Studies have shown that prolonged feelings of loneliness can be as detrimental to one's health as smoking. Moreover, the condition can have a negatively contagious effect in social networks, causing those inflicted to cluster together, exacerbating the condition. Oddly, the presence of fellow sufferers does not alleviate the misery as one might think but can actually worsen it. Scientists who study loneliness call it "perceived social isolation". It is not so much about being alone, they say, as the perception in the sufferers mind of being alone and isolated, which leads to feelings of emptiness, abandonment and desolation. So, it is thoughts that cause the distress of loneliness. A shift in perception, then, could make all the difference.
One of my favorite older movies is Phenomenon with John Travolta. In the movie he plays George Malley, an auto mechanic whose life changes after he experiences a blinding flash of light and mysteriously develops extraordinary mental capacity. While many of the people around him react to his newfound abilities with the same clamoring fascination they may display at a carnival freak show, George increasingly exhibits uncommon wisdom and is driven by a passion to help people, to make their lives better. In one scene he tries to share some of his many insights with the townspeople but it doesn't go well; they have come to see him use the telekinetic abilities he has also acquired during his amazing transformation. During this scene he earnestly tries to enlighten his neighbors and friends by awakening them to the deep interconnectedness of all things. He offers, as a metaphor, the example of an aspen grove which is connected underground by a root system, yet on the surface gives the appearance of thousands of separate trees.
This scene in the movie touched me deeply. Remembering it recently, I did a little research to check out the story. Indeed, the largest living organism thus far discovered on Earth is an aspen grove in Utah which covers 106 acres and is comprised of some 47,000 trees. Underground the trees are all connected by a single root system and they are all genetically identical. They all sprang from one original parent tree, its sucker roots spreading far and wide, spawning new trees which then sent out roots which spawned more trees, all connected, all sharing the nutrients in the soil, sharing the life sustaining goodness of rain and sun and air.
Looking around from within that aspen grove there is the perception of many trees - many, many separate trees. It is only in going deeper we discover the truth about the forest, and, as an impassioned George tried to tell his friends and neighbors, it is only in going deeper that we discover the truth about ourselves. It is only in the deep silence of inner space where we find our roots, we find our spirit, our connection to all that is. The journey within is a solitary journey. It requires a courageous willingness to leave behind our limited perceptions and our long held beliefs, no matter how comfortable they may be. We must leave behind our separate selves. It requires, paradoxically, transcending our fear of being alone to find out that indeed we are not, nor ever have we been alone.
(photo credit: thaths, flickr commons)