Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Legacy of Loneliness

My father was the only child of a rather reserved house painter and a chronically depressed nurse. During the Depression, he mother would drive from their small town in central Massachusetts into Boston and work all week at Massachusetts General Hospital, leaving her young son and her husband to fend for themselves in a very stoic environment. His childhood was, from what I have gathered, intensely lonely and that colored his ability to relate to people for the rest of his life.

He came by that loneliness honestly, perhaps. His mother suffered much the same fate. She was an only child as well, the daughter of a Standard Oil executive from Ohio and a younger woman from the Deep South. Her parents's divorce circa 1903 when she was around 5 years old was a devastating blow and changed the course of her life. She spent six months with each parent. As an adult she refused to visit the South.

My mother was an only child as well and I heard from her how badly she longed for siblings her entire life. Beneath the backdrop of her Depression era childhood was the constant theme of loneliness.

I have always been against the idea of only children for this very reason, having seen my own parents suffer so much. Yet you don't have to be an only child to struggle with loneliness.

If I am totally honest, I would have to say that a common thread throughout my childhood, especially into my teen years, was loneliness. Perhaps that is what comes from being the youngest. The one who is left out and left behind when the others have moved on with their lives.

Yet I have a daughter who struggles terribly with loneliness. She isn't an only child. She, like me, has three siblings, but she is not the youngest. Yet she can feel that loneliness with the same intensity.

It left me wondering....can loneliness be inherited? And I looked it up and found articles that say that indeed it can. Depending on who you read and what study it can vary in terms of what percentage of loneliness is genetic vs. environmental but studies show that there is indeed a genetic predisposition to loneliness. In effect, your genes may help determine if you interpret your circumstances as lonely or not.

I find this in some way comforting, like it isn't all in my head. I'm not imagining it.

Now, from what I've seen, all the studies have been on people 50 or older and my primary loneliness was in childhood, though I can certainly experience intense bouts of it still today. The studies talk about how, because loneliness is so dangerous...a strong a predictor of early death as obesity or smoking...people need to learn to read the cues and find ways to address loneliness in healthy ways, the same as we would address health concerns. I think it is so important to take loneliness seriously. Treat it like high cholesterol or high blood pressure or diabetes.

What makes us lonely? What keeps us lonely? How can we learn to reach out to each other in our loneliness?

And for kids? Kids have so few resources. How can we love and care for and teach kids to let us know when they are lonely? How can we be a community that wipes out loneliness?

These are just some thoughts. I would love to hear your ideas. 



1 comment:

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