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McCallum: The Lonely Heart

02/21/12 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) We live in an increasingly noisy, populated and social world. But recently commentator Mary McCallum has been thinking about how many Americans are afflicted with a kind of social pain that often frames their lives.

(McCallum) Despite the fact that our days are steadily getting longer, late winter is still a time when many people struggle with seasonal affective disorder and feelings of depression, isolation and loneliness.

According to the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, loneliness is an emotion that impacts 60 million people nationwide. They feel isolated and unhappy and have difficulty coping. And some geneticists now point to studies indicating that loneliness may be linked to our DNA.

I’ve started to think about this thing called loneliness - and how it can shape a person’s life from beginning to end. Each month I drive across the Vermont border to the Hudson River Valley to visit my 95 year old mother. She's in an assisted living facility surrounded by other residents amid the daily noise of door alarms, cleaning carts, raised voices of the aides, and broadcast announcements that bingo starts in five minutes. It’s a busy place. But my mother especially appears as a solitary outpost in a sea of comings and goings.

I throw her a life preserver by taking her to lunch and then for a ride, which ends at the shore of the Hudson. In summer, we find a bench under a shade tree and watch boaters and kayakers plugging along in the sunshine. Picnicking families provide happy background noise as benches fill with folks looking for somewhere to be on a beautiful day. In winter, I park the car facing the water, and we talk while she holds my dog on her lap. The park is deserted in winter, which I see as a bonus.

But we’re seeing different things: when I cite our luck in having the tranquil park to ourselves, she points out how lonely it is. Where I see dramatic cloud formations moving above the river, my mother remarks that the sky looks sad. She asks me how I can live in Vermont, a place she regards as isolated and companionless. Because her memory is fading, she repeats the question often. I tell her that people in cities often feel more isolated than most of the folks I know who live in the hills of Vermont.

While loneliness can be learned behavior with environmental causes, news of its genetic roots may explain my mother’s lifelong outlook on the world. Quite simply, I think she was born that way. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition. Some artists believe it plays an important role in creativity. Perhaps prolonged loneliness was a factor in Emily Dickinson’s artistic expression.

But, chronic or transient, loneliness visits us all. Enforced isolation has been an effective punishment in prisons throughout history, while most of us deal only with lonely periods that resolve themselves and pass. But when they come, we feel unhappy, unconnected and unwhole.

And for those like my mother, it’s an act of strength just to reach for a life preserver tossed from shore.
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