Viral loneliness and why community matters, or Check in on your peeps

Last night was a rough night for me, as I found myself unable to sleep and in tears at 3 a.m.—as I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness. I can’t say that true loneliness is a feeling that I have much familiarity with. The only time that I have ever experienced anywhere near this type of loneliness was in the last years of my marriage. When it became clear that love alone would never be enough; that there was a fundamental disconnect in our union, which love and therapy would never repair.

In that case, I was not physically alone, but I was emotionally alone and in angst, and when it became too much, we ended our marriage and reconfigured ourselves to be dear friends and co-parents.

It was a painful stretch of years, as we deconstructed 20 years of our lives. But in the last five years, while I have remained unpartnered aside from the occasional fling or situation, the loneliness that took root in my soul during the last years of my marriage dissipated as I embarked upon the journey of rebuilding myself and my life at middle age.

Until COVID-19 shut down the world, I lived a life that was full. At times, it was too full, as I juggled the reality of co-parenting and traveling half the month for work. In recent months I was even seriously considering dating, as I realized that after five years I was ready to consider more than a fling and open to the possibility of settling down again—if the right person should appear.

Of course, being so busy, the timing never worked out, since finding a partner requires having time to spend with another person. Prior to the middle of March and shutting down my Boston office and then watching more than half the world shut down, time was a precious commodity that I never had enough of.

Now, I am 35 days into physical distancing and time is all I have. My days are nights and my nights are days. I am fortunate enough to still have a job, which has become even more intense as the reality settles in that my job is now to run an organization from my home. An organization that is physically based in another state and for which we need to move all of our programming to digital platforms to keep the staff employed and paid.

My work life is still full and then there is the reality of overseeing my daughter’s schooling via remote learning. Let me just say, if I had my way, schools would just call it a wrap and shut down for the remainder of the year. Remote learning isn’t home schooling, but it requires parental involvement—during the same hours that technically I am supposed to be working. Except now, I am the home IT person, lunch lady and overall support person. Thankfully this duty is shared with my co-parent, so we are both able to catch a break whenever the teen is at the other parent’s house. That said, it is a lot to manage.

All of this would probably be OK, if there were moments for gathering with friends, sharing a tea, a coffee or a glass of wine, along with a hug. But as we all know, we cannot see our friends and loved ones like that now—at least not safely. So we are carrying heavier loads than ever, as our homes have been transformed into offices, school rooms, rec centers and everything in between. It is a heavy burden whether partnered, single or somewhere in-between.

The absolute cruelty of this virus is that we must be cut off from our human connections at a time when connection is vital. While many of us are connecting via Zoom, FaceTime, social media or the old-fashioned phone, my own experience is that it all falls short. Those of us who are still working are spending untold hours meeting via Zoom, thus being “Zoomed out” has become a real thing. The paradox being that we miss our loved ones but we are overwhelmed, which increasingly leaves little time to connect, despite the fact that we are all just at home.

Yet the loneliness of being at home, day and night except for trips to the grocery store and a fresh air break, isn’t healthy. As time goes on, I do wonder about the impact on our collective mental health.

In the early weeks, I noticed a lot more reaching out, but as the new reality settles in, I find the check-in calls and messages are dwindling. I know that when I have reached out to others, if they aren’t one of my single friends, I feel like I am imposing. My fellow singles thank me for reaching out and, as a friend told me, “It makes me feel like I still matter.”

I consider myself to be a relatively emotionally healthy person and even I can feel this weighing on me, hence my late-night cry. In this moment, as we fight to stay physically healthy for ourselves and others, it is equally important to tend to our emotional and mental gardens.

American culture, with its roots in whiteness, has always focused on the individual, with kudos being given to those who are proficient in “rugged individualism.” It strikes me though that if we are to emerge from this pandemic alive and well, we will need to focus on the greater collective. That means for those with the bandwidth to spare, reach out to friends, even the ones you assume are fine and check in on them. No need for a two-hour call every time, but a simple text can make all the difference in the world. Especially if you know that someone might be struggling, either overwhelmed with having the entire family home or overwhelmed with the never-ending silence of physically being alone.

We also need to create space so people can be honest about how they are feeling on any given day. Right now, those who dare to share that they are struggling and are often seen as brave, but what if we all gave ourselves permission to admit that we are struggling? What if in this unprecedented time, we took off our carefully constructed masks and talked openly about what we are feeling? What if we gave voice to the fears that someone of us will only unpack late at night.

It may be months before we can see our friends and family but to know that others are grappling with this new reality—and that when possible, we can offer one another emotional mutual aid—would go a long way in creating a better way of being in this world.

This is something we can do aside from wearing our face coverings and practicing good hand hygiene—and along with social distancing and staying at home—so that we can continue to flatten the curve but not let each other fall flat with despair. Most of us cannot do anything else other than mask-up and wash and distance in order to combat this pandemic and the fallout that it will continue to bring—we cannot directly fight the virus. But we can cultivate deeper connections that provide support and acknowledgement for ourselves and others in our social circles and directly fight one of the viruses more ill effects.

As for me, most days are not bad. I have kick-started my home yoga practice as well as ramped up my spiritual practices. I am seeing my therapist (on a virtual basis, mind you). But the absence of adults in my life is hard at times. There are nights when I would give anything for a hug or to be cuddled or have my hand held. In the meantime, I have become proficient at wrapping myself up like a burrito—at least until the hot flashes start to kick in.

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After the turning point, Part 1

Losing a friend because I was steeped in white supremacy (and didn’t even see it) was the beginning of my turning point in racial justice work; she showed me that my “writing for white people” in a newspaper, however good my intentions were, had the impact of harming people of color. Without realizing it, I erased them entirely from my consideration, as if they didn’t matter. It was this new perspective, that I was much more racist than I realized, that was transformative.

So, what did I do next?

Before I answer that question, I need to be clear: I do not think I have somehow passed into “the good ones” group in terms of racial justice. I want it understood that I’m talking about my own personal journey. I also do my best to share in community with others who recognize the value of inner racial justice work for us white people. The fear of seeming like a “know-it-all” has kept me quiet in many ways. So, I’m going to share with you what I did after that pivotal moment with the caveat that I think what I’m doing is the bare minimum of what it means to be a decent human being. I’ll write here about the time immediately following our conversation, and I’ll write later about the more recent past, present, and future actions.

One reason I spoke with my former friend is because I was expanding my spiritual life. In my spiritual practice, built in great part on a twelve-step program of recovery from substance use disorders, I examine my past and identify where I have harmed other people. I approach those people, asking if they would be willing to talk with me about my making amends. The conversation I referred to in my last post was related to the growth of my spiritual life. At that time, I was doing my best to flow in life, rather than trying to force change; doing those things I knew were under my control, and accepting those things (most things) that weren’t.

Something happened in that conversation. It felt like blinders had been ripped away from my eyes. For decades, I had been involved in some way or another in social justice work, including anti-racism work. In that conversation it hit me that I lived inside whiteness (see “Key Features of Whiteness here: I began some very uncomfortable self-searching. I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t sure who I was. If I could be this wrong about myself, where else was I also unaware or wrong?

I’ve mentioned Rev. angel Kyodo williams here before, and I will be forever grateful to the synchronicity that introduced me to her work at just this time. Because of her words I could take what I had learned from spiritual leaders like Thích Nhất Hạnh and practice examining my whiteness with those tools. I was able to hold concepts I felt were deeply in conflict—that I believed with all my heart in racial justice, and that I was also moving in the world causing harm to people of color—in my awareness at the same time. I connected spiritually in a way that freed me from the fear that had been blocking me.

For all of the research I had done about the life experiences of Black and brown bodied people, for all of my understandings of how systems in our country were set up to keep them down, it was terrifying to see that I wasn’t really comfortable with what might be required of me. If I really want to dismantle white supremacy, what might I have to do? How might I have to change? What might I have to give up?

In the last three years, I have incorporated my inner learnings and some answers to these questions into an ongoing spiritual practice that involves actions in the private and public spheres. I find the more I practice, the more effective I am. However, one of the biggest lessons in this is that I must shed the idea of getting “good” and “not racist” anytime soon. I can’t. It’s been a lifetime and generations of living in whiteness. I can’t unlearn it quickly. In my next post, I will write about the day-to-day and longer term actions I take to unlearn whiteness and work toward racial justice.

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My racism turning point

It required a lot of emotional pain for me to begin understand how, as Rev. angel Kyodo williams says, “love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”

For a few decades, I haven’t been entirely clueless about racism. From the 1990s to the 2010s, I began to understand that I couldn’t help but be racist because of our country’s historical foundation of patriarchal unchecked capitalism built on a system of discrimination based on a social construction of race, e.g. white supremacy. I think I was a little proud of the fact that I’d figured out that that I wasn’t a bad person; that as a white person I couldn’t help being racist. I liked my willingness to be bold, to say things we “weren’t supposed to say,” as white people. Of course, admitting my racism as a white person in a white supremacist society didn’t really carry many risks. Some white people closed their emotional/social doors, but for the most part, people thought I was “brave” for speaking out. There were more benefits than costs for me and I went along like that for many years.

In my whole 49-year-old life, I’ve had two close friends who are people of color. I don’t write about this much because intimate cross-racial friendships are not simple, and I feel deeply protective of these bonds. However, sharing about my process of trying to face my addiction to white supremacy is part of what I do in this space, so, with the permission of the person involved, I’m going to tell you just a bit.

About 10 years ago, my racism—my whiteness, the way I moved in the world—cost me one of the best friendships I’d ever had. As I said, I had been speaking out about racism for years and, as far as I knew, that boldness was mostly doing more good than harm. I had been writing an opinion column in the Bangor Daily News since 2012. In July of 2013, when I decided to use Trayvon Martin’s murder to point out to white people like me that we need to face our own racism, my column was harsh.

In the column, I start out by revealing some overtly racist thoughts I had worked to admit to myself I’d had in passing in my lifetime. I had recently recognized that trying to quiet racist thoughts (that I didn’t even know I was having!) was blocking me from being relaxed or normal around Black people; an idea I’ve shared in this space. I was referencing what Shankar Vedantam’s calls the “‘hidden brain’…shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave.” I knew the first lines of my column would be shocking, and I used those words intentionally. I wanted to draw in readers in the same way people “rubberneck” as they pass a car wreck on the highway. This was a mistake.

Before the column was published, I thought about letting my one friend who was Black (I hadn’t yet met my other friend who is a person of color) know about it. It was going to be startling, I knew. But, I reasoned with myself, with the exception of the first extreme couple lines, she and I had discussed and mostly agreed about the rest of the content. It wouldn’t be too big of a deal, I thought.

It was a big deal.

I broke our friendship. I hurt my friend deeply. It was one of the most painful losses I’ve ever endured, and there was nothing I could do about the hurt I had caused. I thought I understood why she was so upset. I thought it was because what I said was disgusting and racist and that she’d been blindsided that I could have such ugly thoughts. And, to be sure, that was part of it. But I didn’t come close to a full understanding of the harm I had done until that ex-friend was gracious enough to talk with me about it a few years later.

What I missed after making that terrible mistake in 2013 was how much my view of the world centered on whiteness. I reasoned that most of the readers of the paper as white—“Maine is a white state” was a phrase I still said in those days—dismissing the possibility that any readers would be Black or brown. The truth is, beyond a twinge wondering if my friend might be “startled,” I never seriously considered what impact my words might have on Black readers. I thought of myself as writing “to white people.” But I only thought about how white people might respond to my column; how Black or brown people might feel didn’t cross my radar in any significant way. What a selfish and self-centered asshole I was.

The loss of this friendship, and her generosity in taking the time to share with me just how I had harmed her, helped me start moving forward again in my path toward liberation. Over decades, I had tried to be a better white person and tried to work toward racial justice, but I hadn’t recognized the spiritual sickness my addiction to white supremacy was causing in my heart. The cognitive load required to stay in denial about racism, both systemic and personal, kept me from being fully human. I hurt someone I loved, and quite possibly I hurt other people, too. I was doing harm where I wanted to help because I was so deeply in the world of whiteness, I couldn’t see any other way.

Every single day, I address my addiction to white supremacy just as faithfully as I address my substance use disorders. The spiritual solutions I use for my alcoholism help in my addiction to white supremacy and both paths of recovery require regular actions to stay spiritually fit. I know that complacency will lead to relapse which will lead to pain for myself and people I love. My recovery depends on my connection with powers greater than myself, including connections with other people. Recovery is a path of progress, not perfection, and I hope my experience might benefit others.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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