Thursday, July 7, 2011

Separateness - What I Don't Know about My Friends and Family

If you've been following my blog, you probably know that I believe the years of adolescence - roughly age 12 to 24 - are a profoundly important period of development. They powerfully shape who we become as adults. For months now, I've been steadily interviewing people to collect their accounts of their youth. You may have caught some of these "teen journey stories."

This project has taught me a lot about teenagers, the significance of these years, and the impact that parents have. It has also made me wonder about the teen journey stories of my six siblings. For example, I have two sisters. One is seven years younger than I am. The other is 13 years younger. We shared the same mother and father and the same home. But we didn't share the same bedroom, friends, acquaintances, schools, activities or interests. In fact, I am left with this conclusion: I don't have a clue about their teen journeys, not one clue. In fact, their adolescent years happened after I left home.

Acknowledging this makes me realize how little I know about them. One lives in Cedar City, Utah. The other lives in Topeka, Kansas. Three brothers also live in Topeka. Another brother lives near Los Angeles. We are blood brothers and sisters, but for all sorts of reasons they are virtual strangers to me. Maybe they always were.

I recently visited one of my best friends. He lives nearby, so we get together regularly. The interchange is so rich and fulfilling that our wives typically get left out, sometimes for six hours at a stretch. Nevertheless, a few days after each visit, I wonder what my friend is up to. What did he do on Sunday? What did he do on Monday? Has anything important happened in his family since my visit? What unexpected developments? What disappointments? How did these events make him feel? What has he been thinking? What new turns have his projects taken? And the answer is, even with my best friend, I don't know. To be honest, I don't know much of anything about the ongoing arch and flow of his life.

Once we accept what we know and don't know about the people we care about, we start to understand the separateness. And I know that if I want to be closer to them I need to spend more time with them and continue learning more about them. This is the antidote to separateness, but it takes you only so far. Ultimately, we are left to walk our paths mostly alone with our own daily activities, memories, thoughts, feelings, imaginings, wishes, and plans. We share what we can, but most of it remains private.

To me, this isn't a sad thought. I was thinking recently that one sign of a healthy, mature adult is the ability to be comfortable with oneself, to be good company with oneself when alone. So being alone doesn't equate to being lonely. Loneliness is another matter. We can be with family and friends and still feel lonely, if the relationships are shallow or conflicted.

I'll continue collecting teen journey stories indefinitely. It has turned out to be an exciting path of learning. I have a feeling that my brothers and sisters won't want to be a part of that project. But along the way, I think I may pick up the phone more often and learn more about what's happening with them.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from


Kathleen Scott said...

It's true, communication is essential to connection. It's also true that being alone and being lonely aren't the same thing.

You're the wise man who learns from others.

Melody Thomas said...

This is why a relationship with God is so important. It is the only other person who is with you every step of the way and knows everything about you - your most private fears and joys.