A picture of one parrot on a tree branch.
Photo by Kevin Mueller

About 7 years ago, I woke up to discover that one of my birds, Melody, had died. Her partner, Birdie, was next to her body. He was in distress; chirping as loud as he could, circling her, and pushing different parts of her body with his beak in an attempt to get her to respond.

It was a heartbreaking sight.

A once happy and cheerful bird, Birdie lost interest in everything after that day. He refused to eat, play, sing, or even move. For the next few weeks, he would hide in a quiet corner, doing his bare minimum. Rather than rest in their birdhouse, he sat on top of it, not falling asleep until the late hours of the night. I worried he might die.

Some birds mate for life, and Birdie had just lost his mate. He was lonely.

I didn’t quite know how to comfort him. He didn’t want to be touched. He either pretended I didn’t exist or got violent when I approached. (Birds, even tiny ones, can get extremely violent. They bite for fun, but they can also bite to pierce your skin.)

One night, I caught him sneaking around his food bowl, eating and drinking a little. His hunger finally got to him. Over the next few weeks, I observed as he dealt with this loss, and came to terms with it. A month later, he was eating better, and one day he hopped onto my shoulder for a cuddle. I’m ashamed to admit that it was only during that period that I developed a deep appreciation for the intelligence and emotional complexity of other animals. (Yes, we are animals, too.)

A painting of a bird on a tree branch with some leaves around it.
Photo by McGill Library

Anyway, this post isn’t about Birdie, bless his soul. I, like Bird (his nickname), feel lonely at times, and there’s hardly much I can do about it. You feel lonely too.

Why do I feel lonely? Why do you feel lonely? I don’t know. Do you? I moved to Canada on my own a year ago, and it has been a good, but unbelievably lonely experience. Am I lonely because I moved to Canada? I don’t think so. I was lonely before moving. Okay, Mister Lonely, why don’t you go out and meet some people? Well, I don’t want to. Being lonely does not mean I don’t have enough people around me, or enough friends. We all know this, and we’ve all felt lonely with our loved ones sitting right next to us. I think—and this is a personal opinion—that being lonely is a fundamental part of being human.

Ponder upon the following: You, me, a stranger on the street, Barack Obama. We’re each a body; a body and a mind. I—like you, the stranger, and Barack—woke up one day to find myself aware. I’m aware of me, my surroundings, and I’m aware of people. 7 Billion other people. My brain, like yours, is astoundingly complex. It runs my body, keeps me alive, and is a house of endless wonder (mostly a house of grilled chicken and hummus, but hummus is endlessly wonderful, so my point stands.) The rest of my body is my brain’s interface with the world.

This interface is mind-numbingly limited. It’s great in many ways, but otherwise terrible. This is why we often think we understand people better than they understand us. (“Oh, I completely understand your point of view, now if you’d just listen and understand mine, you’d realize that it makes more sense!”)

With our minds locked up, why would we not feel lonely?

Okay—I don’t think loneliness is a bad thing, a sad thing, or a negative thing. It can have a negative impact on someone, but being lonely is no more than a state. “The water is warm today.” “My mind is lonely today.”

Same thing. Maybe. Let’s talk about it.

A painting of a big, green bird on a thick tree branch.
Photo by McGill Library

I grew up in a family and an environment where being alone was frowned upon. The complete human unit was a family, not a person. Not married? Not complete. No kids? Not. Complete. And until you had your own family, you were not to be left alone. I became dependent on other people for comfort; for validation; for my sense of value and self worth. That’s the only way I knew how to ‘live’. That, of course, became toxic when carried over to other relationships. Multiple years and social blunders later, I have somewhat learned to be alone: To accept myself as a complete human unit. (And now The Unit has a blog.)

I still struggle with some of these insecurities today, but I no longer feel incomplete. I value being alone, and I promise I’m not delusional when I say that. I strongly suggest that you do not take pity on me! I’ve come to the point where my goal is to have as much time to myself as possible, so that I can do (or not do)… well, anything! While I enjoy the occasional human company, being a full-time family man, for instance, would be out of the question.

Isn’t that sad?

– No.

Do I feel sad sometimes?

– Yes, but this is not a post about sadness.

Wait! Loneliness and being alone are different things! Why are you using them interchangeably?

– Oops. I realized this a little too late, and I don’t like the idea of rewriting this entire thing.

They are indeed different things. We can be lonely with people, or lonely without them. We can be alone without feeling lonely. We can be lonely and sad, lonely and happy, or lonely and depressed. Or is it alone and sad, alone and happy, alone and depressed? As I write this, I can’t help but associate the words ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’ with sadness, and that seems to be the most common interpretation.

Why should that be the case?

I used to work at a large corporation, and I’d often go for lunch alone. I was always looking forward to it—I got to cool down from the intensity of the morning, read a book, and watch that video my friend sent me. Some of my colleagues thought that was pitiful, and would either give me sad looks or an ‘awww hey you should come join us’ as they passed by my table. I appreciated the good intentions (and sometimes enjoyed their company), but I did not understand (or need) their sympathy.

I don’t deny that we’re social creatures, and that we need to connect with others to feel alive. However, the shape, form, and magnitude of that need is different for different people. Perhaps my emotional ultra-dependence early on in life has lead to my desire for ultra-independence at this stage. (I wonder what sort of mid-life crisis I’m going to have.)

“Independence.” That is a tricky thing to balance. How much independence is too much isolation? Is this unhealthy? I don’t know. Some scientists say that the feeling of ‘loneliness’ is a mechanism for survival; a signal that tells us that we need to get out there and bond with other humans. Is it an effective signal? Sometimes. At other times, it only deepens our feeling of being misunderstood, unwanted, or incapable of forming meaningful connections. Those feelings are painful. Evidence shows that there’s plenty of overlap between how our brains process physical and emotional pain, but only one of those is visible. With the latter, you feel the pain, but you can’t quite point to where it hurts.

Birdie couldn’t point to where it hurt, either, and I can’t believe we’re talking about him again. He took his time; processed his feelings in the best way a little bird could, and didn’t pretend that he wasn’t suffering. When he was ready to reach out and connect with someone else, he did, and he did it on his own terms. I don’t think he ever returned to being his old self after that incident, but he didn’t have to be. We each have a few incidents in our lives that have defined us in more ways than we like to admit. We learn from them, we grow, and we take our time to reflect.

And I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. I’m not quite sure what to do with those reflections. Some have been helpful, a few didn’t go so well, and some are a work in progress. This right here is a reflection in progress. I didn’t know how it would turn out, or that it would come to this somewhat abrupt end.

A drawing of three birds circling around small branches and leaves.
Photo by Boston Public Library

It is as it is, and birds are as they are. There’s plenty we can learn from them.

I shall leave you, once again, with a poem (from Birdie, to his beloved Melody):

In misty cerements they wrapped the word
My heart had feared so long: dead… dead… I heard
But marvelled they could think the thing was true
Because death cannot be for such as you.
So while they spoke kind words to suit my need
Of foolish idle things my heart took heed,
Your racquet and worn-out tennis shoe,
Your pipe upon the mantel,—then a bird
Upon the wind-tossed larch began to sing
And I remembered how one day in Spring
You found the wren’s nest in the wall and said
“Hush!… listen! I can hear them quarrelling…”
The tennis court is marked, the wrens are fled,
But you are dead, beloved, you are dead

Winifred M. Letts, 1882 - 1972