Thoughts on Loss and Loneliness
I think over the past month and a half I’ve become a little odd. I only talk to people on a computer screen or through a plexiglass screen. When I pass my partner in the hallway, I don’t always look at him, sometimes I look down because making eye contact is too hard. For me, interacting with other adults takes practice, and I’m getting out of practice. It makes me sad. I love practicing the art of friendship and conversation every day. At Melodic Connections, with the people I love, when I pick up my children at aftercare, during a parent meeting at school, over coffee, at a happy hour. These things I certainly took for granted. I’m lonely. Aren’t you?
This is frightening. We are lonely and we are out of practice for becoming unlonely. We are becoming disconnected. We are disconnected even from those with whom we are living. I think that some of this is because we have lost our roles. At work, for example, I know when I need to lead and I know when I can be vulnerable. I know my roles. At home, I know my typical role as a caregiver and a listener. I know when I need to step up and when I can sit back. But now I am being asked to step up all the time. It feels like there is no room for vulnerability, as a leader, as a wife, as a mom. Every decision, every action, feels monumental. This makes most of my relationships one sided and lonely.
I see it in other people. On the zoom calls. On the other side of the plexiglass. When they cross the street with their dog as I approach on my morning jog. No. One. Knows what to do. And we’re all lonely. Whether we’re actually living alone, in a house full of squabbling siblings or sharing space with our cousins and extended family. We’re lonely. We are not spending time looking into each other’s eyes right now, watching and mirroring purposeful actions, really listening to and hearing each other.
In his book Music as Creative Practice, Nicholas Cook describes a sociologist and phenomenologist named Alfred Schutz, who published an article in 1964 called “Making music together.” Note that date: 1964. FIFTY SIX years ago, in this article, Schutz wrote that the shared experience of the performer and listener establish a “mutual tuning-in relationship.” (pg. 173.) He also wrote of performers and listeners being “tuned in” to one another, living together, and “growing older together” while the performance of the music lasts. (pg 175.)
Schutz describes a wonderful utopia. And he had no idea why it worked at the time. It wasn’t until the discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s that we could begin to try proving why his utopia was right, why it works.
In a nutshell, the human mirror neuron system is a group of specialized neurons that “mirrors” the actions and behavior of others. Fueled by purposeful, or goal oriented, action, it is the way we are able to get into each other’s minds and hearts and understand a little more why a person is feeling the way they are. Why? Mirror neurons help us anticipate the actions of others. It’s through that anticipation of what might happen next that we begin to develop empathy, to understand others as ourselves. These mirror neurons can be activated when we see, hear or do something with another person. It’s fascinating research and we will continue to explore in the coming weeks, but for now let’s re-examine that article. Schutz saw music, and a shared experience where listeners are “tuning in” to one another as a place where they can live together, and grow old together for the duration of that piece.
At the beginning of this post I talked about the fact that I’m out of practice, that relationships and the interacting with others takes practice. So does music. Neither is ultimately a solo act. Even in those rare instances when a musician is performing solo, he or she is playing for someone who is listening. Music does not exist in a vacuum. It exists for the performers and the listeners. They are doing, seeing, hearing together. Firing off mirror neurons like crazy. Practicing the art of unloneliness.