Why do so many people feel alone even when they have caring friends, work colleagues and family?
Loneliness is a feeling that doesn’t always happen when you’re physically by yourself. If I find myself feeling “alone in a crowd”—even if that crowd is familiar—I’m probably experiencing what I call a lack of “with-ness.”
With-ness is my term for a specific kind of care, in which I feel someone or something is really accompanying me in a feeling. With-ness has a different quality than a sweep of empathy or sympathy because it offers the perfect note of understanding.
There are no rules for with-ness, and it’s different for everybody.
With-ness can be a blend of the right words, feeling and a touch of a heart offering—or any one of these elements. For me, it feels a lot like music, capturing and communicating something important and reaches deep inside me and clicks.
With-ness can happen in an instant.
I have a memory of being at a family dinner when I was around 12 years old. My mother was frantically serving roast chicken and salad. Everyone was talking over one another. We were six energetic people flailing and shouting, along with one guest, a man named Larry who my father worked with.
Despite the noise and frantic energy, Larry remained calm.
I remember feeling tired because I was having trouble sleeping. I would sit up for what felt like hours in the middle of the night talking with our dog, reading, doing art work. I cannot remember much conversation at the dinner except for one fragment. I said, “I can’t sleep at night.” It was a truthful but almost whispered comment, and could’ve been easily lost amidst the flying chicken legs and chaotic conversation.
Larry turned his full attention toward me and asked: “ Why are you having trouble sleeping? Are you worrying?”
I don’t remember what I said, but that moment when Larry stepped into my experience will be with me forever, evidently (I am now quite a way past age 12). There was a knowing look in his eyes—he just got it and in that he had joined me in a genuine moment of with-ness. It was a piece of “usable love” because it really reached me. It was so simple and true; I felt seen and heard.
That kind of love is genuinely filling when it is given and easily received—it flows.
I once raised an eyebrow in a gesture of support to an eight-year-old girl in a restaurant vestibule. Her mother was insisting that she put her scarf on, while she protested that she wasn’t cold. Everyone has different body thermometers and as it happens, it didn’t feel cold to me, either. The girl was not being particularly defiant in her manner; she politely told her mom that she would put her scarf on if she needed it.
I hadn’t meant to intrude, but somewhere in the third or fourth round of ”You have to wear your scarf,” my eyebrow got the best of me—it signalled to this girl that I got her, at least in some way and I knew this because as I was leaving, she raised her eyebrow back at me and smiled.
Some years ago, I witnessed a friend’s conversation with her daughter. Speaking in a frustrated tone, she sputtered, “You know I love you!” to which her daughter painfully replied, “I know you love me but I can never feel you love me.“ Later talking to this daughter, I came away understanding where she was coming from; you don’t reach me because you don’t see and understand me, so really, who is it you are loving?
So many people experience emotional pain when they are out of sync with one another and witnessing these two was really rough because I know how much this mother cherishes her daughter. Sadly, their “with-ness” factor ruled by their inherent qualities was definitely out of whack. This mother is a cut-and-dry, practical and ambitious type, while her daughter is ethereal, improvisational and artistic. They were relating on a different wavelength and both of them ended up hurt and angry, stung consistently with those missed connections.
What I find toughest about human relating is this; despite all the good intentions in the world, we can’t necessarily find each other and click in a satisfying experience. Our energies and rhythms are often on different tracks: “He rubs me the wrong way,” “She can’t take a joke.” Just because two people are blood-related does not mean there is a guarantee that they are cut from the same cloth. This is important to remember, as it can feel especially difficult to accept the absence of “with-ness” when it comes to family
With effort, a weak with-ness match can be developed as you let go of your pain and listen and learn enough about the other person to join them in their experience. I find when I am willing to set aside my natural preference and tune in and get specific with where and how the other person perceives, things shift.
A few years ago, I was dealing with a withdrawn woman who was wary of females because of some early traumatic events. I worked very hard to connect; softening my voice, delighting in what interested her, refusing to be alienated by the wall she would put up by not letting herself enjoy things I would offer. I knew she was afraid and I continued to behave with understanding and ease (most of the time).
Eventually she felt safe and we grew close. To my delight, I see her name in my appointment book and smile.
Easy with-ness comes about when there is an almost ineffable match of feeling between two people—something fits, and just feels right. People typically crave the feeling of with-ness most centrally from romantic relationships. With-ness can, and should, be present in our romantic lives, but I will say that the fixation on finding these moments exclusively in romance does undermine many valuable with-ness moments throughout the day. With-ness can happen in a fleeting moment with a taxi driver or stranger on the street. It happens more often, and more deeply, when we are able to tune into our daily lives with more attention.
With-ness can also come from things and environments. I can experience with-ness in nature; as all feels right with the world when I see a pattern of light on a wall or an exquisite view of the sky or the ocean.
I get a feeling that something in my life fits, the way harmony in a song may come out of nowhere, but still always sounds just right.
No one can force a state of with-ness, but we can learn to set our radar to acknowledge and receive it.
We can also cultivate tuning in and being specific with one another.
Since no two brains are always in sync, there is no such thing as one hundred percent with-ness in human relating and those natural emotional flows are jewels.
It’s sort of like panning for gold in life—this withness is experiencing the pleasure that a shiny nugget brings.
Author: Martine Byer
Editor: Renée Picard