Looking Loneliness in the Face

Looking Loneliness in the Face

Looking Loneliness in the Face

The professor had never received such a note on an exam: "Please don't waste your time grading this, as I am not in your class! I just did not want to be lonely."

     
Looking Loneliness in the Face
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Professor Elaine Bernal was halfway through grading the stack of 50+ final exams, when she came across the one that set itself apart from the rest. "Please don't waste your time grading this," said the note at the bottom of the first page, "as I am not in your class! I just did not want to be lonely. So I decided to take it."

loneliness

Everyone knows what it is to be lonely. Even in a crowded public place, in a marriage, in a house full of siblings, one can feel lonely, disconnected, as if there's no-one else there. It's a price inherent to being the only one looking out at the world through your eyes.

Loneliness not only feels bad, it can be damaging. A March 2015 Time magazine article speculates that loneliness may be on par with obesity and substance abuse in terms of how damaging it can be, citing a Brigham Young University study finding that "[a]ctual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality." Even simply living alone correlates with a 32% great mortality risk, say the study's authors. "This is something that we need to take seriously for our health,” BYU researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad told Time. “This should become a public-health issue.”

That loneliness—not only social isolation, but even just the feeling itself (known as perceived social isolation, or PSI)—can be damaging is well documented. A year before the BYU study, CNN referred readers to various studies finding that the detrimental effects of loneliness can include sleep disruption, increased risk of dementia, and increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Way back in 2003 UCLA researchers used fMRI technology to demonstrate that the pain felt from social exclusion is neurologically similar to the experience of physical pain.

More bad news about loneliness came in 2015: PSI may actually alter an individual's gene expression, creating a feed-forward reaction that propagates PSI and thereby PSI's detrimental physical effects.

Part of the problem with PSI is that the sufferer feels cut off from the world, which of course includes the people and resources that might help alleviate PSI. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so the intervention of an insightful peer or mentor can make all the difference.

That knowledge haunts Bernal vis-à-vis the note on the exam. "I know that finals are a stressful time, but seeing that exam brought home the magnitude of what one student was going through," she says. "[…] It made me think: 'Wow, how many times have I missed something with a student?'"

Bernal teaches at California State University, Long Beach. As might be expected of a university within the CSU system—the largest university system in the nation—CSULB provides students with pertinent resources, such as Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS). But those resources aren't as easy for students to find as, say, the main library. And although CSULB provides employees not only with a list of such resources but also with a perfunctory checklist of sorts concerning how to spot a student in need, Bernal says her stint as a resident advisor in the dorms during her time as an undergraduate at UCLA was better for helping her of student well-being.

"As a faculty member, sometimes I wish I had the same training that I had when I was an RA," she says. "[…] There are all these resources on campus, but students are still falling through the cracks. As a campus community, I don't think we talk about it enough. We know that mental health is an issue […] but we don't have enough of those personal, really hard conversations."

Despite Bernal's sadness at not being able to track down the student who left the lonely note, she hopes she is taking away from this experience a heightened sensitivity to loneliness not only with her students, but with everyone she encounters.

"I think if anything this experience has taught me to slow down a little bit and pay more attention and say, 'Hey, how are you? How are you feeling?'" she says. "[…] Everyone's so busy, but how busy are we really? Can't we slow down a little bit and have these important conversations? […] With all this technology, we're expected to do so much and have these very busy lives. But I think being busy with all this external stuff takes away from being [in touch with] how we're feeling. Life becomes so noisy, but that noise is a little isolating. […] Sometimes I say to myself, 'Um, I think [this person] is going through something. Should I ask?' But sometimes all it really takes is asking someone how they're doing."

Image by:  Daria

 


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Saturday, June 18, 2016