High Lonesome

Braving the Quest for True Belonging

Magazine Issue
November/December 2017
An illustration of silhouettes

Story has it that as a child, Bill Monroe would hide in the woods next to a railroad track in the “long, ole, straight bottom part of Kentucky.” Bill would watch World War I veterans returning home from the war as they walked along the track. The weary soldiers would sometimes let out long hollers—loud, high-pitched, bone-chilling hollers of pain and freedom that cut through the air like the blare of a siren.

Whenever John Hartford, an acclaimed musician and composer, tells this story, he lets out a holler of his own. The minute you hear it, you know it. Oh, that holler. It’s not a spirited yippee or a painful wail, but—something in between. It’s a holler that’s thick with both misery and redemption. A holler that belongs to another place and time. Bill Monroe would eventually become known as the father of bluegrass music. During his legendary career, he often told people that he practiced that holler and “always reckoned that’s where his singing style came from.” Today we call that sound high lonesome.

High lonesome is a sound or type of music in the bluegrass tradition. Its roots go back to Bill Monroe, Roscoe Holcomb, and the bluegrass region of Kentucky. It’s a kind of music I find arresting. And hard. And full of pain. When I hear Roscoe Holcomb singing “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,” a cappella, like an arrow piercing the air, the hair on the back of my neck stands up, and I get goosebumps when I hear Bill Monroe’s “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.” When you hear that holler over the thumping mandolins and banjos, you can feel the heaviness of those soldiers’ hollers, and you can even faintly make out the sound of a distant train chugging down the tracks.

Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope. Only art can take the holler of a returning soldier and turn it into a shared expression and a deep, collective experience. Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.

When we hear someone else sing about the jagged edges of heartache or the unspeakable nature of grief, we immediately know we’re not the only ones in pain. The transformative power of art is in this sharing. Without connection or collective engagement, what we hear is simply a caged song of sorrow and despair; we find no liberation in it. It’s the sharing of art that whispers, “You’re not alone.”

The world feels high lonesome and heartbroken to me right now. We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared. So damn scared.

But rather than coming together and sharing our experiences through song and story, we’re screaming at one another from further and further away. Rather than dancing and praying together, we’re running from one another. Rather than pitching wild and innovative new ideas that could potentially change everything, we’re staying quiet and small in our bunkers and loud in our echo chambers.

When I look through the 200-thousand-plus pieces of data my team and I have collected over the past 15 years, I can only conclude our world is in a collective spiritual crisis. This is especially true if you think about the core of that definition of spirituality from The Gifts of Imperfection: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”

Right now, we are neither recognizing nor celebrating our inextricable connection. We’re divided from others in almost every area of our lives. We’re not showing up with one another in a way that acknowledges our connection. Cynicism and distrust have a stranglehold on our hearts. And rather than continuing to move toward a vision of shared power among people, we’re witnessing a backslide to a vision of power that is the key to the autocrat’s power over people.

Addressing this crisis will require a tremendous amount of courage. For the moment, most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves from conflict, discomfort, and vulnerability by staying quiet, or picking sides and in the process slowly and paradoxically adopting the behavior of the people we’re fighting. Either way, the choices we’re making to protect our beliefs and ourselves are leaving us disconnected, afraid, and lonely. Very few people are working on connection outside the lines drawn by “their side.” Finding love and true belonging in our shared humanity is going to take tremendous resolution. My hope is that this research will shed light on why our quest for true belonging requires that we brave some serious wilderness. Let’s look at several of the reasons behind the crisis, starting with the birth of factions.

Sorting Ourselves Out

As people seek out the social settings they prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups. We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life. —Bill Bishop

This is a quote from Bishop’s book The Big Sort. He wrote it in 2009, but given the state of our country after the 2016 election and what’s happening across the globe, he’ll likely need to call its sequel The Biggest Sort EVER.

Bishop’s book tells the story of how we’ve geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups in which we silence dissent, grow more extreme in our thinking, and consume only facts that support our beliefs—making it even easier to ignore evidence that our positions are wrong. He writes, “As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.”

This sorting leads us to make assumptions about the people around us, which in turn fuels disconnection. Most recently, a friend (who clearly doesn’t know me very well) told me that I should read Joe Bageant’s book Deer Hunting with Jesus. When I asked him why, he answered, with contempt in his voice, “So you can better understand the part of America that college professors have never seen and will never understand.” I thought, You don’t know a damn thing about me, my family, or where I come from.

As fast as we’re sorting ourselves, the people around us are hustling to sort us too, so they know what to do and say, and so they can decide why they should trust us or why they shouldn’t. My friend was hoping a book would help me understand his America. But as it turns out, it’s an America I already know well. It’s full of people I love. And yet, for those sharing the preconceptions of my friend, it’s an America I’m not supposed to know, much less hail from.

This kind of misperception is likely to be the case for the majority of people reading this—things are not that simple. Because we’re not that simple. I’m a professor whose grandfather was a Teamster, a forklift operator at a brewery. My husband, Steve, is a pediatrician whose grandmother, a Mexican immigrant, sewed dresses at a factory in downtown San Antonio.

The sorting we do to ourselves and to one another is, at best, unintentional and reflexive. At worst, it is stereotyping that dehumanizes. The paradox is that we all love the ready-made filing system, so handy when we want to quickly characterize people, but we resent it when we’re the ones getting filed away.

In the months following the 2016 election and the January inauguration, thousands of emails came in from our community members asking for advice on how to handle the divisiveness that was sweeping not just through the country but also through people’s living rooms. Unlike the sorted demographic of our country, my community remains pretty diverse, so the emails I received were from both sides of the aisle. They were from people explaining how they haven’t spoken to their father or mother for weeks or describing how an argument over social policy led directly to a discussion about divorce.

I remember when the rhetoric was at an all-time high. This was around Thanksgiving, and the big joke was about buying plastic knives and forks for family dinners to avoid casualties during the holiday feast. All I could think about then was Veronica Roth’s dystopian novel Divergent, in which people choose factions based on their personalities. The axiom was: “Faction before blood. More than family, our factions are where we belong.” Now that’s scary. But what’s even scarier is that it’s starting to edge closer to our reality than the nightmarish fiction it was conceived to be.

Walking away from people we know and love because of our support for strangers we really don’t know, can barely believe, and definitely don’t love, who for sure won’t be there to drive us to chemo or bring over food when the kids are sick—that’s the shadow side of sorting. Family is the one group that most of us choose to negotiate rather than “sort out of our lives.” Even if the polarizing politics of recent events has unmasked some core value differences between us and the people we love, severing that connection feels like the last resort—a consequence implemented only after vulnerable, tough conversations and boundary settings have failed entirely.

For 20 years, I’ve had the great privilege of teaching at the University of Houston. It is the most racially and ethnically diverse research university in the United States. A couple of semesters ago, I asked a class of 60 graduate students—a group reflecting the amazing diversity of our university in terms of race, sexual orientation and identity, and cultural background—if their beliefs were aligned with their grandmother’s or grandfather’s political, social, and cultural beliefs. About 15 percent of the students said yes or pretty close. Some 85 percent of students described everything from mild embarrassment to mortification when it came to the politics of their family members.

One African American student explained how he saw eye to eye with his grandparents on just about every issue except the one that was most important for him—he couldn’t come out to his grandfather despite the fact that his entire family knew he was gay. His grandfather was a retired pastor and was “dug in” around homosexuality. A white student talked about her father’s habit of addressing waiters in Mexican restaurants with “Hola, Pancho!” She had a Latino boyfriend and said it was humiliating. But when I asked if they hated their grandparents or were willing to sever relationships with family members over the political and social divides, the answer was no across the board. It is, of course, more complicated than that.

So here’s the big question: wouldn’t you think that all of the sorting by politics and beliefs we’ve been doing would lead to more social interaction? If we’ve hunkered down ideologically and geographically with people who we perceive to be just like us, doesn’t that mean that we’ve surrounded ourselves with friends and people with whom we feel deeply connected? Shouldn’t “You’re either with us or against us” have led to closer ties among the like-minded? The answer to these questions is a resounding and surprising no. At the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness.

According to Bishop, in 1976 less than 25 percent of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. In other words, we lived next door to, and attended school and worshiped with, people who held different beliefs than ours. We were ideologically diverse. In contrast, in 2016, 80 percent of US counties gave either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton a landslide victory. Most of us no longer even live near people who are all that different from us in terms of political and social beliefs.

Now let’s compare these numbers to what’s happening in the realm of loneliness. In 1980, approximately 20 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely. Today, it’s more than double that percentage. And this is not just a local issue. Rates of loneliness are rapidly increasing in countries around the world.

Clearly, selecting like-minded friends and neighbors and separating ourselves as much as possible from people whom we think of as different from us has not delivered that deep sense of belonging that we are hardwired to crave. To understand this, we have to better understand what it means to be lonely and how the loneliness epidemic is affecting the way we show up with one another.

On the Outside Looking In

The neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago has been studying loneliness for over 20 years. He defines loneliness as “perceived social isolation.” We experience loneliness when we feel disconnected. Maybe we’ve been pushed to the outside of a group that we value, or maybe we’re lacking a sense of true belonging. At the heart of loneliness is the absence of meaningful social interaction—an intimate relationship, friendships, family gatherings, or even community or work group connections.

It’s important to note that loneliness and being alone are very different things. Being alone or inhabiting solitude can be a powerful and healing thing. As an introvert, I deeply value alone time, and I often feel the loneliest when I’m with other people. In our house, we call that sense of being disconnected “the lonely feeling.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called Steve from the road and said, “I’ve got the lonely feeling.” The cure is normally a quick chat with him and the kids. It seems counterintuitive, but Steve then usually advises, “You may need some time alone in your hotel room.” To me it’s a great cure. I don’t think there’s anything lonelier than being with people and feeling alone.

Our family uses the term “the lonely feeling” to describe all types of things. It’s not unusual for Ellen or Charlie to say, “I don’t like that restaurant. It gives me the lonely feeling,” or, “Can my friend spend the night here? Her house gives me the lonely feeling.”

When the four of us tried to drill down on what “the lonely feeling” meant for our family, we all agreed that we get the lonely feeling in places that don’t feel alive with connection. For that reason, I think places themselves, not just people, can hold those feelings of disconnection too. Sometimes a place can feel lonely because of some sense of a lack of closeness in the relationships that happen in that space. Other times, I think the inability to visualize yourself in connection with people you care about in a particular place makes a space feel lonely on its own.

While there’s deep alignment between what I’ve found in my research and what Cacioppo has found, it wasn’t until I processed his work that I fully understood the important role loneliness plays in our lives. He explains that as members of a social species, we don’t derive strength from our rugged individualism, but rather from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together. Our neural, hormonal, and genetic makeup support interdependence over independence. He explains, “To grow to adulthood as a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor this outcome.” Of course we’re a social species. That’s why connection matters. It’s why shame is so painful and debilitating. It’s why we’re wired for belonging.

Cacioppo explains how the biological machinery of our brains warns us when our ability to thrive and prosper is threatened. Hunger is a warning that our blood sugar is low and we need to eat. Thirst warns us that we need to drink to avoid dehydration. Pain alerts us to potential tissue damage. And loneliness tells us that we need social connection—something as critical to our well-being as food and water. He explains, “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger.”

Yet we do deny our loneliness. As someone who studies shame, I find myself back in territory that I know well. We feel shame around being lonely—as if feeling lonely means there’s something wrong with us. We feel shame even when our loneliness is caused by grief, loss, or heartbreak. Cacioppo believes much of the stigma around loneliness comes from how we have defined it and talked about it for years. We used to define loneliness as a “gnawing, chronic disease without redeeming features.” It was equated with shyness, depression, being a loner or antisocial, or possessing bad social skills. He gives a great example of this by noting how we often use the term “loner” to describe a criminal or bad guy.

Cacioppo explains that loneliness isn’t just a “sad” condition—it’s a dangerous one. The brains of social species have evolved to respond to the feeling of being pushed to the social perimeter—being on the outside—by going into self-preservation mode. When we feel isolated, disconnected, and lonely, we try to protect ourselves. In that mode, we want to connect, but our brain is attempting to override connection with self-protection. That means less empathy, more defensiveness, more numbing, and less sleeping. In Rising Strong, I wrote about how the brain’s self-protection mode often ramps up the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, creating stories that are often not true or exaggerate our worst fears and insecurities. Unchecked loneliness fuels continued loneliness by keeping us afraid to reach out.

To combat loneliness, we must first learn how to identify it and to have the courage to see that experience as a warning sign. Our response to that warning sign should be to find connection. That doesn’t necessarily mean joining a bunch of groups or checking in with dozens of friends. Numerous studies confirm that it’s not the quantity of friends but the quality of a few relationships that actually matters.

If you’re anything like me, and you find yourself questioning the idea that starvation and loneliness are equally life-threatening, let me share the study that really brought all of this together for me. In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton found the following: living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent. Living with obesity, 20 percent. Excessive drinking, 30 percent. And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent.

Fear Is How We Got Here

So how did we get so sorted and lonely? We can’t assume that sorting ourselves is the reason we’ve become lonelier. That’s not how research works. We can’t just make that leap. We can, however, acknowledge that we’re in trouble in a number of dimensions that may be related, and we need to understand all of them if we want to change that.

Any answer to the question “How did we get here?” is certain to be complex. But if I had to identify one core variable that drives and magnifies our compulsion to sort ourselves into factions while at the same time cutting ourselves off from real connection with other people, my answer would be fear. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of the pain of disconnection. Fear of criticism and failure. Fear of conflict. Fear of not measuring up. Fear.

I started my research six months before 9/11, and as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve watched fear change us. I’ve watched fear ride roughshod over our families, organizations, and communities. Our national conversation is centered on “What should we fear?” and “Who should we blame?”

I’m not an expert on terrorism, but I’ve studied fear for over 15 years, and here’s what I can tell you: Terrorism is time-released fear. The ultimate goal of both global and domestic terrorism is to conduct strikes that embed fear so deeply in the heart of a community that fear becomes a way of life. This unconscious way of living then fuels so much anger and blame that people start to turn on one another. Terrorism is most effective when we allow fear to take root in our culture. Then it’s only a matter of time before we become fractured, isolated, and driven by our perceptions of scarcity. While the trends in sorting and loneliness predate 9/11, data show that they’ve grown significantly in the past 15 years.

In a hardwired way, the initial trauma and devastation of violence unites human beings for a relatively short period of time. If during that initial period of unity we’re allowed to talk openly about our collective grief and fear—if we turn to one another in a vulnerable and loving way, while at the same time seeking justice and accountability—it can be the start to a very long healing process. If, however, what unites us is a combination of shared hatred and stifled fear that’s eventually expressed as blame, we’re in trouble. If leaders race too quickly to serve up an ideological enemy that we can rally against rather than methodically identifying the actual perpetrator, what we experience is an emotional diversion away from the unraveling that’s really happening in our homes and communities.

The flags are flying from every porch and the social media memes are trending, all while fear is burrowing and metastasizing. What feels like a rallying movement is really a cover for fear, which can then start spreading over the landscape and seeping into the fault lines of our country. As fear hardens, it expands and becomes less of a protective barrier and more of a solidifying division. It forces its way down in the gaps and tears apart our social foundation, already weakened with those delicate cracks.

And it’s not just global and domestic terrorism that embeds fear in our cultures. Pervasive, random gun violence, and systemic attacks against groups of people, and the growing vitriol on social media—all of these send fear, like hot lava, flowing across our communities, filling in the holes and eventually working to ravage already fragile and broken places.

In the case of the United States, our three greatest fault lines—cracks that have grown and deepened due to willful neglect and a collective lack of courage—are race, gender, and class. The fear and uncertainty flowing from collective trauma of all kinds have exposed those gaping wounds in a way that’s been both profoundly polarizing and necessary.

These are conversations that need to happen; this is discomfort that must be felt. Still, as much as it’s time to confront these and other issues, we have to acknowledge that our lack of tolerance for vulnerable, tough conversations is driving our self-sorting and disconnection.

Can we find our way back to ourselves and to each other, and still keep fighting for what we believe in? No and yes. No, not everyone will be able to do both, simply because some people will continue to believe that fighting for what they need means denying the humanity of others. That makes connecting outside our bunkers impossible. I do believe, however, that most of us can build connection across difference and fight for our beliefs if we’re willing to listen and lean into vulnerability. Mercifully, it will take only a critical mass of people who believe in finding love and connection across difference to change everything. But if we’re not even willing to try, the value of what we’re fighting for will be profoundly diminished.

The data that emerged from the research on true belonging can start to connect some of the dots around why we’re sorted but lonely, and perhaps contribute new insight into how we can reclaim authenticity and connection. True belonging has no bunkers. We have to step out from behind the barricades of self-preservation and brave the wild.

Huddled behind the bunkers, we don’t have to worry about being vulnerable or brave or trusting. We just have to toe the party line. Except doing that is not working. Ideological bunkers protect us from everything except loneliness and disconnection. In other words, we’re not protected from the worst heartbreaks of all.

We have to look at how we can reclaim human connection and true belonging in the midst of sorting and withdrawal. We have to find our way back to one another or fear wins. If you’ve read my work before, you’ll know that it is not going to be easy. Like all meaningful endeavors, it’s going to require vulnerability and the willingness to choose courage over comfort. We’ll have to get through, or even better, learn how to become the wilderness.

High lonesome can be a beautiful and powerful place if we can own our pain and share it instead of inflicting pain on others. And if we can find a way to feel hurt rather than spread hurt, we can change. I believe in a world where we can make and share art and words that will help us find our way back to one another. Then instead of yelling from afar and refusing to help each other when we’re struggling, we’ll find the courage to show up for one another. As Townes Van Zandt sings in one of my favorite high lonesome songs, “If I Needed You”:

  • I would come to you,
    I would swim the seas
    for to ease your pain.


Excerpted from the book BRAVING THE WILDERNESS by Brené Brown. Copyright © 2017 by Brené Brown. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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Illustration © DOUG ROSS 

Brené Brown

Brené Brown, PhD, is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She’s the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and her latest book, Dare to Lead. Her TED talk  “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world.