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Saving Ourselves and Democracy Itself

The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved." Mother Teresa

A couple of days ago we had dinner with a couple of friends. Not long into our time together, someone posed a question.

“Have you experienced a ‘dark night of the soul?’” We did not clarify what we meant. All seemed to know. The question took us to crises and challenges we had faced.

I learned that my friend's first wife had died in a tragic accident. I shared memories and feelings I have never expressed. Seeing, hearing, and valuing each other. How deeply satisfying.

After reading three recent newspaper articles – one about burnout and loneliness (New York Times, Oct 9), one about loneliness and how to make friendships (New York Times, Oct 1) and one scary article from the Toronto Globe & Mail (September 17) about loneliness fueling authoritarianism, the value of that dinner conversation struck me even more.

What’s the deal with burnout and loneliness? According to the Times interview with Dr. Curt Thompson, “burnout” is a euphemism. When people feel burned out, they don’t have any fuel left to do anything. And even though it seems like we’ve experienced a steep increase in burnout lately, it’s been a phenomenon long in the making.

Our modern emphasis on individualism and our belief that the good life has to do with getting and having stuff or achieving some goal has made us isolated from each other. We don’t reach out to each for help nor to connect in authentic ways.

Thompson believes that when we vulnerably tell our stories and are met with empathy…nobody trying to “fix us,” we begin to feel distinctly different. “It is not as lonely in that moment because you are with me. And I sense you sensing me. That’s a neural reality.”

Thompson claims that people come into his office sick and yet they have difficulty understanding that they need to change their lives. Giving people five things to fix their burnout won’t help. People don’t have the energy.

Thompson tells his patients to pick one or two people and see if they might be willing to get together once a week. Share their stories with each other. Talk about what’s been challenging and just be present with each other…no fixing, no advice.

People are reminded that we’ve been practicing this isolation and separation stuff for a long time. Generations. It’s going to take some time to reboot ourselves into a new way of living together.

Inevitably people will say they have no friends to call, but Thompson presses them. They admit that the real issue is that they are afraid to call. I get that. Telling ourselves that we have no friends is an excuse that keeps us from facing up to our lack of courage.

Thompson caringly gets in his patients’ faces and tells them, “You’re not going to stop calling people until you get somebody on the line. If you want your life to be different, you cannot continue to live your life the way you’ve been living it….I want you to go find friends that you [think you] don’t have and tell them, ‘we’re going to have a conversation like we’ve never had before.’’'

Dr. Marisa Franco is the other big news these days. She’s telling people how important friends are and how to get them because the United States (like a number of other countries) is in a loneliness epidemic.

Franco says one way to help ourselves get out there connecting with folks even though it may be nerve-racking is to assume that people will like us. Research supports that people generally do like us better than we think. There’s a liking gap between how much we think people will like us and how much they do. We assume we’ll be rejected.

Franco also advises joining a group that meets regularly. Rather than attending a book lecture, join a book club. The more we are exposed to each other, the less scary we become to each other.

People shouldn’t blame themselves if they feel they don’t have enough friends, Franco offers consolingly. It’s normal these days. People are “swimming upstream” against a current where community has been lost. We must be more intentional to turn things around.

One easy tip Franco shares is to send a text saying something simple like: “Hey we haven’t chatted for a while. I was just thinking about you. How are you?”

Now, here’s the biggest reason I have today for getting ourselves out the door or on the phone to connect with each other. The world situation. It is frightening.

The Toronto Globe & Mail carries the story about loneliness feeding authoritarianism. “To defend democracy and decency, we must build belonging” is the header.

According to Kim Samuel, founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness and Fulbright Canada ambassador for diversity and social connectedness, the world scene is dire.

It looks bad for democracy. Authoritarianism is on the rise. Though many issues contribute to this situation, Samuel says that “despots thrive on disconnection.” It’s not just about not being able to organize and discuss public issues. Rather it’s about a deeper issue of people becoming cynical and detached – handing over their power. Leaders in all sectors are urged to recognize social connectedness not just a priority, but a necessity.

But what to do...really...practically? Here’s one awesome and “wildly” effective idea that a psychiatrist started in Zimbabwe.

Older women were trained in evidence-based, brief, talk therapy. Patients sat with the women on park benches. It’s been called the “grandmothers’’ approach…’s been more effective than traditional therapy!

The Globe article ends this way: “Building a ‘We’ society isn’t only about building a more caring culture. It’s about saving democracy itself.”

I read this article while also listening to my husband talking on the phone to a young man. The young man counts John as his only friend. The man has suffered deeply from loneliness, shame, and depression.

John had texted the young man repeatedly before he finally texted back and eventually called. I could hear John (with simple, genuine concern, affection, and compassion - perhaps some similarities to the grandmother's approach) share an authentic conversation.

Good for John for persevering, good for the young man in being courageous, and thanks to both for a practical example of how we might take doable actions to build belonging and... save democracy.

Might it be worth taking our time to consider how to be more intentional with reaching out to each other, authentically sharing, and journeying together to the good life?


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