Just a fair warning, this is not a lighthearted post. It is about loneliness.
In the fall of 2018, Cathy moved 25 minutes away. I stayed in our comfortable and spacious mountain home. We share an office at the house where we see counseling clients and each other a couple of days a week. Cathy stays with me when the family is in town. Otherwise, we are alone.
Cathy and my best friend thought that if I did not transition, I would not survive. My therapist thought I would survive but noted just how much more depressed I was becoming with each passing year. The options weren’t great.
Then came the evening in 2010 when I was watching the final season of LOST and Jack, the protagonist, was called by Jacob, the God figure, to die. That was it. I knew I had been called to figuratively die. I sobbed on the couch until 3:00 in the morning, fell asleep for a couple of hours, then woke up and wept until dawn. It was two years before I transitioned, but it was put in motion that February evening.
We still don’t know what causes gender dysphoria. There are some pretty good hypotheses, but they are just that. I don’t really need to know what caused me to be transgender. For me, the proof is in the living. It is far more natural living as a woman than it was living as a man. Life is so much harder for women, and yet it feels right. The body I have is my body. It is me.
Yet, I am lonely. I did not expect to be alone at this stage of my life. I sleep with only my arm by my side. I have filled my life with meaningful activities and friends. I am a pastor at Left Hand Church. I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lyons. I speak all over the world on issues of gender equity. I work with speakers for TEDxMileHigh and as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED. I love helping clients as a pastoral counselor. I consult with and preach for post-evangelical churches around the nation. My life is full and varied, more like the life of someone half my age.
I have friends with whom I take long rambling walks and steep, rocky hikes. I feel particularly close to my co-pastors and several members of our little church.
You say, “You have a good and fruitful life, Paula. You travel the world and serve in a plethora of wonderful positions. How can you be so lonely?” Because I am alone, that is why. Inevitably at some point in life, we are all alone. I was talking with a good friend last week about late in life romance. She has a friend who married in her 70s and had ten wonderful years with her spouse before he died. Now, her acute loneliness is great.
When you fall in love as an older person, that falling is no less powerful than when you were a teenager, which is remarkable. Your body is wearing down, your spirit is weary, yet new love taps into the life-giving energy of wonder. Losing love does not get easier as you get older. It still feels like an affront to the very forces of life. You are shocked to discover with Thomas Wolfe that, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”
But after decades of a good marriage, you do not expect to suddenly be alone. You don’t think about these things, because you just assume your partner will always be there, and when you do pass on, it will somehow be within hours of each other. My father lived five and a half months after my mother passed. He was ready to go on the day of her funeral. The last thing he said to her was, “I’ll see you later.” That is how it’s supposed to be. Mom and Dad were married for 73 years, six months, and two days.
I wish I was not transgender. It has taken much from me. I would prefer that we figure out what causes someone to be transgender and fix it. At least we are moving in the direction of recognizing it sooner and stopping the late-in-life onset of pain and separation that is the lot of so many who are trans. If I could have transitioned in my late teen years or early twenties, I could have spared Cathy so much pain. Of course, then we would not have had our wonderful children and grandchildren.
We live life as it is handed to us, for better or worse. I am glad I was a husband and father. I wish I could have remained so. I am fulfilled and comfortable as a woman. but I hate being alone.
James Hollis said there are two great fantasies humans must relinquish in the second half of life. First, we must let go of the notion that we are immortal exceptions to the human condition. Second, we must give up the notion that out there somewhere is a magical other who will rescue us from existential isolation. Thomas Wolfe is right. Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.
11 thoughts on “Two Great Fantasies”
Wow, there is so much to process… thank you for your openness and vulnerability in sharing this story.
Loneliness is perhaps the most terrible feeling. Plus, loneliness repeats itself, for some many times in one lifetime.
Each time it seems far worse than the time before.
Straight or not, loneliness is a horrible affliction. This is so truly each decade. Ugh.
Coming out. Divorce. Death. Loss of a child. Loneliness is certainly not cheesy choosey. Loneliness does not care about your sexual orientation, income, education, disability, health, status, car you drive, where you live or who you know.
How to prevent it?
How to deal with the emotional pain it causes?
I’m a frequent flyer; idk.
Will it really pass? Hope so.
Feels like forever. Hope not.
If loneliness is too much to bear + reaching out to a real person is not possible for whatever reason then do consider talking or chatting with a support person.
Crisis Textline by texting this number:
741741 (it’s free + confidential)
Call or text 988
The Lifeline. There is hope. Providing 24/7, free, confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress works. The Lifeline helps thousands of people overcome crisis situations every day.
Wow, heavy thoughts, full of emotion and the reality of living with loneliness. I appreciate the courage of this reflection that you have put out there. We far too often just see the public personna, and you have an inspiring story and so much life wisedom and compassion that you share.
I have struggled all my life with issues of identity, lack of self-confidence, loneliness and depression. I found it incredibly difficult to readjust to living as a single parent when the mother of our children left. I am forever grateful that I had and have my gang, my three now adult children. But the living alone was hard, as was the up and downs of emotions.
thanks for your openness and vulnerability. peace
Thank you so much for your words. Your hard-won wisdom is apparent.
Actually, there are “magical other(s) who will rescue us from existential isolation” but nothing in life is permanent. And I can be “alone” and I can be “lonely.” In my widowhood, I am learning they are two separate things–neither particularly enjoyable. But they are a part of life (dammit!)
Thank you for an insightful column.
Indeed they are.
“I sleep with only my arm by my side. “. Me too Paula, me too. For the last 64 years.
And I’ve never flown first class in my life. You are so privileged!
I recommend the book “An Interrupted Life: the Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum” where she thanks God for a beautiful and meaningful life as she faces the holocaust…
Thanks for the recommendation. As for your comments about my privilege, I never do a public presentation anywhere on earth that I do not acknowledge my privilege within the first five minutes. It is also woven through this post. Not sure why you felt that was necessary.
I’ve always appreciated that you acknowledge it when I’ve listened to your speaking engagements. A lot of people refuse to, but I’ve always just loved that you do.
Thanks Paula for your reply.
Thank you Paula for being so vulnerable about your loneliness. Às a transgender woman living a hybrid life as both female and male, my wife and I are living out something we call our “shared sacrifice.” She has given me space to live out a full and rich life as Grace through frequent virtual engagements as well as meaningful involvement in several groups actively working to support our community. Several times a year I travel publicly as Grace to speak or help in conferences. Some of the richest friendships I’ve ever known are with women I’ve met and work with who know me exclusively as Grace. But I also live the majority of my time as a man having committed to present as male in any activities and involvements where my wife is present. Our family all know I am transgender and they know of my involvements and my travel. But they don’t experience me as Grace outwardly. All this to keep our 46 year marriage together.
Even then the loneliness is palpable for both of us. My wife is not able to emotionally engage with my life as Grace which continues to grow making her feel more and more isolated. And while my life as Grace has my dysphoria well-managed most of the time, the knowledge that I am both physically and emotionally unseen by the person I love most in the world is sometimes harder than living as a man the majority of the time.
Which is why your words below are sobering.
“I wish I was not transgender. It has taken much from me. I would prefer that we figure out what causes someone to be transgender and fix it.“
I know you from a distance. I have read your book. I have followed your life. I marvel at the work you are doing and the fullness of your life. I have interacted with both you and Cathy briefly seeking a way forward for us. I respect you as a person and trust your voice. Which is why your words give me pause.
I can’t imagine saying, “I wish I was not transgender.” Which tells me I haven’t truly been able to count the cost as clearly and soberly as you have been able to do. My experience is still so new. Only one year in public spaces as Grace. The relief and joy at being able to live and engage authentically is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life to this point. But what happens if the shared sacrifice becomes unbalanced or no longer tenable for my wife? What if my kids shut down or turn away? What if I can’t sustain the work that feeds my soul so well in this season?
Will I wish I wasn’t transgender? With all my heart I hope not. I’m not sure I could express such a wish honestly and still survive the implications of what being transgender has cost my wife and my children. Your experience, though uniquely yours, nonetheless tells me I need to be prepared. To keep working hard to balance our shared sacrifice. To treat my dysphoria while doing everything possible to be the partner to my wife that she deserves. A partner who remains an antidote to loneliness and not ever more increasingly the cause.
Thank you for your sobering words, Paula. I pray you find the person whose presence turns loneliness into a stranger.
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