“Loneliness” by Board Member Miriam Peterson

Since I’m on the Women’s Information Network’s board, I get immersed in the various public health topics that we work to deliver.  Currently that topic is loneliness.  And as I considered how we might formulate a genuine, insightful seminar on loneliness that would reach those who would benefit most, I thought about how many kinds of life events that precipitate loneliness.

There is loneliness after the loss of a significant other, which can happen at any age and for many different reasons from divorce to death to living apart for school or work.  There is loneliness due to illness or age or a disability that isolates.

Then I thought about my own loneliness.  I feel lonely because I seem to have lost who I am, my identity.  I am lonely for my ‘lost self.” I am now in my 70’s, retired from a demanding career in management.  When I was working I knew who I was.  Now I’m not sure.  I have many titles: wife, mother, grandmother, aunt and friend – but those titles tell me who I am to others – not who I am to myself.

When I ask myself who are you NOW, I cannot answer the question.  I struggle with my identity. I’ve tried sorting myself out by defining what I like to do.  Is what I like to do – ultimately who I am? I’ve also made a list of what I don’t like (which seems to be the longer list!)  Perhaps this situation I’m in resonates with you too.  Most women spend a lifetime involved to the hilt in other people’s lives and then suddenly (or it at least it feels sudden), there we are, empty nest, grey hair and glasses staring back at us from the bathroom mirror.  I find that I must recover a sense of self, or create a new one.

Every time I go by a cemetery these days I think about buried treasure – all the creative things – treasures – that they never did or made, got buried with them.  Buried treasure.  Have I not been paying attention?  Is there some passionate interest in myself, some creative child in me that I have censored or discouraged?  It will take courage to go back to the childlike pattern of learning.  It’s like learning to walk – stumble, fall, crawl awhile, try again.  Failure goes against the grain of my ego.   The watercolor I did looks foolish.  I made a stain glass window but had cuts on every finger for weeks (and my soldering was shabby).  I wrote a novel but my fame as a novelist didn’t catch on.  Is it time to try again?

The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight.  The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.  I went on a walk just now, around the pasture with my husband.  Beautiful October day – perfect actually.  I paid attention. I saw possibilities everywhere.  There were creatures so tiny I couldn’t even see them that had built a maze of tiny cobwebs so intricate NASA scientist could stand to learn something from them.  I went to my compost pile and raked back the pine straw covering.  Nature had turned coffee grounds, bell pepper trimmings and a hundred other stinky things into the richest, blackest dirt I have ever seen!  Amazing.  If tiny brainless creatures can do that – I am virtually unlimited!

I went back and looked in the mirror.  I decided that today, my identity is observer.  I am paying attention.  Tomorrow who knows?  My plan is simple.  Develop interests in life as I see it, in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people.  In other words, I plan to forget myself.

I hope you will plan to join us in February as we continue the discussion on loneliness and look at it honestly from all sides.

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