Life-saving Connection

by Rebecca Crichton

I recently had a mini-epiphany while reflecting on my long-held stories about the way I ‘should be.’ I realized I still held the belief that I ‘should’ be able to be more alone and quiet than I tend to be. I know this relates to a cluster of cultural ‘truths’ ingested while maturing. One is the belief that it is important to be self-sufficient and able to be alone and entertain oneself, not needing other people to be happy. Another is that I am too ‘busy,’ the catch-all phrase that implies I do things just to fill time.

We still give similar messages to kids, encouraging them to play independently, tapping into their own imaginations. Societally, we value those who have singular focus, are able to practice and learn on their own – musicians, artists, athletes in individual sports.

While not denying the value of independence and self-sufficiency, it is one side of what we know about human development. When I employ a cross-cultural lens, I recognize those expectations as our dominant Western European approach. Other cultures value community, collaboration, and shared learning for successful and meaningful lives.

You are probably familiar with the statistics related to the issue of isolation for elders:

According to the National Institute on Aging the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation and loneliness have even been estimated to shorten a person’s life span by as many as 15 years. People who are socially isolated or lonely (SI/L) are more likely to be admitted to nursing homes and the emergency room. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, people who are SI/L may get too little exercise and often don’t sleep well, which can increase the risk of stroke (by 32%), heart disease (by 29%), mental health disorders (by 26%) and premature mortality (by 26%), as well as other serious conditions.

The article distinguishes between social isolation and loneliness, often used interchangeably.

Social isolation is the lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly. An individual can live alone and not feel lonely or socially isolated, just as someone can feel lonely while being with other people.

Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact.

As a single person who has lived without a partner for most of my adulthood, I learned a long time ago that I had to create the life I wanted for myself. I discovered that if I waited for others to reach out to me with plans for getting together, I might be waiting a long time. I had to accept that nobody else was going to make my life happen for me.

Not only that, but I had to stop thinking my ‘real life’ was going to happen when I reached certain goals – the perfect weight, the right partner, a job that satisfied me. The life I had was in the present and would unfold related to my decisions and behaviors and beliefs.

I often say that I don’t think people are meant to live by themselves. Most research confirms that basic concept. We are social beings who need regular connection with each other. Being with other people, even briefly and superficially, is better for us than not being with others. We need to remember how to ‘play well with others,’ that early assessment we apply to young children.

I qualify as an Extrovert on the Meyers-Briggs personality assessment tool. That means I energize externally – I respond to what I read and see, who I interact with, what I do in the world. I can be with more people, more often, and for longer times than Introverts. However, as I age, I have less bandwidth for too much interaction. I drain my battery if I do too much with too many folks.

I joke that my brain closes down and I feel ‘stupid’ when too much is going on. Someone told me that when we are stressed or tired, we actually lose points in our IQ. Not sure that is true, but it definitely feels that way.

A 20-minute nap is usually all I need to recharge and return to whatever is on my agenda. We know naps, or just resting, are good for us, although I still have to give myself permission to slow down and rest.

We each have to find the right mixture of social and solitary — engaging in activities or being quietly receptive to what we need in the moment.

A colleague offered a different metaphor for achieving ‘balance’ in her life — “I want Harmony among the various elements that make my life meaningful.” As someone who sings in a choir, I like the changed perspective. What happens when different voices create the full intention of a particular piece is far better than what I could do as a soloist. I love ‘leaning into’ the harmonies we create. I can hear myself and others and am moved by the blending, cooperation, and sweetness of the many parts.

What harmony do you want to create in your life? Playing well together is definitely a goal worth pursuing.