Double Review + A Look at Loneliness

This is going to be a rather unconventional review today, as I’m reviewing not just one book but two.

But hang with me.

My reading life has been rather coincidental lately. I started off February by reading Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown, followed by Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. The selection of these books, as well as the order I read them in, was completely arbitrary. Yet it was a perfect literary pairing.

Brown’s book addresses the nature of true belonging, which she defines as “the practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.” This type of belonging does not rely on changing yourself, but rather embracing them and being yourself in the midst of differing views or disagreements. She calls this act of standing alone in your true self and your convictions “the wilderness.”

Brown presents research on the nature of loneliness and how we have taken on some dangerous and detrimental habits in the face of loneliness or lack of belonging. Much of the book is framed through the lens of the current social and political climate in the world – one where fear trumps understanding and civility is harder and harder to come by.

Something we often forget is that humans, fundamentally, are social species. Brown brings up neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago. He says, “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.”

I find this particularly interesting when this point is applied to the United States, a society that emphasizes and celebrates individualism, on being self-sufficient, on looking after yourself without help. But we weren’t built to operate like that. Yet it’s so pervasive in our culture. As a 20-something millennial, I hear from my friends and peers all the time about this notion of “adulting.” Mostly, we’re all talking about how much it sucks and how much we all suck at it. We expect that we all have to brave the world alone, provide for ourselves alone, figure everything out on our own. It’s lonely at times, but we’re finding connection through the frustration and honestly, the loneliness.

Now, consider Eleanor Oliphant. Eleanor is a 30-year-old woman who is quite used to navigating the world alone. She’s a bit of an oddball with little clue as how to interact – how to connect – with other people. She has had a difficult life, but she is fine now. She has a job, she has an apartment, and she has her good friend, vodka.

As you can probably guess, Eleanor is very far from fine, but it takes a long time for her to come to that conclusion herself. As the book moves along, she begins to form small, true connections with people, and she’s pleased and comforted by them. She begins to get invited to social gatherings, she makes her first friend, she gets a bit of a makeover!

However, Eleanor refuses to disclose the dark ghosts of her past and the fact that she goes through countless bottles of vodka every week in order to sleep, to drown out the memories she doesn’t want to revisit. This strategy doesn’t work out well for her, as can be expected.

Brown, in Braving the Wilderness, shares the findings of researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton. Their conclusions were as follows:

“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.”

People aren’t meant to go through the world alone, like Eleanor does for most of her life. Human connection is supremely important, as underscored by the data above. However, as Brown notes, it’s become harder and harder to find true connection as the world becomes more polarized and intolerant. We need to have the tough conversations. We need to try to understand each other, even if we still don’t agree in the end. Retreating into our respective bunkers is not the answer.

Braving the Wilderness gives a lesson on loneliness and belonging, and Eleanor Oliphant presents an example, albeit fictional, of how important Brown’s insights are. The concepts presented in Braving the Wilderness play out in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It was serendipitous pairing of books, with each playing off the other. Both are important, interesting books on their own, but their impact is deepened when read together.

Have you read Braving the Wilderness and/or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine? What did you learn from either? Let me know in the comments!

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