Six years ago I moved from Oregon to Colorado to start a new chapter. I packed up the Volkswagen with my belongings and took to the open road stepping in to the void of uncertainty. As I looked out the windshield through the plains of Idaho and the canyons of Utah, I pondered the future in front of me. On my journey I laughed, I cried, but mostly, I sang along to the music as I always do. Somewhere after crossing the border of Colorado, the classic Yes song, “Owner of a lonely heart” came on the radio.
As I got to thinking about the song, I started laughing, crying and signing at the same time! On a hot summer day with the windows down, I belted out the famous chorus:
Owner of a lonely heart
(much better than a)
Owner of a broken heart
My heart burned as I let the lyrics sink in. Having been divorced some months earlier, my heart was still very fragile, but slowly beginning to mend. I considered the words again and again as the Rocky Mountains loomed in the distance. Is it really better to have a lonely heart than a broken heart? Having just suffered one, I concluded that Yes definitely had it right - It’s better to be bruised than broken.
Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic loss, the death of a loved one or a severed relationship can attest to the utter devastation of a broken heart. That said, as acute and traumatic as broken hearts can be, lonely hearts can silently remain with unbearable pain. The reality is, while they may have different sensations, both broken hearts and lonely hearts can be equally tragic.
The difference is, broken hearts tend to mend with time and perspective, but the subtle, dull pain of a lonely heart can linger for decades if not reconciled. Friends, family, and loved ones tend to rally around a broken heart to help you through the toughest patches…but what about a lonely heart? Who’s there to pick up the pieces when you are suffering through the blues of loneliness for months on end?
While broken hearts are certainly tragic, lonely hearts are pretty devastating in their own right. Earlier this month Cigna released the U.S. Loneliness Survey, which reported that loneliness among Americans has reached "epidemic levels." Of the more than 20,000 Americans polled in the survey, nearly half reported feeling alone or left out much of the time. Nowhere is this modern day problem more pronounced than the societal tragedy of suicide. Suicide levels have risen more than 25% in the past two decades for a myriad of reasons, but none more so than the desperation of loneliness.
Like many Americans, I also struggle with loneliness at times. While I am happily remarried, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life alone (That is, living alone and/or not in a committed long-term partnership). I’m intimately familiar with the anguish of boredom and no stranger to the sharp burning pain of loss. Shortly after moving to Denver in the wake of my divorce, I also lost one of my lifelong best friends who had battled bipolar disease and depression.
Losing a friend, partner, family member or even a job can be particularly daunting because it presents the duality of both a broken and a lonely heart simultaneously. In response to such suffering, I’ve tried every trick in the book - From exercise ‘addiction’ to wasting countless hours on the Internet. In an effort to run as fast as possible from my shadow and escape the pit of lonely despair, my M.O. has been to keep moving and stay distracted.
The great irony of our time is that seemingly we are all continuously ‘connected,’ yet statistically speaking, we’re also bored or lonely. As many ‘friends’ as we may have on social media, many have no real friends. The majority of us live in areas where we are constantly surrounded by thousands of people, yet often we feel alone at the same time. We long for true connection and meaning and yet by seeking false connection, we feel more isolated and anxious than ever.
The vastness of a life without purpose can be a scary place to be. To be alone with our own thoughts can be downright terrifying. For some, it’s much easier to escape loneliness by holding steadfast to the most overrated and overused word of our day – busy. Ask anyone how they are doing these days and next to the obligatory ‘good’ is the standard ‘busy.’ Who isn’t nowadays?
But the modern concept of being overwhelmingly busy is largely a myth. As Steven Pinker points out in his latest book Enlightenment Now, from the perspective of long-term or even recent history, humans are working less and enjoying more leisure time than at any point in history. The global decline of annual work hours is one variable as is the advance in technology (like dishwashers and other appliances). Such advancements have also led to far less ‘work’ in household chores such as washing dishes and laundry. Generally speaking, the fact is many of us actually have an abundance of free time, yet we choose to be ‘busy’ with hobbies, distraction, online entertainment, and trivial amusement.
Ultimately though, none of us can keep running faster and faster and juggling more and more. At some point you’ll run out of time, money or health. There is no escaping the inevitability of being alone or feeling lonely. The key is to stop running and face the boredom, loneliness and emptiness.
The Upside of Loneliness
Read any good books lately? How is that new art project coming along? When is the last time you enrolled in a new class, volunteered, picked up a new hobby or made a new friend? These things take time and time is something many of us claim to not have.
Each of us makes choices of what to do with our own allocation of time. In an effort to fill up every slice of our schedules, many of us are driven to distraction or worse, addiction. Much of our ‘busyness’ is a result of being scared to death of what we might find in the desert of isolation. For some, when we aren’t working or resting, we seek solace in the comfort of company. After all, as the “Lonely Hearts Club Band” once sang, we all can use “a little help from our friends.”
But even time spent with loved ones carries with it the complication of distracting ourselves from our inner work. While very few successes are truly achieved alone, the question of “Who am I?” is a query that can only be wrestled with in the wilderness of solitude. For many, this means facing the prospect of a lonely heart.
The song “Owner of a lonely heart” is known by its catchy chorus, which concludes that a lonely heart is better than a broken one. But behind those famous lyrics are lesser-known, equally poignant words:
You are the move you make
Take your chances win or loser
Be yourself, give your free will a chance
You've got to work to succeed
Whether you’re battling a broken heart or a lonely one, finding the resolve to “prove yourself,” “make the move” and “give your free will a chance” are perhaps our most important tasks.
Like staying sober, climbing a mountain, or developing a new friendship, you have to “work to succeed.” Facing the tribulation of loneliness is one of life’s most daunting challenges – the work starts with the resolve to confront our inner demons and the willingness to love ourselves unconditionally.