He told me, “Sometimes I just feel so lonely. Lost, in fact. Where did my friends go? I guess I just let work and family take up so much space that I’ve ended up feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I miss that I don’t have a universe of close men in my life. The worst part is feeling myself stuck in solitude as I try to navigate this place I’ve never been before.”
I could plug in the names or faces of hundreds of clients into that vignette. Men and women. A parent has just died or a child’s gone off to college. A divorce has left her stunned and reeling or he’s just found evidence of a child’s drug use that has escalated. A sudden diagnosis with a prognosis that feels unspeakable. Or relief that it was a false positive. A “downsizing” that came from out of the blue or the successful sale of his company. Word that the bonus he was counting on won’t happen or that it did, but there’s no one to really celebrate it with. We all need someone to walk with us as we carry the joys and burdens of our lives.
One of the early exercises I do with each new client is to ask them to take a simple inventory of the current state of their life. A circle like a pie, divided into 8 slices. A snapshot of how full each slice of life presently is … work, wealth, health, family, fun, romance, friendship and meaning. You can do it now, yourself, on the back of a napkin or a piece of scrap paper. No one else needs to see it. Shade each slice to represent how full it feels for you. What do you see?
Friendship is often the place that has slipped for many of us. It makes sense that the demands of life have pulled our attention into other arenas. We can be so busy working and caring for our young families and climbing the ladder, just getting through the grind, that we look up and somehow we are alone.
I was on the massage table yesterday. I’ve seen the same massage therapist for years. We’ve walked through divorces, disappointments and injuries together – his and mine. It’s an interesting somewhat faceless intimacy that has developed between us. Sometimes I’m the one who talks through the massage. Sometimes he is. Sometimes we’re so busy laughing about some ridiculous thing that we both end up coughing.
He worked out the knots in my back as I processed the betrayal of old friends who had lied about the sale of a house to me. I’ve heard his pain when his ex-wife took his kids away on his birthday.
Yesterday we spent the ninety minutes meandering through updates about my vacation and his daughter’s upcoming birthday party. But, I heard something in his voice, something hollow. No, that’s not the right word. It was, perhaps, jagged. Like I thought he might cry. I asked. He said, yes, he felt like it was right there. He’d been watching sad movies trying to see if he could break it loose. No dice. I was worried.
He sounded like a client I’ve been working with whose father died recently, the one who has been so lonely.
I asked gently about whether he was spending time with friends. He said, no, he’d lost track of most everyone while he was trying to rebuild his life from the divorce and was sure none of them wanted to hear about this latest pain. He was sure he’d worn out his right to just say, “I’m lonely and I need some company.” Besides, dudes don’t cry with each other. They don’t hug each other. He said “I just want to hear my dad or a friend say ‘It’s gonna be alright, pal. I’m right here with you.’”
Last week I was lucky enough to have lunch with another coach and we were talking about the unique thing that happens when we are willing to drop into the quiet space of caring for another person. How that intense poverty of loneliness can emerge in other people. Sometimes, when we are willing to meet it with kindness and a simple act of quiet care, it can heal – even, just a little.
I am always struck by how much a small act can impact that loneliness – the common human condition – that we are each holding, as if we are the only one, as if no one else could or would step into it with us.
I came across a funny little YouTube clip of this Mentos commercial. In it, children “mentor” adults (via an earpiece) to make conversation with a stranger, something most adults would rather avoid at all costs. It’s adorable and restores the simple humanity to both parties. Really, watch it, right now and come back. I’ll wait.
While the kids have adults ask cheeky questions like “Can I tell you a story?” and say things like “I like your hair.” What’s more amazing is to watch faces relax and bodies return to ease.
Admittedly, I’m a little bit of a social experiment myself, but for years I’ve made it my business to ask the names of people who serve me – the busboy who fills my water glass, the housekeeper who makes up my room – and to look them in the eye, to greet them by name as I thank them for doing the simple service that eases my day.
Sadly, sometimes, they look afraid when I ask their name – as if they are in trouble and are going to be reported for failing at their job. Sometimes they ask, “Why?” I meet their frightened eyes and tell them gently that I appreciate them, what they are doing, and extend my hand to say, “I’m Denise.” Almost always, they grin, their faces relax and they shake my hand. Sometimes shyly, sometimes vigorously. But, their bodies change. They are seen. Not spotted, but seen – acknowledged, appreciated. A small slice of humanity restored. For us both.
As the busboy fills my water glass, I catch his eye and say “Thank You, Daniel.” When I pass her in the hallway, I say to the housekeeper, “Thank you for making my stay so lovely, Ariella.” The groundskeepers in my community I know by name and sometimes stop just to tell them that I appreciate the way they care for the grounds and how the new flowers they planted make my home so colorful.” Over time, I often choose to learn about their families, their histories, their dreams. It makes my life full.
In the handful of restaurants I frequent, I know the servers, the managers, they sometimes come and sit at my table for a moment or two when I am dining alone. They ask about my life, they tell me they missed seeing me, I hear about their children, their lives. Not because they want something from me or because I want something from them – just simply because caring builds my sense of connection in the world and eases my existential sense of aloneness. I do it whether I will frequent that restaurant or hotel again or not. It brings my life and the people who are in it into focus.
What must it be like to work invisibly, to be in plain sight and yet ignored? Do you feel alone? Do you wonder if you matter?
It is amazing to me just how simply we can ease that sense of being alone. Yes, close friends matter. It is important to cultivate those friendships. Like any living thing, they need attention, care, to be watered and nurtured.
Perhaps you have drifted away from those friends. Your lives have taken other paths, you’re all busy. But, it is an act you can cultivate. With a simple smile, a simple greeting delivered with eye contact. With a phone call, a coffee, not with an email or a social media post or a like. You really do have permission to care and to both give and receive that care all around you.
A while ago, I started carrying with me some small inexpensive glass hearts. I read a column about it and decided I would give it a try. I find one person each day to offer the heart to. I make eye contact, say “You have the most beautiful shining heart. I can feel it just standing next to you. This is for you.” And I hand them the heart – men and women.
I didn’t think of this, I read about it, and it touched me. What I’ve seen over time is that it can impact others in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It is a tiny token, a moment of feeling seen in their goodness.
Often my gesture is met with tears or an ask for a hug. It has changed me.
A client recently told me that he had decided to pull back from mentoring his team so much because he learned that their efforts weren’t going to be calculated into his bonus. He wondered why he should bother to invest time in their growth if it wasn’t going to count in his favor. I asked him to take on this task, to carry the hearts, to find one person each day to offer one to. To let his intuition guide him as to who. Can you guess what shifted for him? What could shift for you?
Yes, our work is important. Yes, working hard matters. Say yes, to allowing yourself to care. In fact, give yourself permission to care. Right now. We need you. We need it. You need it. More than you will ever know.