THE BLOG

Loneliness Is a Point of View...

02/19/2014 10:25 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Robert Levithan Psychotherapist, Writer and Expert on vital aging and living with illness

I meet a lot of people my age who feel isolated and lonely.

A lot of them will tell you it's because our culture discards the not-young, that their illnesses or conditions make them undesirable or toxic, that there are no opportunities for individuals like them.

Whenever we point towards circumstance as the cause of our suffering, we are missing a key ingredient: How we view ourselves. Empowerment comes from the willingness to let go of insidious negative self-directed beliefs--and to break the habit of looking for evidence to validate them in the world around us.

In short ,we live in negative predictions based on false assumptions.

Here are a couple from my own past:

I had often heard about the Russian Restaurants on the boardwalk in Brighten Beach. One foggy Sunday afternoon, a man I was dating and I were walking eastward on the beach from Coney Island. As the sky cleared, we saw the Russian restaurants appear out of the fog, and decided to take advantage of a pleasant surprise. The Café's outdoor seating was about three fourths full as we approached the podium to request a table. We waited for several minutes, feeling ignored. Finally after what seemed an unreasonable time, we were shown to a table. Then, we again tried to flag down a waiter, at first, to no avail. Was this happening because we were an interracial gay couple? Eventually we got served and the food was wonderful, but I left feeling that we had experienced homophobic discrimination (false assumption?).

Normally I would not have returned, but my friend Cy who loves Russian culture as much as I do (we spent a glorious week in St. Petersburg in 1999). heard that I'd been there and asked if I'd take her, so I relented. When we arrived, we stood at the podium for an unreasonably long time, finally got seated and had difficulty capturing the waiter's eye. At last, we were served and the food was memorable. As a heterosexual couple, we had exactly the same experience. My guess is that they treat all outsiders that way. I was wrong to see it as overt homophobia and racism. I was WRONG!

Similarly, back in the late 1980's, I dated a man who I know cared about me and felt a bond with me, but said he couldn't be in a romantic relationship with me. I was convinced that it was his (understandable) fear of AIDS (false assumption?). I was HIV positive, he was negative. A few month later he embarked on a relationship with an HIV positive man that lasted for several years. Wrong again!

Prejudice exists in the world. Racism, sexism, AIDSphobia, homophobia and the almost universal prejudice, ageism. What is most insidious is internalized prejudice--when we buy into an existing prejudice about something that we are.
For example, people lie about their age, because it's perceived to be better to be 'passing' as younger. 'Passing' is the most obvious sign of acting in accord with those who say who you are is 'less than'. Historically, there were real economic incentives for light-skinned African Americans to pass as white or blue-eyed Jews to pass as WASP. There's a price for passing, however. A reaffirmation that I'm not only second class, but second rate. Michael Sam coming out before his expected draft by the NFL goes against a belief that an avowed gay athlete will not have a successful professional career. He is not willing to let prejudice keep him in the closet. May he prove that it's no longer necessarily so.

Most of us, however, are acting as if we are in economic or even physical danger, when actually the only danger is of rebuff or rejection by those who hold their prejudices dear. Would I want to date a man who thought I was 53 instead of 63 and HIV- instead of HIV+, or WASP instead of Jewish? I hope not. But when we obsfucate our identity, we are building personal, professional and romantic relationships on implicit lies.

However, there are exceptions: if there is real danger, pass! I'm not going to be in a country that holds homosexuality as a capital crime and announce my gayness. On the other hand, not living proudly as who I am in NYC would suck something from my soul that I cannot afford to lose.

It's easy to project our insecurities and internalized prejudices on others. What we expect to find, will appear to be there , often when it is not. Consciously or unconsciously, I was looking for evidence of homophobia in Brighton Beach. Likewise, back in Santa Fe, I was projecting my fear that no one would love me as an HIV positive man. We must learn to note how very often we're wrong. And then, gather new evidence as we substitute updated beliefs that actually support and nurture us.

A clearer understanding and acceptance of oneself is the route to connection. My last partner, who was HIV negative, told me that my OKness with my HIV status helped him be comfortable with it. Now, I present myself to potential partners as a 'catch'. Of course I come with baggage and issues, but so do we all.

Our age, like our health, is only relevant when it is. There are men who will not date me because I'm HIV positive or because I'm in my sixties, but there are also men who would not date me because I have blue eyes or stand over six feet tall. Attraction and prejudice are not personal. And there are even men for whom my age or HIV status puts me at an advantage.

It's understandable that when we have been wounded by thoughtlessness, fear and hatred, we might shut down in defense. The price we pay for this is isolation and bitterness. There are alternative roads: We can honor our rich, varied and challenging journeys, and offer ourselves as the mighty seekers and survivors that we actually are. We can embrace possibility and be open to our beauty--and to appreciation by others who can see it. We all rock someone else's boat. We can stretch ourselves as we make new connections and create new chapters. If we're still here, so we have love to give and receive. Loneliness is optional.