.

I am not sure yet how I am going to change my mind so that I welcome phone conversations as much as I love something like hugging. Time will tell.

UM … HOLD THE PHONE

Just as I was about to push “publish,” I decided to google people who don’t like talking on the phone. I got some fascinating responses. For instance, there is this one. I’d neglected to mention the invasion factor of the telephone. The ring is an interruption. Stimulus, response. Often I am in the middle of writing when the ringing triggers an instant dilemma of answer or not.

And this one. Ha-ha.

And this one. It brings up another astute point: presence. Often today people in phone conversations are multi-tasking, such as becoming distracted on a website while they are talking and not talking on the phone. It’s also popular today for people to call during their drives or their walks, often not paying attention to key points of the conversation because their brain is otherwise occupied.

I was excited to know that I am in good company on this. Unfortunately. they wouldn’t want to talk about it on the phone.

Lonely or alone?

Lonely or Alone?If you have any experience in personal growth circles, you’ve probably encountered the idea that there is a difference between being lonely and being alone. It boils down to something close to this: loneliness is painful; aloneness is about solitude and is frequently quite desirable.

Both of these conditions fill up my life right now. I seem to be running in pretty equal measure between loneliness and aloneness.

I am living alone now. I do not have a romantic relationship. I have very few close friends. I have no established friendship community. This leads to some frightful periods of loneliness.

On the other hand, I also relish my alone time. The artistic side of me savors the freedom to explore without restrictions, explanations, interruptions, and compromises. It sometimes feels liberating to be so free.

THREE YEARS

I spent the better part of the last three years taking care of family business in another state. For much of that time I resided with and cared for my elderly father during the last years of his life.

When I was 650 miles away from home, I lost frequent contact with all but a few people in town.

Meanwhile, relationships change. Needs and wants change. Careers change. Three years turns out to be a long time.

When I returned home there was very little of my old life left to resume. It is time to rebuild.

A GREAT IRONY

As I thought about it, I became aware that nearly any situation I could find myself in would have pros and cons. This is the great irony. It’s a variation on greener pastures. We move toward one set of goals or circumstances to fulfill our hungers, and then another set of needs clamors for our attention.

For example, right now I have an over-abundance of lonely days. I can go several days without talking to anybody. I have a difficult time even thinking of places to go to find social stimulation or connection.

The loneliness I speak of — the loneliness I feel — is not just about companionship. It is missing out on sharing at depth with someone. I call these deep pool friendships. They can be platonic friendships or romantic pairings, and they involve deep feelings of trust, kinship, and affection.

I could go off the deep end with this and suffer in a full-fledged pity party. Yet I don’t. Why? I also know this to be true:

Socializing and especially romantic love take massive amounts of time and energy to sustain. If I were in a relationship or had a very active social life, I would most likely be craving my alone time. I would feel suffocated and possibly annoyed at all the compromises I felt obligated to make. While it may be a happily fulfilling relationship, I would nonetheless be missing creative alone time.

EVERYTHING COMES WITH A COST

This is my main point: It helps me greatly to be conscious of this principle, especially when I am feeling sorry for myself.

There are at least two sides to everything. To take one route means choosing not to take another route, at least for the time being. So rather than feeling devastated or abandoned or any of the other stories I could concoct about my loneliness, I should be mindful of the big picture.

I may still feel lonely, but knowing that it is a choice I make helps me get through the rough spots.

BIRTHDAY WISHES

On the occasion of my 66th birthday — sh-sh-sh, don’t tell anyone — I have decided that this following year will feature my quest to change this lonely state of affairs. Stay tuned as I explore this.

You only live once, eh?

You only live onceThe phrase and paradigm “you only live once” is slipped into the global conversation often enough. It frequently comes packaged with a message that, as they said in the beer commercial years ago, “you only go around once in this life, so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can.”

You only get one chance at life. You’ve gotta buy the right beer.

In this popular expression, living more than one life is not on the table. Reincarnation is not a topic open for discussion. Just buy the right beer.

People often meet my interest in near-death experiences and afterlife speculation with the retort that focusing on an afterlife means I won’t be paying appropriate attention to the precious now. Living for a great beyond is a waste of this life. (They also say this about devout Christians who live for their heavenly reward and as a result do not get engaged in life here and now.)

ENGAGING MORE

I maintain — at least for myself — that a belief in reincarnation and afterlife inspires me to engage more in life, not less.

I think about times I feel blue. In periods of sadness and emptiness, I think that yeah, I could be done with life on this planet. If I were struck down by lightning and vaporized, I could accept it. The previews of coming attractions for me don’t look too interesting.

At that point I’m living for potential that some wonderful event not currently on my radar will show up on the next page of my life’s script. Just you wait. Don’t give up!

If I really, truly thought that I only get one shot at life, I would probably be thinking during those shadowy periods that the ride was pretty much over. The roller coaster has arrived back in the station, and new thrill-seekers are eager to climb aboard.

The facts are in: I missed my opportunity to win an Oscar. I’m not going to die as a rich bastard with the enviable mansion. I am not even going to have a fulfilling career I can brag about. I may never fall in love again. I have no children to care about what their father thought.

Seriously, my world sometimes looks pretty sad and lonely when compared to the travel brochures of my imagination.

No, I am not suicidal, but when I am in a funk, my safety net is my belief that there’s more to life than you only live once. I think you only live once is more of a marketing strategy to motivate us to buy things, buy things, buy things. And buy them NOW before it’s too late, mate! It’s as if we’re prepped from childhood to live in scarcity consciousness. The gusto is elusive. Blink and it’s gone.

We’re taught that science says we only live once. Dead people won’t wake up anywhere. We don’t get a heaven. In a bizarre way, science seems to encourage suicide with its depressing insistence that this is all we get, followed by an existence as ashes and dust. You can’t take your Rolex and Ferrari with you, sorry. Spend your money now so some entrepreneur can put on a great dinner party with the profits.

For me, because I think science is lazy about investigating death, prematurely ending this existence could have a very ugly ripple effect on my cosmic future. That’s something they don’t talk about much in mainstream living.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Many near-death experiencers, psychic mediums, and even some religions insist that we have a life review in store (albeit exactly how those are described as conducted varies widely.) The prospect of answering for my life in some afterlife realm of existence keeps me in the game. Enough anecdotal reports say that I am accountable for my life.

Reincarnation supposes that we live our lives for a purpose. Each incarnation in Earth School adds to the body of knowledge and experience for the soul. Over the course of our multiple lives we incarnate in a wide variety of situations including different races, different ethnic/religious upbringings, different genders and sexual preferences, and so on.

All this raw data of multiple-life experience is sent to our soul. Every life is important to that soul. (Keep in mind that this is my fantasy of the cosmos; I don’t expect you to buy it.)

This view keeps me motivated. I like to think that my experience here is worth something to the collective. Even the shitty parts. My loneliness could mean something. My disgust with world politics could mean something. My relative lack of financial/career success could mean something. My heartbreak and disillusionment could mean something.

I could have been the brave essence that volunteered to be the me that I became, with all the good stuff and the bad stuff included as part of the package. The mistakes that I made could be part of the equation allowing another part of me in another time and space zone to make a different and ostensibly better choice.

I could be doing the grunt work so that another expression of my soul can live happily ever after (a future blog post: what does living happily ever after mean?) Hopefully, the consciousness that is me now will be able to viscerally experience what that paradise on earth feels like. Maybe there’s a great library in soul space.

The you in you only live once, I believe, is the brain, the ego, the life circumstance. So in that sense, I only live once. Anyone else that my soul incarnated as or will incarnate as had/gets a clean slate, a brand new brain, a whole new outlook on life from the experiences gained in that life.

DISCLAIMER

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I hate my life or that I feel as victimized as my prose might lead you to think. When I am in a funk, reincarnation is the thought ploy that I use to alter my mood. I tell myself to do the best that I can in the circumstances that engulf me. Maybe there is a point to it all.

There is also a point, I believe, to rally the inner troops and fight for the life that I want to lead. I am not taking a fatalistic view that karma or whatever runs my whole show. I still go after what I want. I still dream big. I am still grateful for what I have. I don’t suffer needlessly. When the fog of gloom lifts from whatever is bothering me, I take great joy basking in the bright skies of optimism, which is my usual hang-out.

For those more motivated by one life to live, remember this: You only go around once in this life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get.

Working through loneliness

Curing LonelinessSomeone wrote this in a public post:

I am more alone than anybody can possibly understand, unless they have been as alone as me. And I don’t know anybody else like this. I reach out — people don’t reply. I help people — they turn my acts against me. I volunteer — I’m expected to do triple what I volunteered for, and kicked out when I don’t. I love — I am ignored. I love — and people start expecting things from me.  I help people — I am alone. I love — I am alone. I reach out in friendship — I am alone. I’ve run out of things to do. I am alone.

I felt this person’s pain. I’ve had days like that.

When I feel lonely to the point of serious pain, I naturally want to end that feeling. I want it to stop. I want to replace the ugliness with something more inspiring.

I take out my toolbox of tips and techniques that I have used over the years, and I see what I can do.

One place I often look to for help is from the mass media. I look for a movie, TV show, book, or recordings that will help me shift my mood. If I don’t shift my mood from feeling unloved, abandoned, betrayed, and any of those things, it could mean many hours or even days on end of being stuck in the overwhelm of feeling inconsequential to the rest of humanity.

I have discovered that it is not always easy to find something emotionally healthy for massaging my mind set. I have to undertake a deliberate and focused search to find mentally and emotionally helpful material.

MOVIES ABOUT LONELINESS

Over the holidays I had a particularly tough time of it. I am currently taking care of my elderly father 650 miles away from my house and friends. On one day I ended up watching two movies about loneliness. Both were foreign films.

One was To Hell with the Ugly, a Spanish romantic comedy about the trials of a proverbial loser in love, a likeable but goofy character often the butt of jokes in the village where he lived. Of course this was the movies, so after an hour of so of watching our comic hero embarrass himself with awkward behavior and suffer the pain of rejection, a delightful love interest enters his world.

Feeling lonely when watching others win love, often despite insurmountable odds, does not always make me feel light and cheery. It sometimes cranks up my feelings of envy. I want that good fortune to happen to me.

The second film was Gloria, also Spanish, a drama about a middle-aged divorced mother of two hunting for a relationship that would bring her happiness and self-worth.  This film played heavily on the torment of loneliness. The man who stole her heart and gave her hope for a tremendous life turn-around turned out to be the proverbial high-risk tortured soul who would not leave his family despite already being divorced.

While the movie made a positive statement in the end about self-reliance, the journey was still filled with reminders that life sucks, particularly in the form of toxic middle-aged men. As a middle0-aged man, I did not find this comforting.

Later I saw Don Jon, the movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed, and starred in. Don was a youthful womanizer who hosted a steady stream of hotties in his bedroom, yet still found digital porn more satisfying. He was even unsatisfied by the hottest of the hotties. He is saved by an unconventional older woman who introduces intimacy to him in ways he never knew. She shows him that real life is better than porn.

While I applauded the messages behind the film, my perspective as a lonely man was that happiness for Don still depended on the luck of his finding the right friend or lover. If I were to play Follow the Leader to bliss, I would still need to find that special someone.

FLAVORS

Loneliness comes in different flavors. The most commonly depicted flavor in our couples-oriented world is romantic-erotic loneliness — living without a loving partner, especially when there are no prospects. Another flavor is dwelling within a relationship that has devolved into something far less than satisfying.

Another flavor is living in a world of thought that few others get, leaving you feeling alone like a pioneer in a vast wilderness, a stranger in a strange land. Another flavor is feeling abandoned or betrayed by someone (sometimes more than one) who seems entirely uninterested in your welfare. Another flavor is when something really bad happens and you find that you’re facing the bulk of it alone.

When I am in the thick of it, finding relief from loneliness seems especially challenging. It’s as if loneliness sucks up all my energy, and I have little strength left to put on that happy face. I generally accept the premise that my outer world is a reflection of my inner world, and that the best way to tackle problems is to start with me. What am I thinking? What am I creating?

THINGS I DO

Here are some techniques I use to deal with loneliness.

What is the lesson: When I feel stuck in painful loneliness, I often ask myself this: if I am a student in Earth School, what is this situation teaching me? What am I supposed to be learning? I follow that train of thought in my journal. I often think of my journal as praying in writing. I get some good answers as I describe my woes. I can often re-cast problems in a different light, and I can make headway in shifting my mood.

What do I want: Sometimes I have to acknowledge that feelings of loneliness are like smoke signals from my soul saying it’s not good to hang around waiting to be magically saved. I need to act. There’s a difference between let go and let God and God helps those who help themselves. So I focus on deciding what I want or what would soothe the ache. I was taught as a child to be happy with what I had and not to ask for things, so writing out what I want is still challenging.

Take it outside: I can feel loneliest cooped up inside a house (even when that house is connected to the world via the Internet.) To shift my mood, I take walks. Often I take my voice recorder along. Walking, and particularly walking in nature, is a great way for me to shift the mood that is hanging heavy like a fog on my outlook. (No it doesn’t always work, but it often helps.) Meanwhile, getting exercise is good for my health.

Through the lens: My own special secret weapon against loneliness is beauty. I take my camera out and look for beauty. Making beauty a deliberate quest fills my brain with something positive, and the photographic exercise often gets me back on track. There is so much beauty to be found when discovering it is my objective.

Uplifting media collection: Knowing that loneliness comes every now and then, I plan for its eventual arrival. I make sure to have handy uplifting media around. It could be audio or video programs, a positive book, or upbeat music, but not just escape media. I try to keep material around that will inspire me, teach me, or motivate me to get off my butt. I purposely exclude commercial TV, anything with ads, anything dreary.

Leaving the comfort zone: Sometimes climbing out of the rut or overcoming a challenge means climbing out of my comfort zone. I may have to push myself to go somewhere, to meet some people, to find something entirely new. If there is a spiritual or support group or class that fits the bill, I might check that out.

Change a paradigm: Sometimes the message brought by painful circumstances is that it’s time for me to change my thinking, my everyday habits. For instance, if loneliness is the result of me isolating myself in a cocoon, I need to break out of my self-imposed prison when and where it makes sense. I look for my guiding paradigms and make mid-course corrections to them.

Embracing loneliness: Treating loneliness as a growth opportunity is much different than thinking of it as a curse or punishment. Many of my favorite pursuits — writing, computer art, photography, reading — are solitary endeavors. When I am lonely, I remind myself of that. I can nudge myself from feeling rejected and dejected to feeling happy to make some art.

Nurturing friendships: I treasure my friendships and make it a priority to nurture those that are clearly mutual in value. An authentic friend who can be present with you in your pain as well as pleasure is one of life’s best blessings. If I ever take them for granted, I can hear the glug-glug-glug of my sinking joy.

I generally believe that loneliness in all its forms and consequences is a social problem — and one of the most underrated, unaddressed crises of our modern times. However, I also believe that its solutions start at home within each individual. We have to do our part to save our sanity.

Here is a previous article I wrote on loneliness. And this.

The love letter mirror

Love-LettersAll the world is a mirror for me. Whatever I see and react to mirrors something in my internal universe.

When I respond positively to something, I am seeing something that stimulates my internal universe in a positive way.

When I respond negatively to something, I am seeing something that does not fit into how I think the universe should be.

Despite the fact that I can make split-second decisions on what I like or dislike, it’s actually an amazingly complex procedure to describe.

For example, what do you think of Miley Cyrus? Rush Limbaugh? Barack Obama? Sarah Palin? No matter where you go in your thoughts with any of these people, you’re making all your judgments based on your internal universe and the data you have fed into it. Unless you know these people personally and intimately, you are getting all your data through filtered, mostly opinionated sources. You may make snap judgments on them without even thinking. It doesn’t matter whether they are heroic or demonic to you.

THEN THERE ARE LOVERS

In a more subtle way, my relationships with lovers over the years works similarly. What I see and experience in the external world is a reflection of my internal world.

Every time I interact with someone, I see mirror images of myself through that other person. This also includes all the people real or imagined who stimulate thoughts about love and sex. It could be the stranger across the room who doesn’t even see me or know me. It could be a fictional character in a novel or movie. All of the stimulation, good or bad, is really occurring inside my brain because that’s where everything gets interpreted.

So let’s say that I am gawking at somebody I find uber attractive. Really gawking. Thoroughly entranced with that person’s presence.

We are conditioned to think that it’s that other person who is so fabulously gorgeous (or whatever other quality you want to assign.) We are conditioned to think that the other person, by being so gorgeous, has power over us, as when we are bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. Many of us are conditioned to seek the approval of the people we see as gorgeous (or similarly attractive quality.) Our ultimate prize is to have them think we’re great.

THE BIG MIRROR

But here’s the thing: it’s not really that person! That person is holding up a psychological mirror for me. It’s me! It’s my brain chemistry. It’s my mental filtering system. It’s all subjective, and in that sense, it’s all imaginary.

Of course, our romantic traditions don’t conceive or portray it that way. Most depictions of romance show men and women swooning over someone. “You drive me crazy,” we’re conditioned to think. “You are so gorgeous!” “You make me feel so good.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

This phenomenon has become more intriguing to me as I age and can reflect on my life experience. I see more and more of my existence as symbolic interaction. Visions I pick up outside of me, whether a photo, movie, or something else my eyes see, stimulates an inner part of my psyche. Much of the time it has nothing to do with the actual person and everything to do with my internal life.

LOVE LETTERS TO MYSELF

The act of writing a love letter is usually thought of as an attempt to woo, persuade, enchant or in some other way influence another person. Many people write love letters out of the hope that they will get something back, be it adoration, a sensual reward, praise, or “winning” someone’s heart.

Yet apart from all that is the reality that in writing a love letter, the writer is primarily playing with his or her own inner universe. The writer is playing with symbolic interaction and conditioning. It’s often an ego thing. We sing the praises of someone outside of ourselves, having decided that winning that person’s heart or gaining that person’s approval would boost our life, our esteem, even our status.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

Have you ever been in love and lost? Have you ever felt that your life was ruined because someone you adore doesn’t feel the same way about you? Have you ever felt really lousy because you feel empty and alone? Have you ever spent your life in what seems like an endless quest to win someone’s approval?

I’ve been through all these situations. They and many more could be soothed quite dramatically if I just stepped back from the drama and realized that most of it was coming from my own head. It’s coming from my own programming and conditioning. The best way to get my power back when I am feeling way out of balance is to remember how much of my reality I am creating.

Emotions charge like speeding locomotives. It’s like a trance. So when I feel myself swept away in a strong surge of negative emotion, I intervene with my intellect. I’ll say to myself something like, “OK, what’s going on here? Why am I so creeped out/pissed off/dejected and lonely?” When I slow down enough from the emotional flood to think clearly, I will recognize it as a story I am telling myself.

It is said that the outside world mirrors our inside world. If we tell ourselves stories, the external world will attempt to conform to that story. We see what we expect to see. That’s why if we expect to be hurt or betrayed, our external world will bend to help make that happen. Then we can say, “I knew I’d be hurt.”

SYMBOLIC INTERACTION?

If we expect to be hurt, for example, everything we see will appear to be evidence supporting the premise. Everything external will have a symbolic meaning inside.

Jealous lovers often look to their partner’s words, deeds, and activities to see signs of wrong-doing. They’ll look for the slightest reason to blame their lover for being flirtatious or inattentive. The last thing they will do is blame themselves for creating the reality they fear and acknowledge that their suspicious nature colors their every thought.

No, this does not mean that if someone cheats on you, you caused it. But it is to say that we have more control over our reality than we are led to believe. People seem to be much happier when they look to what’s good and right in their lives. Feeling grateful for what you like is the best way to invite more of the same.

LOVE LETTERS TO PHOTOS

I like to play with my internal world. Sometimes I will see a photo of someone and I will become such an emotional softy from it that I want to write that person a mushy love letter. I may know the person but these days usually not. The love letter I want to write is based on the feelings and fantasies the photo brings up for me. The process of writing is my way of playing with those feelings. I am not attempting to make anything happen in real life outside of basking in the creative joy of letter writing.

It is also wonderful to know that when I do write love letters to people in photos, I am writing to an internal part of me that is reflected in the vision. It’s no different than if I were to write a love letter to a photo of a beautiful cloudscape or water scene. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea.

Dear Beautiful Cloud …