Skirting the Issues: The Other L Word

Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida
Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida

The subject at Sunday Buddhism was “calming the mind”—how to handle fears and worries that pop into your brain multiple times a day. The guiding teacher, Tim, opened the floor to questions after his lecture.

From far left field, an early thirty-something woman asked, “What about dealing with loneliness?”

It was simple, yet profound. A wave of hurt rippled through the room. Even Buddhists don’t customarily expect that degree of self-honesty.

Tim’s response was classic Buddhism-101: “You have to lean into loneliness. It is reality.”

“Reality?” You can say that again.

How many of us are lonely? I realize that “lonely” is something separate from “alone,” but you can’t tumble to one without the other. I know this because I’ve lived both human conditions.

Before I transitioned to Ellen, I was married. My wife and I were deeply in love. Transitioning eventually became inevitable, meaning that I would have to leave my soul mate. It was how things had to be—seventeen years of therapy made that clear.

Sure, I understood that I might be alone afterwards, living as Ellen. I even thought I might feel lonely for a while.

However, I never imagined I’d be alone for eight years. That’s what it’s been. At this point, “alone” has morphed into “loneliness,” and I have no idea when it will end, if ever.

Of course, I’m not alone, so to speak. Statistics indicate that close to 20% of the population pegs itself as “lonely” at any given time. Much of the loneliness has to do with factors like divorce (check), age (check), and bad health (thankfully, not a check). Some experience situational loneliness that quickly resolves. Others will be chronically lonely. As in forever.

It’s good to know that many are lonely like me—after all, there’s the old saying, “misery loves company.” Still, that doesn’t do much toward filling the empty side of my bed or the seat at the dinner table opposite where I sit.

Certainly, there are some distinct advantages to navigating the world by one’s self. What movie to see? I don’t have to wrestle with someone else over whether it’ll be a chick flick or macho action film. Spend hours cleaning the condo? I alone (damn, there’s that word again) get to mess it up. Don’t forget the laundry and dirty dishes—there’s no one to add to that, either.

And bad habits? I’ve got no reason to hide them or to change. Throw in that I can run naked through my condo (not a pretty sight or very long run, I can assure you), and it sounds like loneliness might not be so bad after all.

On the other hand, Christmas is two weeks away. For some of us, the holidays are tough and another big notch in the loneliness belt.

It’s just that I’m a lover. I was very good at loving another and I miss being loved back. Hell, I miss sex. Call me human.

Maybe just call me?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m very lucky and have much to be grateful for. I have two daughters who love me, even as Ellen. My baby brother cherishes me. I’ve been best friends with a guy since eighth grade who’s made me a part of his family and who won’t let three days go by without calling.

Most of all, I have me, Ellen. Living now as my true self, while lonely, is nothing in comparison to the deep pain that I experienced when I lived in the wrong gender.

I admire the woman who admitted to her loneliness on that Sunday. As a society, we’re often afraid to concede the obvious. We make busy time for ourselves without actually sitting and acknowledging loneliness. It’s simply not fashionable. Thus, we fill our lives with technology and toys, and Facebook postings, hoping that those things make up for intimate human contact and the ability to giggle with a lover.

When I think about it—and I do, trust me—my teacher, Tim, is actually right. We need to lean into the reality that we are both alone and lonely. It’s also reality that there’s no one but ourselves who can generate happiness or peace of mind. Looking to someone else for our happiness is destined to make us suffer—another Buddhist phrase.

I only wish I could completely believe that.


Happy holidays in egalitarian Minnesota! Ellie welcomes your comments at [email protected]

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