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Loneliness—How to Reframe It This Holiday Season

A book’s fresh, inspired take on “the loneliness epidemic” can help us find a sense of belonging.

Reframing loneliness
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“If we lived in a perfect world,” writes Charlotte Donlon in her new book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, “we would always belong perfectly to ourselves, other people and God.”

Donlon, who is a spiritual director, podcast host and writer based in Birmingham, Alabama, hardly needs to point out that we don’t live in a perfect world. But as a three-pointed map of belongings, her book is a fresh, clear-eyed and authentically positive guide to how to recognize, reframe and ultimately release toxic loneliness

Even before the coronavirus pandemic turned up the volume on isolation, loneliness was routinely referred to as an “epidemic.” More than three out of every five Americans report they are lonely, left out or misunderstood, according to a 2019 survey

In the new normal, these numbers are certainly higher. One reason, as cited from Donlon’s research, suggests that the mere presence of other people—in places from a coffee shop to a coworking space for independent workers—is a salve for a chronic sense of loneliness. Without these subtle social connections, loneliness can hold a stronger grip on our emotional landscapes.

Donlon has walked a lonely road herself. She describes her experiences living with bipolar disorder, which has impacted her work, her marriage and her social life in ways she describes with helpful honesty.

She also offers insights about “the fragile knowledge” of loneliness through a spiritual lens. The “great belonging” which she holds up as the opposite of loneliness is the sense in which we all belong to God or whatever higher power we sense in our lives. “We trust our other belongings, and unbelongings are wrapped up in a Great Belonging…” she writes, “Knowing we are God’s provides rest and comfort while making our other belongings possible.”

The book is organized into brief chapters that make for easy reading while providing an emotional impact. It is grounded in research studies, peppered with humorous and moving anecdotes, and rich with inspiration from spiritual and secular sources like the photographer Paola Zanni who created a series of images depicting loneliness in Japan.

Donlon reflects on the photographs, writing that in witnessing those who have been photographed, “we see others being seen…. And if it’s possible for others to be seen in their loneliness, maybe we can be seen in ours.”

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