Alone in Chicago

On Thursday evening I made my way to an event called The Anatomy of Connection at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The focus of the discussion was on the lack of connection and the epidemic that is loneliness as we become ever more connected via the devices in our hands (or pockets or purses or on the table… whatever – stop nitpicking).

Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of mortality than air pollution, drinking, and obesity. In one of the longest longitudinal studies of health and wellness, loneliness at age 50 had a higher predictive power of death than high cholesterol. It can suppress our immune systems, lead to depression and anxiety, and in severe cases, suicide. It’s such a problem that the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Here in Chicago, a researcher had morning commuters do one of three things: engage the people around them in conversation, specifically avoid conversation with the people around them, and just go about their business as they would normally. At the beginning of the study, everybody who was tasked with talking to people thought, “Ugh, I’m gonna hate this!” By the end, those folks reported the highest amounts of happiness as compared to their counterparts.

The problem is that we all assume nobody wants to talk to us, so we don’t engage. We isolate ourselves in order to self preserve, then our empathy decreases as our defensiveness increases, and we start interpreting ambiguous social cues as negative. Moreover, it can be contagious as we all collectively avoid each other out of fear that we’ll get a weird look for saying hello or asking how someone’s doing today.

I know I’m guilty of this. I am a commuter in Chicago, and I certainly wouldn’t say I go out of my way to strike up conversations with people. I wouldn’t even say I go in my way to converse, given that folks are often pressed right up against me on crowded buses or trains. So, then what? Are we all just doomed to a life of self-perpetuating loneliness? Not if we put in the fucking effort!

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of A Road Less Traveled, said that “mental health is dedication to reality at all costs.” The therapist giving the presentation noted that we have to practice what he called, “radical acceptance.” We don’t have to approve of our state of loneliness, but we have to accept that things just aren’t right in order to go about fixing any of them.

I lost my phone a couple weeks ago, and I just haven’t replaced it. There are financial reasons involved, sure, but honestly I just don’t want a phone. I find my quality of life to be higher right now. Sure, there are parts of my day where I wish I could call an Uber or text a friend right when a thought comes up, but do you know what I do? I write that shit down, I take that note home via public transit, and I reach out when I get there.

As a result of my phonelessness, I’m more connected to the situations I’m in. I’m not constantly wondering how many Instagram followers I’ve gained in the last ten minutes since my post, I’m not wondering about any event updates for that thing coming up this weekend, I’m not fretting over an unexpected phone call (most of which I just let go to voicemail even when I do have the phone). It’s relaxing. As evidence of how fucked up I was as a result of having my phone in my pocket all the time, I occasionally think I feel my notepad buzzing in my pocket. Guess what? It is not.

On Thursday night, I walked away by myself, but in my heart, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I think more of us are lonely than we’re willing to acknowledge (or accept to stick with the vernacular). So do me a favor, if you see me on a train or on a bus or in an airport, say hi (and buy me a drink if we’re at the airport, as I’m likely at the bar). Talk to me about your day, and I’ll talk to you about mine. Wake me up from the dream state proliferated by the screen in front of my face or by the endless stream of what-if’s I’ve got running in my head. We can do this. Together.

We’re all gonna die someday, but if we chat about it with a little more frequency, we lower our chances that that day is tomorrow. Sláinte!

Sitting and Breathing: Day 19

I didn’t want to do the meditation thing today. I mean… I did it, but I didn’t want to. I woke up and watched that new movie on Brexit, went to FedEx to get new passport photos and print out some stuff that needed signing, and get my dog some food. Then I watched the bus – not more than 30 feet from me – roll away from my stop right when traffic cleared enough for me to cross the street.

“FUCK!” I yelled as I hefted the 33lb bag of dog food higher onto my shoulder. I conceded defeat and called a Lyft.

See? Now I’m avoiding talking about meditation by telling you about my day. Today was Thinking Meditation, which has a simple premise – acknowledge that you’re having thoughts and that those thoughts don’t make you who you are. Let them come and go like visitors. Well, I wasn’t too interested in any visitors today, but I sat down and breathed for a while about it anyway.

The other night I had a small gathering at my house, and I essentially unwittingly connected a person whom I am interested in with another of my friends by inviting them both to the same place. Then I invited everyone back to my apartment, and by doing that I handed them a space to hook up in. I fell asleep briefly on my couch, and when I woke up to move to my bed, I had to kick them out of my room.

I don’t harbor any animosity toward either of them – we’re all adults and we all like to party. I wasn’t, however, entirely okay with it either. I’d been avoiding putting any direct light on it in my mind, and I knew that today’s meditation practice would undoubtedly settle on the subject. Sometimes being right is annoying.

It was necessary that I do this today (both the meditating and the writing about it). I needed to show myself that I could stick to this, and I also needed some concentrated time to process my feelings on the matter.

I’m left feeling like the partying lifestyle is no longer one I’m terribly interested in pursuing. That’s not to say that I’ll shun partying going forward, necessarily, but I don’t feel as drawn to it as I once did. Each time I engage in some partying, I’m left with a feeling of remorse. I wish I hadn’t spent the money I did, I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on meaningless conversations that nobody remembers the next day, and I wish I hadn’t set myself up for hurting yet again.

Additionally, I feel like I’m trying to combat loneliness with these social interactions, and they’re only making it worse. Clearly, I’m a social being and it’s necessary to foster relationships with people, but I feel like I’m being selfish by getting close to people here because I know I’ll just be leaving next January. I’m not sure where the happy medium is there, but it’s something I’ll be putting some serious thought into going forward.

I don’t feel like rereading this, so sorry if there are typos or whatever. I’ll be back with more sitting and breathing tomorrow. Cheers.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 15

I can’t say I was pumped to start today’s meditation, titled Meditation On Calling Up Negative Emotion (doesn’t exactly “call up” a lot of enthusiasm, right?). After procrastinating in the form of the Ted Bundy documentary out on Netflix, I finally sat myself down, reread the instructions about three or four times so I was doing the right things in what I imagined would be turbulent waters, and dove in (or sat, rather).

Per the instructions, I spent the vast majority of the time trying to conjure up emotions by examining my memories of the recent and distant past, and replaying those scenes in my head to try and illicit an emotional response.

My dog being a dick on our walks? Well he was just nervous and excited. The recent passing of my grandmother? Well she lived a long, happy life, and she knew I loved her very much. My personal and professional failures? Well I was young and I feel like I’ve learned a lot since then. My meditative practice over the last two weeks had me shooting myself in the foot today. Each time I put myself in a time and a place where emotions ran high, my mind quickly followed it up with a rationalizations, justifications, or explanations of circumstances. To put it differently, I wasn’t feeling anything.

FEEL SOMETHING – ANYTHING – GODDAMMIT! I heard my inner voice screaming.

Finally, I got angry with myself for not being able to do this right, and I pounded my fists on my thighs and exhaled violently. That break in my physical composure (up to that point, I had been sitting with [nearly] perfect meditative posture and stillness) was enough to let the emotion itself run through my body. My shoulders tensed, my brow furrowed, I clenched every muscle in my body as hard as I possibly could. Rage ran freely inside of me, then I was exhausted by the effort, and allowed a moment to refocus on my breath and come back to center.

My back straightened, and after some doing, I was able to relax all of my muscles throughout my body and face. Huzzah! I thought to myself. I gave myself a little mental pat on the back, then focused on my breathing again. If it worked with anger, maybe it’d work with another emotion. I gave it a shot with sadness, but I got nothing. So I reworded it as loneliness, and that struck a nerve.

I felt my insides hollow out as I repeated the word to myself. I imagined the loving embraces I’ve experienced in my life, and thought about how long it’s been since I’ve had that, and how nice it would feel. There’s a sweetness to that sadness, in that it’s centered around a beautiful memory and a warmth that aren’t present in that moment. I felt exhausted again, and I let my head droop down. One single tear streamed down my right cheek (like in a fuckin’ movie), and I brought myself back to center.

I finished my meditation just focused on my breath. I felt lighter than when I started – more airy. Also thirsty. Tomorrow will be positive emotions. I’m excited to see if I will have similar difficulties tomorrow.