Lessons From My Godmother: Overcoming Disconnection and Loneliness
Over the past year, I have been hit with a feeling I was previously unfamiliar with: loneliness. I have no doubt that I’ve been legitimately lonely in the past, it’s just that up until last year, I had a busy career in politics.
So, even if I was truly lonely, I was surrounded by so many people, so many activities, that the noise of these elements gave me the illusion that I wasn’t lonely.
After leaving the political world, I transitioned into working as a writer. My new career choice was exciting and fulfilling, but one that essentially eliminated all that noise that was previously in my life.
As a writer, I appreciate the self-reflection part that comes with being more solitary; it is helpful for my craft and is cathartic for me. However, I found that I began dreading the evenings; I used to love nighttime: being quiet, listening to music, reading. But now, I couldn’t wait for the morning, which meant there would be some “noise.”
Four months ago, my feelings of loneliness became almost unbearable, but I suspected that my loneliness wasn’t actually about being alone.
I had no lack of friends with whom to surround myself. I could have filled my schedule with social activities to mitigate what felt like an empty space in my life, but even when I was with my closest friends, I still felt a deep sense of loneliness.
If loneliness could be solved by being surrounded by people, many of us wouldn’t deal with it. We could find a way to distract ourselves--whether those people surrounding us were good or bad for us.
One night, I asked my godmother Susie what she thought this loneliness was really about, and her response was simple: “Loneliness is a guide to self awareness. It is when you have to count your blessings. Loneliness is not about being alone, but about being disconnected from yourself.”
Susie’s answer felt so right, but over the past few months, I tried, to no avail, to discover what this disconnect was really about. I was happy with my career. I loved my friends. I was, on the whole, generally happy, fulfilled even. My life was far from perfect, but first for first time, I saw myself being content.
At that time, I wondered if my loneliness was about needing real love in my life--if the absence of a partner was causing this loneliness. But as I reflect on that period now, I realize that idea was just an excuse.
In early May 2012, as I felt my loneliness ramping up, I was in Los Angeles and was walking through an outdoor mall with two close friends. We unexpectedly ended up there because we had all wanted to go to an action film that had just been released, but was sold out everywhere else.
One of my friends was uncharacteristically insistent about buying tickets to one of few available showings and I agreed to go despite the fact that only the seats we could get were located in in the first couple rows of the theater.
My friend’s insistence on going to the movies turned out perfectly, for reasons she would have never anticipated.
As we left the theater and walked around the mall, we met a dog from a rescue organization that saves cats and dogs from city animal shelters just before they are euthanized. The dog was a tiny, short-haired mutt and was wearing a cape that had “Rescue Me” printed on the back.
The woman holding the dog told me and my group that there was an adoption fair just around the corner. Just for fun, we decided to take a look.
While I had been a dog owner in the past, getting a dog was the last thing I wanted to do. I shuttle back and forth between Los Angeles and New York and didn’t want to be bogged down by the responsibilities of a pet.
In fact, just a couple months before, in talking with a friend about our mutual love for dogs, I had insisted I wouldn’t adopt one until I was in a serious relationship and had someone to help with the responsibility.
As we turned the corner to the pet adoption fair setup about two hundred feet away, I started walking towards the animals much faster than my friends. I noticed one of my shoelaces was untied, so I stopped and bent down to tie them.
Before I even got a chance to reach my shoes, a dog jumped on me and put its paws around my neck--like a hug. She was big, with a white coat, black spots and brown brindle patches, which almost look like tiger stripes. She also came with a brindle-colored patch over her left eye. I’ve always been a sucker for dogs with a patch on their eye. It’s like the equivalent of dimples on a human being--they’re just irresistible.
I felt an instant connection to her, an ease and comfort.
I’m not one of those people who sees dogs up for adoption and can’t resist taking one home. I have no problem saying no. But in this very particular case, as soon as this dog jumped on me, I knew I was going to take her home.
People who have rescued dogs sometimes say that dogs pick you--instead of the other way around. And there’s no doubt that this little girl picked me. I learned from the adoption folks that her name was Canulita, after one of the members of the band The Gipsy Kings.
I took a picture of Canulita and filled out an adoption form.
When my friends and I were leaving the mall, we decided to rename my soon-to-be dog “CC”, because we met her in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Century City, and also because of her coloring, she looked like cookies and cream. Judging by my initial interaction with her, I could already tell she was a climber--like a monkey. And since I figured she deserved a more colorful, interesting name, I decided to call her “CC The Monkey.”
I spent a week with CC in Los Angeles before taking her with back with me to New York, in early May 2012. Just before I left Los Angeles with CC, my friend Ariadne who had been with me at the mall, looked at me as I was packing my stuff up and with a level of earnestness that still makes me emotional, she said: “You will never feel lonely again as long as you have her by your side.”
I believed her. At that time, I thought she was speaking purely of companionship and I had no doubt that’s what CC would provide.
The first day CC and I were together in New York, I knew this dog-owning experience would be different. With the quiet I had gained in my life--thanks to my new vocation---I was able to be present. I didn’t have to rush off to meeting after meeting or stay late in an office until midnight. With the exception of social engagements and some other appointments, she was always with me.
But even though my mind was occupied and CC was loving and affectionate, I still felt lonely. Not as lonely as I first felt in February, but loneliness certainly hadn’t left my side.
In those first days in Manhattan, I got to see an LA dog (who was, at that point, used to getting to places in cars and having a backyard to play in) experience for the first time, a big, bustling city. Like most dogs, she had an infectious curiosity. A big moment in her day was seeing a plastic bag roll by, or seeing a chipmunk in the park.
These sorts of moments wouldn’t have been exciting to me before CC, but now, I loved watching her get curious and playful about things that hadn’t ever registered on my radar. I was fascinated with the kinds of things that would spark her attention.
My favorite moment with her was at the dog park when she jumped in a pink plastic pool and frolicked joyfully, overcoming an initial fear of getting into water that took her over an hour to resolve. In New York, I would often take CC to a dog park a couple of times a day. In this particular dog park, there were two small plastic pools for the dogs to play in.
One day, CC spent a half hour playing with a black lab who decided to get into one of these pools. CC stood on the side, desperate to join in with her new pal. She spent several minutes looking at the dog, frolicking in the water. Eventually, she gave in and slowly, slowly put in one paw one of the pools, and took it out. She kept going back to the pink plastic pool and sticking one more paw in each time. Finally she went all in and dived into the pool, bouncing around, just like her new friend.
On that day in the park, when CC finally managed to overcome her fears and jump into the pool, I felt reconnected to myself again. I finally understood what Susie meant when she said loneliness was about a “disconnect.” My loneliness started dying down because in being witness to moments like CC’s ears perking up, in seeing her sense of curiosity stoked by a plastic bag tripping down Madison avenue, I am reminded of who I really am: someone who is here to enjoy and feel grateful for the simplest moments.
CC reminded me to push away all the stressors that come with career, social achievement, the rush to attain material things and that the secret overcoming this particular kind of loneliness is about pushing aside all the noise and being fully present in my own self and life.
I finally acknowledged to myself that in the past few years, I had spun my life into such a multi-layered disaster of over-committing, of pressuring myself, that I had forgotten what life was really about. CC and her everyday excitement reminded me that my life, and all of our lives, are about these plastic bag moments. She led me to understand what loneliness was all about.
I think for many of us, a big part of loneliness isn’t about the traditional causes of loneliness like old age, or the loss of a loved one. Instead, I see the more unresolved loneliness as related to how we create expectations in life.
The ways in which we live our lives have become so complicated that we are pulled away from the most basic parts of ourselves. As a culture, we are often obsessed with producing perfect results at work, concerned with achieving the material goods of the “American Dream,” and constantly bombarded by outside media influences, that we no longer stop to find satisfaction and joy in things like a quiet night, reading a book alone, going for a walk--to pay attention to what our souls really want and need.
We push aside our natural desire to play, to have fun in an effort to be serious and efficient. We push aside our natural need for a mental break, and instead, push through and ignore the warning signs.
We’re the only animals on the earth who continuously ignore our own internal warning signs, our instincts and intuition. And so, this constant ignoring of our fundamental human needs creates an emotional space between where we are now and where we should be.
We are lonely because we are disconnected from these basic human needs, and while this disconnection can exist for some time without any symptoms showing up, it soon rears its ugly head, and we feel one of the biggest symptoms: loneliness.
My loneliness wasn’t because I didn’t have enough human company. It wasn’t about the absence of romantic love. It was about being absent from myself. That loneliness came about when my internal compass was telling me that I had stepped away from my basic needs and desires.
A study conducted by The University of British Columbia discovered that dogs have the mental abilities of a child between two to three years old. It would have been so easy for me to characterize CC excitement and her explorations of New York as those typical of any dog or of any very young child.
Instead, I chose to see those moments for what they truly were: a reminder for me to keep it simple, to find satisfaction with the most basic things in life, and most importantly, to do what feels natural.
CC’s gift to me, the lesson she has unintentionally taught me, isn’t simply about being present or affectionate--that wouldn’t have solved my feelings of loneliness. The gift she gave me was that she brought me back to myself.
And she didn’t have to do much. All she had to do was step into a little pink plastic pool and have the time of her life.
Yashar Ali is the founder and principal writer of the website, The Current Conscience, a site that explores women's issues and investigates the persistence of gender inequality in everyday lives. His piece, "A Message To Women From a Man: You Are Not Crazy," was ranked 22nd on the list of most shared Facebook articles in 2011. His writing on women and the subtlety of sexism has been featured on The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and The Good Men Project. As a former political veteran, he served as campaign manager for Gavin Newsom’s successful campaign for lieutenant governor of California. He lives with his rescue dog CC The Monkey in Los Angeles and New York. You may follow him on Twitter and join him on Facebook.