They called him “The loneliest man in the universe.”

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first-ever moon landing (July 20), I recently read Michael Collins’ autobiography, “Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story.” While Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were leaving footprints and pithy quotes on the lunar surface, Collins was orbiting the moon in the command module, keeping the space warm for the return journey. Because of his distance from the rest of humanity — thousands of miles from his fellow astronauts and hundreds of thousands of miles from the earth — reporters repeatedly asked him, “Weren’t you lonely?”

To hear Collins tell it, he sure didn’t feel that way.

“Far from causing fear,” he wrote, “this situation gave me a good feeling — one of confidence and satisfaction. Outside my window I could see stars, and nothing else.”

But people keep asking. He was asked during a presentation at the 115th Explorers Club Annual Dinner in New York City in March, and replied, in part, “I was not lonely, I had a happy little home in the command module. Behind the moon, it was very peaceful, no one from mission control was yakkin’ at me and wanting me to do this and that and the other. So I was very happy, it was a happy home.”

It’s not a situation that would sit well with everyone, of course. We don’t expect people to be happy in such extreme solitude. We’re social creatures. Even introverts have friends. (Introvert/extrovert is really more of a spectrum than an either/or.)

Imagine it for a minute: Sitting in a “tin can,” as Bowie sang it, far above the world. No family or friends. No internet — not even radio contact. Vastly, thoroughly alone.

I’ve pictured myself there, and I can see it Collins’ way. I imagine the dazzling sight of the stars, seen clearly with no distortion from the earth’s atmosphere, for hours on end. I’d do anything to be there — except, apparently, study math and join the Air Force.

Still, it’s a compelling vision.

Here in Winston-Salem, with thousands of people within earshot, most of us get lonely now and then. It’s normal. It’s even possible to feel alone in a crowd, or with people who presumably care for us.

But for some, loneliness can be a troublesome and lingering condition. According to researchers, long-term, debilitating loneliness is affecting more and more Americans. It’s been linked to physical illness and cognitive decline. It swirls in the same waters as despair and depression and is one of the precursors of the increased suicide epidemic that is striking some areas of the country. It can be especially difficult for older adults. Or teenagers. Or police officers. Or … you know, it can be tough for anyone.

For some, loneliness and depression can feel like a downward spiral, each day worse than the previous day, sinking into a depth that no one conversation, no one interaction, can reverse. Recovery isn’t as easy as snapping out of it or getting out of the house.

I write this as someone who is fairly well self-contained. I value my friends greatly, but I spend a significant amount of time alone and it doesn’t distress me. Not usually.

But despite my solitary ways, there have been times in my life when my loneliness has become almost tangible: After the loss of a friend or amid significant life changes. Fortunately, I’ve always kept in mind one important lesson: Things change. It may take time, but things always change.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little push: A conversation with a friend. A joke from the waitress who sees me every week. Even simply being around other people, in a bookstore or grocery store, has reminded me that I’m connected to others.

Sometimes, professional counseling has played a role.

Sometimes the solitude has been its own cure, as a connection to nature or literature turns me back again to the people in my life.

Sometimes, I suspect, my own kind word has made a difference for someone else.

If you’re feeling like the loneliest man in the universe, let me suggest this: Take one step today to get outside yourself. Say hello to someone at the grocery store. Call or email the friend you haven’t heard from in a while. Go online and search: Advice about loneliness.

If you’re not feeling like the loneliest man in the universe, you may know someone who does. A kind word or gesture may be enough of a nudge to turn the tide.

Solitude can be a profound experience that shows us a different perspective. It can teach us mercy and compassion. It can reveal an awesome universe.

But don’t stay out there too long. You’re needed back home.

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