Attunement of Loneliness

What is the felt sense of love? Connection?

You know the feeling you get right before you get emotional?  Yes, that’s it.  

My eyes are wide and energy the color of light pulses through my extremities – my spine grows an inch, and the center of my chest opens from inhaling air …

This is what I felt when I would be reunited with my grandfather after weeks of being apart. The same feeling came over me on days when I left my elementary school building to find him perched against the fence near his pickup truck, surprising me.

My grandfather was a man who stood when a visitor entered the room – anyone: me, my children, my father, family, friends, and neighbors.  Even if he just saw the likes of you yesterday or didn’t like you all that much, he would still stand.  And when getting up from his chair became less youthful, he continued to extend his large hand and a pleased disposition to anyone entering his home.  

The door was never locked – and people just came and went.  Knock, knock. “Anyone home?” And the greetings would begin.  Iced tea.  A cookie from the deep freeze.  A new pot of coffee and pie made of rhubarb fresh from his garden if you were lucky, and if you liked that sort of thing.  I didn’t.  A cookie would do.

As a small child, I did not yell out.  I just entered, quiet as a mouse, almost unable to contain myself.  He would always hear me and stand with his arms outstretched. My legs could not reach him fast enough.  His arms circled me like the Brawny Man from the 1970’s -- cheeks soft and smooth, smelling of aftershave. All my life, even now, my grandmother still recalls with defeat how I would fly past her and into his arms as if she were obscure.  It is true -- she was second fiddle. Her arms were soft and equally loving but there was just something about the way he existed with me.

When someone sees you, truly sees you, it’s hard to forget. It’s a rare and beautiful safety we feel in the presence of someone who loves us.  So what makes someone feel loved?  Really loved in this way?

I have a strong belief that is comes down to attunement.

It’s easier to begin to describe attunement by focusing on its absence.  We have all been around people who might be described as “emotionally unavailable,” or disengaged.  After sharing news about you the conversation turns flat, or the person to whom you are speaking changes the subject altogether to something unrelated.  A spouse fails to simply respond, or to remember something you just told them about an issue of importance.  A friend looks at her cell phone many times during lunch and seems to be preoccupied. A family member calls with endless chatter about her own life, while completely oblivious to your efforts to end the call many times so you can tend to dinner.

It’s easy to become self-absorbed, distracted, and to multi-task and disconnect. It’s easy to lose site of ourselves and those around us with so many interruptions, life stressors, and clearly not enough daily practices that demand our willingness to stand still.  It takes practice to be attuned.  Could that be why we are feeling less attached and less connected to one another as a society?  I can’t help but wonder if loneliness is on the rise.  

I was recently watching Stephen Spielberg’s movie The BFG (The Big Friendly Giant) with my children and fell madly in love with the story (not so much the title).  It is, to me, a story of tenderness and affection between two human beings (or as BFG would say, “human beans”).  

Ten year old Sophie lives in an orphanage, longing for love and adventure.  Her bravery notable and her spirit strong, she wanders the halls in her less-than-desirable childhood and delights only in her imagination.  One evening when the rest of the world sleeps, she sees him from her bedroom window.  A big, gentle giant with a loving soul parading around the cobblestone streets with his massive brass trumpet and suitcase. He is doing his job of delivering dreams to the humans.  

Admittedly, during this part of the movie you have no idea of the gentle nature of this larger-than-life giant.  It’s an utterly frightening scene from the eyes of a child. I looked over at my seven year-old, wondering if I had made a mistake in my movie selection.  A giant kidnaps a little girl from her bedroom?  Then plucks her up in her quilt and carries her to another land where there are more “bone crunching giants?”      

After making the terrifying trek to Giant Country, being bounced around like a rag doll, BFG unpacks Sophie in the safety of his cave.  She gets the nerve to ask what kinds of humans he eats.  

“’Me!’ shouted the Giant, his mighty voice making the glass jars full of magical lights (and dreams), rattle on their shelves.  Me gobbling up human beans! This I never! The others, yes! All the others is gobbling them up every night, but not me! I is freaky Giant! I is a nice and jumbly Giant! I is the only nice and jumbly Giant in Giant Country!”  Which, in fact, turns out to be true.

Sophie finally asks (she loves to ask questions), “But if you are so nice and friendly, then why did you snatch me from my bed and run away with me?’ (That’s what I was thinking).

And here is where their story rightly begins.  He replies, “Because you SAW me.”  

When Sophie doesn’t understand, he says, “Well, first of all human beans is not really believing in giants, is they? Human beans are not thinking we exist.”

“I do,” Sophie says.

“Ah, but that is only because you has SEEN me!” cried BFG.

In the beginning, BFG takes Sophie to protect himself from the consequences of being discovered, and his heart grows so fond of her. He knows she must be returned when he accepts what is at stake (there was another child before her who died an ugly death).  Some might argue that he returned her as an act of redemption, but I believe it is because he loved her.  Sophie, loving him just as much, teaches him valuable lessons along the way of facing his own fears from a history of mistreatment by other Giants, offering up death-defying courage, and most noticeably, the experience of what it feels like to be seen, deeply seen.  Their connection is heartfelt and mutual.  

I believe that others feel loved when they experience connection with someone who is tenderly noticing them; emotionally attuned and responsive and focused, even for a short time, on them and their internal experience in the world.  We want to know that our experience, our time, our needs, and our lives matter.  

I believe, too, that people come to my office because they want to be seen. Therapy is a unique experience wherein a skilled therapist, astute at attunement, is able to hold your experience and theirs at the same time.  How often do we really get to be listened to so deeply?  When someone is only there to show up to your experience while noticing the shallow breath you are taking or the emotion that rose and then buried itself as you spoke?

We all long for this type of felt experience on some level.  And those that deny this need, to me, are like infants in an orphanage who have stopped crying because no one responded to them.

I can be sitting with a dear friend who reaches over and pours me another glass of water from the carafe on the restaurant table, and I can feel the gift of attunement. It’s the simple act from another of being less self-absorbed, distracted, and tuned out – and rather, tuned in to another person and what’s happening between them and around them.  It’s the act of anticipating a need. It’s the ability to imagine what the other might need and feel as they walk through your door.  I think my grandparents would have called it manners.  But it’s slightly more than that, isn’t it?

Here is the deal. You cannot be attuned to someone else if you are not practicing the art of listening discerningly to your own inner thoughts and feelings in the moment. It’s not just the behavior of acting outward. It’s being honest to what you are experiencing in the here and now, as well as setting your intentions on giving the gift of yourself and being present for someone else at the same time.  When this happens, healing connection and love is inevitable. Yes, even if it’s a glass of water.

And sometimes, we just miss the boat.  Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we just don’t have it to give. If you get it wrong, don’t worry – those we are with will let us know.  It’s okay; that’s how it works.  Keep trying. Remain nondefensive and hold your intention. This is not an opportunity to shut down, go away, or disconnect (not always).  It’s a time to try again.  Listen again.  Or be more patient.  

Here are just a few of my favorite moments between Sophie and BFG:

Sophie:  Why did you take me?

The BFG: Because I hears your lonely heart, in all the secret whisperings of the world (attunement).

Sophie: What’s in those jars?

The BFG: Dreams.

Sophie: Dreams aren’t things!

The BFG: Is that right?

When the movie theater lights came on, my three boys snickered at my tear-stained cheeks while I blew my nose on my less-than-ideal popcorn napkin. I see things differently sometimes. My emotional well runs deep, as does my belief that we are all intimately connected to our need to be loved and valued in the world.  

Posted on 8/19/2017