The little building off U.S. 27 near Sebring conjures up one image in Mike Freeman's mind: the agony of loneliness. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

Driving along U.S. 27 a few years ago, I stopped at a gas station near Sebring. As I was filling up my tank, I glanced over … and that’s when I noticed it.
Sometimes a single image can catch your eye, and for reasons you don’t fully understand at the time, it haunts you. That’s exactly how I felt on that beautiful November afternoon as I stood there at the busy gas station.
Looking across the street, I noticed a red building, a small one, quite obviously a business, rather than a home.
It was empty, I could tell, but what seemed odd to me was its location. It was on a busy highway, which makes sense, but otherwise it was surrounded by nothing except a vast, wide open field. I had no clue what type of business it was, or how long it had been there, or when it closed its doors. But I couldn’t take my eyes off it for several minutes, so I walked to the edge of the highway and took a photo of it.
Every once in a while, I check out that photo, and it always puts me in a very melancholy mood. The truth is, I know so many people who are just like that little building. They seem totally isolated, withdrawn to a dark place where they literally feel like they’re in the middle of nowhere, like that little facility that exists now simply as an empty building.
It’s a sad thought, to be left behind like that.
Loneliness is one of those words that’s easy to define: a feeling of solitude, of emptiness. The online dictionary Wikipedia defines this very unpleasant, depressing mood as one that is “resulting from inadequate levels of social relationships.”
Another online site, WikiHow, defines loneliness as a kind of universal feeling that everyone, at one time or another, has gone through.
“People feel lonely for a number of reasons, such as not having enough friends, not knowing how to be close to the people they know, or not being accepted by those they try to be friends with,” the site states. “Everyone experiences loneliness. Some humans are more socially accepted. Some who try to be social remain socially rejected, and some have difficulty even trying.”
That may be why the photo disturbs me every time I look at. It’s not that I relate to a persistent sense of loneliness and emptiness, or have ongoing thoughts of social rejection or inadequacy. If anything, the entire concept of loneliness scares me, because for decades, I’ve almost never experienced it.
I’ve always considered myself a glass-is-half-full person, taking an optimistic view of the world around me and my own environment. That could be because I have such a wide, expansive social network: a longtime partner, a great supportive family, and friends who have a remarkable ability to intuitively sense when something is bothering me. It seems like my “down” days stand out because they’re just not all that frequent.
“Mike, why are you giving me this attitude,” my friend Dave asked as we spoke by phone. I had considered my tone calm and measured, but he read right through it.
“I know you, Mike,” he said. “What’s the matter with you?”
Or the day my phone rang at 9 a.m., moments after I had gotten into my office, and my friend Melody was ringing me.
“I get the feeling you’ve been depressed lately,” she said. “What’s wrong? Tell me about it.”
Wow, I thought. We don’t even live in the same city – I’m in Orlando, she’s in Poinciana. She knows me so well that she can pick up on these things even when I’m an hour away.

“What’s the matter?” my sister Kerri asks, a mere seconds after I start talking to her. I don’t even think my voice sounds downbeat, but she knows when I’m not myself. Just the slightest change in tone sets off warning signals to her. And like Dave and Melody, she reaches out and insists I tell her everything. 
Loneliness seems so foreign to me; no matter what, for me instant contact is simply a phone call away. I don’t remember the last day I spent entirely alone, where I didn’t speak to anyone either in person, by phone, through a text message, by email, or through a social networking site like Facebook. Boy, has the world gotten smaller.

 I’m sure there have been days when I’ve been completely alone, particularly on some lazy, stay at home and relax weekend. But I can’t recall the last time that happened.
I’m lucky. I never feel isolated if a problem gets tossed in my lap. I can reach out to so many people that often times my first task is deciding who is the best person to call, the friend best equipped to walk me through the particular challenge I’m confronting. It’s nice to have so many caring folks to draw upon.

I know people who repeatedly confront loneliness — quite a few, in fact. They tend to be single and live alone.  The complete freedom they enjoy, of not having to compromise with another person, often gives way to terrible admissions about how much they’d love to be partnered with someone else, as I am … and how painful it can be to sit alone in their house or apartment, feeling totally cut off.  Their freedom turns ugly, into a gloomy sense that the world has left them behind, and kept marching forward without them.

All I can say is … if you recognize yourself in this description, start reaching out to other people. Don’t be afraid to trust. Don’t be scared about sounding a little bit vulnerable. Don’t be so anxious that you automatically assume someone is going to instantly reject an opportunity to listen.
Don’t be scared to bare your soul for once.
And most of all, don’t be like that little building abandoned by the side of the highway, surrounded only by weeds and open fields.
That building isn’t going anywhere.
But you still can.

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