Tag Archives: loneliness

On Loneliness & Listening | A Lesson From Nature

Given my bilateral, high frequency hearing loss I’m unable to hear alarms emitted by digital watches or small appliances. It’s ironical given my linguistic faux pas of 1990. In response to a question asked by a South African woman I mistakenly replied in my beginner’s Tshivenda, “I have big ears like an elephant.” So, despite my elephant ears I can’t hear the smallest of high frequency sounds!

Unlike me, you may not have physical hearing loss, but likely you have chronic deafness of another kind: to the invisible yet real words, conversations and anguished cries of people all around you.

Like the everywhere-yet-undetected airwave frequencies that cloak our lives, there are invisible-yet-real conversations that occur incessantly both in the human and animal worlds—if only, like science correspondents, Chris Joyce and Bill McQuay of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we had the willingness and imagination to listen when most people listen not and hear nothing.

This is the motivation for National Public Radio’s recent summer series, Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound. Cara Philpin writes, “whether you’re a night owl looking to sympathize with those crack-of-dawn bird calls or a beach bum jolted by that brassy seal bark, it’s good to be a human who knows how to listen.” (emphasis added)

Are you a human who listens well?

Are you one prone to hear the anguished subtlety of words and emotions of those who occupy your daily personal space—your children, spouse, neighbors, employees, and colleagues?

Or do their fears and unspoken messages remain undetected because you, yourself, perpetually live your life running ten minutes behind schedule, too hurried, harried and worried to hear your own racing heart, let alone someone else’s troubled heart?

As newlyweds my wife and I lived with my grandfather for three years soon after my Mamaw died of cancer. I frequently and shamefully remember a conversation he and my 25-year-old self shared one evening. He was 83 and had begun dating a 59-year-old divorcee.

A fear of co-opted inheritance prompted his four, much-older-than-me children, to ask if I would confront him with his error of choice if not moral misstep. Regrettably my youth conceded to my elders’ request.

So one evening prior to my young family’s relocation to South Africa he was sitting in his favorite hunter green Lay-Z Boy chair peeling an apple, as he ritually did each evening before bed. I walked in to his room and shared his children’s misgivings with him, after which a deep silence ensued. Then, through a soft, tear quivering voice, this gentle, kind, simple but not simpleton blue-collar worker shared this—“All I know is that I don’t want to be lonely.

Air Supply’s 1982 hit song, “Two Less Lonely People In The World,” with lyrics “when dreams are wearing thin and you’re lost,” still speaks to human collective experience.

My granddad’s dreams were in the twilight phase, “wearing thin,” and the lostness he felt at the death of Mamaw, wife of 50+ years, and of my family’s imminent departure after three year’s of shared residence jolted his familiar life. Loneliness became his greatest fear.

An endemic, shared experience of loneliness in the twenty-first century is irony to the n-degree, given how social media connected we are. Individuals have hundreds if not thousands of Facebook “friends,” equal number of Instagram “followers,” and similar LinkedIn “connections.” Despite North Americans’ impressive “virtual connectedness” daily evidential experience indicates disturbing self and relationship disconnects—a pathology, of kind. No wonder at least 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health illness.

As Julia Cameron sadly observes in The Right to Write, “Ours is a perishable age. We have cup of soup meals and entire relationships. We talk on the phone. We say, ‘I love you. I miss you,’ but, as the truism correctly has it, actions speak louder than words. . . .”

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Secondary Fidelity | The Risk & Reality of Living Apart

The Context:

Five years ago I upset a sweet, old lady; the grandmotherly type, who hugs and kisses on little children irrespective of whether they have been good or bad, and who would whip up a meal from scratch if you showed up unexpectedly at her doorstep.

My crime? I dared share and sympathize with a gray-area story in an adult Sunday School class. It’s a story that muddles the clear moral boundaries, and traditional-conservative understanding and teaching on sex and marriage fidelity, by sharing many non-white South Africans’ historically disadvantaged economic and life realities.

Evidently I was touching a nerve, similar to Pope Francis’s recent admonition of the church for its singular obsession with homosexuality, abortion and birth control

In 2008, as national director of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) memory work training project, I attended a global development conference in South Africa. Typical of most conferences there were any number of presentations running concurrently. I chose one in which the results of a U.S.-funded, HIV/AIDS research project among South African miners was being reported on. My ears perked up at one research finding on “secondary fidelity / faithfulness” — a term I had never heard.

Apparently, among South Africa’s mostly male mining community, both in present day democratic as well as past apartheid South Africa, the economic obligations and strains of relocating far from traditional families and rural homes to the congested, concrete and competitive urban jungles, such as the Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg is located, induced such acute loneliness and physical / emotional need among the mostly black miners, that relationship/marriage fidelity, as defined in so-called civilized and Western societies, was most surely desired, yet experienced as impractical and impossible given the miners’ prevailing life hardships.

Under duress of physical, emotional, geographic and long-term separation from wife and family, many miners opted for “secondary fidelity.” That is, they engaged in sexual and emotional urban trysts, yet when the very rare, perhaps only once-a-year opportunity occurred to return to their “real” and rural home, family and community, they feigned fidelity so as not to embitter and cause undue emotional pain on their wives.

Similar, perhaps, are the tragic stories of “real” or de facto slaves, who, themselves, surely desired, and many times enjoyed monogamous, long-term committed relationships, yet who were forcibly separated and abused by the greed of human traffickers and the cruelty of newfound owners, such as the African-American experience recently depicted in the movies Django, The Help, and The Butler.

Given my bi-cultural heritage and middle age bearing, I have discovered that many economic and politically privileged people, particularly, perhaps, in the Bible-Belt (southern), aka Ted Cruz-ian swaths of the United States, lack a depth of understanding and empathy for the billions of the world’s struggling-to-survive humanity.

This inability to understand, identify — however you may define it — is evident in negligible or token lifestyle changes when confronted by widening socio-economic inequities, or perhaps in asinine statements made about HIV-positive people. Millions of HIV-infected and affected individuals are viewed and stereotyped in one American’s incredulous, yet not uncommon statement to me, “I don’t understand why they (Africans) can’t just use condoms?” She might as well have said, “I don’t understand why they are so stupid as to have unprotected sex! They deserve what they get.”

The Present:

A reality of the current and protracted global/US recession is the number of spouses or partners, who, of economic/job-related necessity, live distant and separate lives for extended, even indefinite periods of time. If in 2006 3.6M married Americans lived apart, imagine what those numbers are today — not merely among Americans, but spread across the globe?

It’s all too easy to be patronizing, condescending, contemptuous of others’ “immoral” lives and lifestyles when one’s own life is cocooned, cushioned, comfortable or “Christian.” Take that away for any extended measure of time, however, and I assure you the reality and hardships of life will reshape one’s perspective of most things and relationships previously thought inviolate. Experience is the great equalizer and sympathizer; the inquisitor of faith and “truth” as people know and too glibly pronounce it.

My family relocated from South Africa back to the United States and Austin in mid-2010. I voluntarily opted out of full-time work for the past three years so as to manage home and kids while my wife enrolled in and completed a 3-year MSN degree at UT-Austin.  Upon her recent graduation and my ensuing search for full-time work the prospect of living apart from my wife and kids is assuming a newfound reality.

Obviously, it’s not a reality my wife and I wish for, nor is it a problem with a simplistic solution, such as many people advocate for AIDS.

Fortunately my wife and I have developed trust and a willingness to risk vulnerability over 28 years of marriage by talking about, and hopefully beyond most any subject matter, including my blunt admission that living apart for any prolonged period of time –as I am now entertaining the thought of doing–will possibly to likely result in either or all of these realities: infidelity, separation or divorce, a charade of keeping the marriage together “for the sake of the kids,” or adoption of a “secondary fidelity” mindset for the occasional family get-together times, so as to shelter my wife from the painful knowledge that my physical and emotional needs are being met, or at least supplemented, in my distant-from-family residence and place of work.

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Conclusion:

Like the Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Prisoners, which my wife and I watched this week, this blog is a narrative without a clearly defined, neat and as of today happy ending. For the many people privileged to live in daily and close fellowship with spouse, children, family and friends, there are many others, who in striving to provide for life’s daily bread and a more hopeful future for themselves and their families, all-too-frequently experience the near-overwhelming darkness of despaired struggle and loneliness.

In case you misread this blog, let me clarify:

NO, I’m not advocating for secondary fidelity.

But, YES, I am appealing for kinder thoughts, kinder attitudes, greater effort to understand, more dignified responses toward the many millions, whose “immoral” or “sinful” lives one might be tempted to write-off with a nonchalant, “They’re getting what they deserve,” or “They’re reaping what they sow.” After all – hopefully not – it could be me and it could be you one day.

Prisoners

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