Surrounded in the Crowd . . . Yet Alone
One early Wednesday morning, I went to the local souk. There were so many people, so much noise, so much bustling activity. My head was spinning out of orbit as I pushed my way through crowds of djellabas, runaway children, hopeless beggars, and wandering chickens.
I needed to get to the fruit stand, the one with my favorite vendor, to buy those clementines that my children loved. What was the Arabic word for clementines again? I guess that I can just point to them. Oh my, I can only count to ten! What if the price is more than ten, and I can’t understand the seller?
The lady in front of me just paid for her apples. She didn’t struggle at the market, why did I have to? The vendor wouldn’t even make eye contact with me, and the young boy carrying my fruit and veggies on his wooden cart only cared about getting a satisfying “foreign-size” tip at my car door.
I was hot, thirsty, dusty, and sweaty . . . probably stinky too. I walked back to my car with the boy and his cart, tipped him generously, and sat behind the wheel of my car. I felt so lonely, so disconnected from all these people. I lived among them and cared for them, but I didn’t really “know” any of them. They didn’t really “know” me.
Later that day, I decided to spend the afternoon on the sandy beach across from my house. With a book in hand, sitting on a beach chair under an umbrella, I looked around. There were people everywhere, women swimming with their children in the water and men playing soccer on the sand.
There was noise everywhere, people talking and having fun. Yet, I felt empty inside, with a deep ache in the pit of my stomach.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “loneliness?” Do you think of the man shipwrecked on a desert island, lost and desolate? Or the single woman or widower who still longs for that lifetime companion? These are the most obvious images that our minds paint upon hearing the word “loneliness” or “isolation.”
But what about the woman who is surrounded . . . yet alone . . . in the marketplace crowd? Or the married couple who has grown distant and disconnected from each other over the years? Or the “Third Culture Kid” who just can’t seem to fit in and make friends at school in his host country?
Loneliness can be found in the hearts and souls of men and women around the world, in all contexts and in all seasons of life. It hits the young and old, married and single, urban-dwelling and those living in remote villages. It is much more common than we may realize, with most people experiencing these feelings of disconnection and isolation at some point in their lives.
Loneliness is “a deep sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of control, and personal threat,” says John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. Loneliness causes stress, anxiety, anger, aggression . . . and even real pain, acting on the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
I have personally felt the ache of loneliness many times in my life . . . especially when arriving in a new land to settle . . . or when I return to visit friends and family in my native-born country. At these times, we can suddenly find ourselves in a completely different context from the place we typically call “home,” bombarded by multiple facets of loneliness.
Here is some of my own journey . . . facing several “Types of Loneliness” (Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project) along the way. Perhaps you can reflect and identify some of these in your own story.
New Situation Loneliness
The “New-Situation Loneliness” stares us in the face when we don’t know the language, the culture, and the people in our new country. Everything is new! We find ourselves a new city with new faces, new stores, new foods, new work roles and identities for us, and new schools and friends for our kids.
We don’t know anyone. We don’t know how to get anywhere, and we certainly can’t find anything in the local grocery stores!
We look around. Everyone else seems to know what they were doing. Everyone else seems to feel comfortable and “at home.” We, on the other hand, feel completely lost, and it feels terribly lonely. We aren’t physically alone. There are people everywhere around us. It’s strange. We are surrounded . . . yet alone.
I’m Different Loneliness
We also feel (and see!) the “I’m Different Loneliness” big time when living as foreigners abroad. It doesn’t matter how long we live in a foreign country or how well we know the culture and language, we forever remain “different” from the nationals who host us in their land.
We will never be a complete “insider.” We will never fully look like them, talk like them, feel like them, or think like them. We will always be different.
This “I’m Different Loneliness” can also hit us when we return to our “home” land for holidays and times of rest. We can feel like “fish out of water.”
It’s strange, because we actually carry the same passports as everyone else and speak the same language. We are native born! We look and sound like we belong in this country, our “home” land, but we don’t feel like we fit in and belong.
Our way of thinking and seeing the world just isn’t the same as the people we are rubbing shoulders with . . . both in our host countries and our home countries.
No one seems to fully understand us. Our lives seem worlds apart. Sometimes, people even seem intimidated by us, because they can’t relate to us. Will we ever fit in? We feel completely disconnected, and it feels terribly lonely. Once again, we are surrounded . . . yet alone.
When we first arrive in a foreign land, we don’t have deep friendships. We don’t know anyone, and frankly, we aren’t sure if we even want to take the time and effort to develop friendships and build trust with people to whom we may have to say goodbye in the future.
Our kids feel the same way. It feels like too much work, and constant goodbyes are too hard and painful.
If, and when, we do start trying to build friendships, the language and cultural barriers between us seem to keep us from moving to a deep heart level. It’s lonely. We are surrounded . . . yet alone.
What do we do with our loneliness?
Knowing about loneliness and recognizing the accompanying feelings isn’t enough. What do we actually do with the heavy burden of loneliness and isolation that we carry? How and where can we find genuine connection with people that can fill the deep void within us? Stay tuned for more articles about how to combat our loneliness.
Maybe one of See Beyond's services can help you to find someone to connect with on a deeper level in a specific area of need?
If there are areas in your life that you can’t imagine talking to anyone else about, then counseling might be just what you need. Coaching, on the other hand, is a great way to build a relationship with someone who becomes a “thought partner” to help move you forward.