Being Alone in High School
Are we scared to be alone?
Being 17 can be lonely. I'm constantly surrounded by people; however, it's no longer trendy to deeply connect. At this point, relationships are about status. It seems as if (Pause) having a large quantity of friends (pause) out ranks having a few quality ones. I believe this is true because were all afraid to be alone.
In high school it doesn't really matter if the person you're talking to is popular, it just matters that you're talking to someone, and it's not your mom. Due to peer pressure, I genuinely fear being seen alone in public. It seems to me that the biggest faux pas in high school is being alone. Being alone and not having anyone to text or an update on Facebook to check, indicates that your damaged goods. If someone doesn't have friends, why would you want to be friends with them?
So most of the time, I notice, kids will try to over compensate. How would you present yourself as someone worthwhile to know? Well, you'd want to hang out in groups, text friends while hanging out with others, be "married" on Facebook and be surrounded by friends in your profile pictures.
I find that it's all about creating a mirage that you are wanted and needed in your community. Sometimes I'll look around and notice that everyone's head is down. I'll be hanging out with friends and individually each of them will be on their cell phones texting a friend, maybe checking twitter or Facebook. Personally I don't get it. I don't have a twitter. Facebook is not really my thing, and I'd much rather talk to someone on the phone than text. It makes me a bit of a black sheep of my generation, which makes me lonely.
If a friend picks up their phone to answer a text or worse start checking social media while were hanging out, it makes me feel inadequate. Dramatic, I know, but living in a world where kids are always searching for the coolest thing or funniest person, I find it difficult to stay fulfilled and secure within relationships/I struggle to connect with someone (Pause) knowing that they only want to give me a fraction of their attention so they can balance their large quantity of friends.
How do I connect with someone that's only giving me a fraction of their attention? Everyone has their own media arena, from following certain people on twitter, to watching certain TV shows. I feel as if people my age have encapsulated themselves in their personal digital world.
With everyone's heads up in the digital cloud, I feel lonely being back on earth.
Being Alone in Midlife
I can remember as a youngster asking myself, who am I? While most of the time, I have accepted feeling different, that fish out of water feeling still comes and goes, even in my 52nd year. It has taken quite some time to understand how I am wired and how this impacts how I relate to people. Only recently have I really started to notice others of a similar mind-set. River Road is part of that experience. This one percenter has been welcomed here. That has not always been the case.
As a youth, I found the Catholic Church too ritualistic to be of much help with my searching. I was often rather awkward around other kids. I used to play a lot of chess. A lot of the time, junior high was like a bad dream. It was not until high school that I began having more than a couple friends at a time. The closest thing to an organized sport I have ever embraced is ultimate Frisbee. The high school team I founded succeeded in having a lot of fun and there was never a team we couldn't beat. We rose to that level of performance by being welcoming to all. A year of therapy helped with the lonely task of coming of age.
Many people assumed I was a druggie in college due to my long hair and weirdness. I gravitated to toward those who also seemed to be searching for meaning and individualism. The powerful Shamanistic stories of Carlos Casteneda Don Juan series and Dan Millman's The Way of the Peaceful Warrior intrigued me. They have helped guide me into the challenging task of bridging my concrete task-oriented side with my abstract bent. The idea of applying common sense to a broad perceptive framework appealed to me. I doubt I will ever really be done reconciling these worlds.
At 32, I got married for the first time. It was a fiery relationship. The extremes and snap transitions were hard on me. We ended up not being able to bridge the combination of culture and class. She was the Korean upper class. I ended up feeling misunderstood and alone. The alone-ness of post-separation soul-searching was a positive thing. I learned to be less arrogant and more understanding.
Heather and I met paddling in the Potomac from Old Anglers at the time of my separation. We got back in touch several years later. Seven Years ago we married. Choosing to home-school our two daughters and cope with one salary usually leaves us scrapeing to get by. One of the ways I deal with this is by fixing most everything myself. That chews up spare time. My parents are in their 80's. Mom is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Dad seems to be slowly declining after a stroke two years ago. Fortunately, they are close by. Both Heather's maternal grandparents are at health crisis stages. There seems to always be a plethora of valid excuses for postponing our personal time. This kind of loneliness—being together but not having time for each other—is a pervasive problem. I don't always put in enough effort and time to nurture our marriage. But we are not alone.
I continue to walk the fine line of being true to myself and not alienating people. This is especially true at work. I work at the EPA Office of Pesticides in the IT shop. I take on my computer system development and maintenance responsibilities from a change management perspective. But trying to bring needed change to my office is difficult. I seem to be always needing to reconcile the conflict of needing to be an outsider in the inside. I don't think challenging the Government's operational framework makes me an anarchist, I think it makes me a realist. It is lonely and disconcerting to try and come to terms with the magnitude of change that I see as being necessary, though. Slaying that dragon is not a hero's role. I still need to work on my problem definition and consensus building skills in order to be able to contribute more effectively. Being in touch with the associated loneliness is what is going get me to a more capable and balanced place.
It is clear to me that there are many people here at River Road who genuinely care about me and my family. By listening and understanding, I am reminded that many of my challenges are common if not universal. Heather and I attended an RRUUC couples retreat which we found informative, introspective and enjoyable. Both our daughters, Eden and Anya, participate in programs here and we relish contributing to the spiritual path of all our young people. I know that by helping get our family out the door early when Heather is scheduled to teach the Spirit Play class, that we are entering a circle of giving that benefits us directly. Sunday service provides fresh perspectives for us to consider. We value Sunday's community building through conversation here as well.
While many people sort things out verbally, I rely heavily on doing. I can, by examining how the opportunities to participate, better understand my own needs and priorities. From sporadic interactions with the Environmental Task Force, the Garden Committee, to repairing bikes for the Bazaar, improving the physical RRUUC environment is important to me. Caring for this space is one aspect of being welcoming. What should be the priorities be for practicing good stewardship locally? My current thinking is that our collective intellectual capacity is stunningly high here. As one who gravitates towards balance, I see managing our local environment as a component of addressing the needs of my body and spirit. If I can make a difference here and at home, then coming to terms with needs of our planet doesn't seem to be quite so daunting.
While each of us has a distinct path, our collective struggles and loneliness are all part of the human experience. The compassion and understanding that is available to me here is a blessing for which I am grateful. Thank you for giving me the space to dabble here and there.
Being Alone in Early Retirement
It did not take me long as young boy to realize that my parents were not to be trusted. What they said was considerably at odds from the reality I experienced. My father was an alcoholic and I never knew what to expect when he came home. As a number of therapists have told me, parents are our first representations of God. If my first gods were my parents, then my lack of trust in God was understandable. As I found people to be untrustworthy, I adopted a stance that I had better figure it out for myself if I wanted to get by. Self-reliance became my God. How lonely it has been in those times when I haven't known what to do and did not trust anyone to turn to for guidance or solace.
As a teenager I desperately wanted to be appreciated and recognized—to find a place to fit in. I worked at a horse stable, and one day I overhear
d the man I work for say to someone—"See that kid? He works like a man." WOW. That powerful affirmation molded much of my future behavior. I believed for a long time that hard work would bring the appreciation I needed to feel connected. I thought for sure, it was one of the keys to fitting in.
As an adult, for many years I was a fast rising corporate player distracted from my underlying loneliness by my success. As time went on I came to see my work life as lots of activity with very little substance. I was very disconnected from myself. Also, my unhealthy connection to work and its rewards alienated me from people I loved. I looked in the mirror one day: the man who stared back at me was drunk, overweight, and incredibly sad and lonely.
I saw a man who'd spent most of his life longing to fit in, to feel appreciated and recognized. Instead what I felt was different, alone and disconnected. To feel connected, I needed to feel safe. If I could trust myself, then maybe I would be able to trust others and the universe itself.
So finally at age 40, I went to work for myself. I found a way to experience personal growth and make a comfortable living applying what I was learning to family businesses. By connecting with my natural skills and applying those skills, I was able to feel appreciated and recognized, and some of my loneliness subsided. But even though my work became more fulfilling, I still felt apart, and realized I had a good deal more work to do.
Another way I tried to feel connected was through romance. Starting with Nancy Jones in the fourth grade, followed by years of multiple relationships and two failed marriages, I have learned something about the loneliness that comes from attachment, unrealistic expectations and heartbreak. But eventually I figured some things out, and my 20+ year relationship with my wife, and having a child (point to Moriah?) have added a deeper dimension to my sense of connectedness and belonging. And I've come to some conclusions about romance as a way to deal with loneliness:
- Lust and the adrenaline rush of the chase are often only a distraction from my loneliness;
- Unrealistic and unexpressed expectations erode trust; and
- Without trust in myself and my partner, I will never feel safe enough to not feel alone in relationship.
Let me step back for a moment and acknowledge that being alone and being lonely are not the same thing for me. I can feel painfully alone in the midst of a crowd and sitting in solitude can be the best company I can imagine. Again it comes back to the longing to fit in, do I feel connected and safe with the people in the crowd. Do I trust myself and the universe when I'm sitting in solitude?
Which brings us to the question of spiritual loneliness. Despite my outwardly worshiping the God of self-reliance, deep inside I have been on a spiritual quest. It's as if, I was born into a spiritual vacuum and I am destined to spend my life trying to fill that vacuum. I have grasped hints of a spiritual connection. But I have often let my desire to fit in hinder my quest.
My first glimpse of a spiritual connection came as a teenager on a Christian youth retreat where I felt that I had been moved by God. As I tried to explain the experience to my fellow teenagers, their reactions let me know that I was coming from a place far different and far weirder than where they were. I felt alone in my vacuum.
My desire for a spiritual connection was well stated when as a high school senior, I was asked to preach a sermon on youth Sunday. I don't remember much of the sermon except a borrowed quote—I sought my God, my God I couldn't see, I sought my God, my God eluded me.
Since then I have been down many spiritual paths, some
far stranger than others, where I have experienced being connected with the universe. Much of my life, I've had one foot firmly planted in mainstream traditions, and the other one dancing with alternative realities. The difficulty comes when I try to share some of these experiences. When I try explaining what I have learned communing with spirits, rocks and trees, some people in my life just roll their eyes. If I'm not careful, I can still find myself feeling alienated and very alone. By the same token, when I try to have a business-like conversation with some of my spiritual fellow travelers, I feel equally dismissed. I—we—all need to fit in somewhere. The question is, where is that somewhere?
Becoming involved with this community at River Road, first through teaching Sunday school and then becoming gradually more active in the congregation, has provided me with a sense of community that was previously absent. This is a place where I can look into the audience and see a number of people that I care about and feel connected to. This is a safe place to be myself. It's a wonderful feeling to have people say—Jim it's good to see you.
I now accept that being alone is part of life. And when being alone feels lonely, we can use that feeling to motivate ourselves to get connected and to deal with our longing to be recognized and appreciated, to fit in.
Although I'm now much more family and socially connected, I'm still a person who seeks solitude. To get alone time, I spend a week each summer on a vision quest in the mountains of Colorado or Idaho. This time of reflection is important to me as I try to figure out where I fit in the universe and what I ought to do with the rest of my life.
I had a transformational experience a few years ago on one of these vision quests. It was in late July and still cold high up in the mountains. One morning before sunrise, I found myself moving through the dark to the edge of a ridge, my sleeping bag wrapped over my shoulders. I sat on the edge of the cold ridge waiting for what seemed like eternity, feeling alone and foolish. I asked myself, Jim, what are you doing here, sitting in the dark, in this lonely place? After a long time, I began to hear the change in the birdsongs and noticed that all of the plants and I were turning toward the sun. I realized that just like everything around me—the animals, the vegetation and the earth itself—I was waiting for the sun—in a trust ritual as old as earth itself.
As I stood alone in the lightening dawn, I realized—I do have a place in the universe. I do fit in.
Being alone in later life
Brad's Intro by Jim Heaney
We have asked Brad Patterson to give us his observations about being alone in later life. What do we mean by "later?" In nine months Brad will be 92; he has been a member of this congregation for 53 years. It is not, however, the length of his life which catches our attention; it is the substance and the pace of it.
Ever since high school and into college Brad has been a leader—moving at 150 miles per hour. He hardly had time to be alone. In 1945, he came to Washington to work in the Department of State, where he served as a member of the Executive Secretariat—a unit instituted by Secretary Dean Acheson as a pioneering step in American public administration. Later, Brad advised President Eisenhower about forming a similar Secretariat on the White House Staff. He was appointed as the deputy Cabinet Secretary—the first in American history. Brad, did the pace then slow down?
Remarks by Brad Patterson
No. The pace accelerated. I served for seven exciting years on Ike's staff, attending Cabinet meetings, helping form the Cabinet agenda, writing down and circulating the president's decisions, planning for the next session Saturday was just another work-day; at any hour the telephone at home was the hot steel lever for Sherman Adams' strict instructions.
In 1960 I was given the Arthur S. Flemming Award as One of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in Federal Service. Under Kennedy I was appointed by Sargent Shriver as the Executive Secretary of the brand-new Peace Corps for its challenging first two years, later becoming an officer on the national security staff of Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon. I won honors as a member of the Class of 1966 at the National College, then served as deputy staff director for Lyndon Johnson's Inaugural Ball. During the Johnson presidency I served as Executive Secretary for two presidential advisory commissions.
Beginning in 1969 I served for another seven high-speed years in the White House, this time under President Richard Nixon as the executive assistant to the Honorable Leonard Garment and later as an aide to the First Lady in President Ford's White House. I was elected National President of the American Society for Public Administration and finally served for twelve busy years as a Fellow on the staff of the Brookings Institution. I authored three professional books about the White House staff, was twice elected as a member of the Board of the River Road Unitarian Church and was elected for three years to represent our Joseph Priestley District on the National Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association. As a faculty member I still teach a course on the American presidency at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of American University.
At the age of 22 I became the husband of an exceptionally beautiful and brilliant young lady named Shirley, whom many of you know. Keeping up with that 150-mile-an-hour pace, we raised four children, and helped raise ten grandchildren and (so far) five great grandchildren. Adding our in-laws brings the total of our immediate family to thirty-one people. Keeping up with my hobby of mountaineering, 1 climbed some sixteen major peaks in America and abroad, including Mt. Gokyo Ri in the Himalayas: 18,000 feet at age 72. With our children, or later as retirees, together Shirley and I made fifty-four excursions into 49 states and took twenty-four tours to into forty countries including the Arctic and Antarctica.
Twenty months ago that fast-pace life ended. Death took Shirley in June of 2011. At 88 and /2 she died in my arms. I became alone.
But I wasn't alone. The two most honored institutions of our family reached out to me. Our daughter Dawn and our son Brian came to me immediately. Within two hours of learning about Shirley, Ginger Luke was on our sofa, comforting us and starting arrangements for a memorial service. A special candle was lit here the following Sunday morning. Within days dozens of you sent me condolence letters. In September, just as the memorial service began, Ginger and Bill Murry joined me and the four children as we scattered Shirley's ashes out there in the woods. A hundred of you attended the memorial service.
The day Shirley died, son Brian asked me a question: "Dad is there a Unitarian/Universalist heaven?" My answer, in my memorial service remarks, is "Yes, there is a Unitarian/Universalist heaven. It is when one has lived a very full life—a whole life—full of accomplishment, service and love—for a better world, for one's country, one's community, one's church and, above all, accomplishment, service and love for one's family." The standard all of us stood for: always doing more than one is expected. Shirley lived that kind of life. In this, my "later life," as our program specifies, I hope I am approaching its end by fulfilling those standards of accomplishment, service and love. If that turns out to be true, if my life has been full—a whole life—I too may someday merit entrance into that Unitarian/Universalist heaven—and be there, again, with her.
In the twenty months since Shirley's passing, both family and River Road have gathered to take the sting out of my alone-ness. Dawn and her husband Jim have me over for weekends at their home in Annapolis. Son and daughter-in-law Margie hosted me for two month-long visits at their lovely Colorado cabin. Son Brian and daughter-in-law Sandy took me to watch grandson Austin star as Willie Wonka in the play about the Chocolate Factory and participate in the production of the Imagination Theater here in Bethesda. Recently I spent nine days in Switzerland with the seven family members who live there. Just a week ago last Friday night, the two youngest grandchildren brought over their sleeping bags and spent the night with me.
Here in Kenwood Park, that bed next to mine is still empty; at night there is sadness asl lie down next to it. Last Christmas Eve, here at River Road, 1 prayed, during the candle-lit Silent Night carol, that Shirley too will "sleep in heavenly peace." Afterwards, at home, Brian and two grandchildren and I sat in front of the fire and read aloud Henry Van Dyke's beautiful Story of The Other Wise Man, just as Shirley and 1 and the family has read it aloud every Christmas Eve since 1943.
The pace of life is placid now. 1 live no longer at 150 miles-an-hour but with a supportive quiescence which comes through three dimensions: first, deep in my heart are the memories of sixty-eight years of idyllic marriage; second, i am one of the thirty-one members of the four generations of my immediate family, and, third, surrounding me, is this River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Memories, family and church are all close to me. I am not alone.