This column was originally posted on MariaShriver.com last year. I’m re-posting it since it’s been a year since I adopted CC.
During the past year, I have been hit with a feeling I was previously unfamiliar with: loneliness. I have no doubt that I’ve been legitimately lonely in the past; it’s just that up until last year, I had a busy career in politics. So, even if I was truly lonely, I was surrounded by so many people and so many activities that their noise gave me the illusion that I wasn’t lonely.
After leaving the political world, I transitioned into working as a writer. My new career choice was exciting and fulfilling, but one that essentially eliminated all that noise that was in my life before. As a writer, I appreciate the self-reflection part that comes with being more solitary; it is helpful for my craft and is cathartic for me. However, I found that I began dreading the evenings. I used to love nighttime: being quiet, listening to music, reading. But now, I couldn’t wait for the morning, which meant there would be some “noise.”
Four months ago, my feelings of loneliness became almost unbearable, but I suspected that my loneliness wasn’t actually about being alone. I had no lack of friends with whom to surround myself. I could have filled my schedule with social activities to mitigate what felt like an empty space in my life, but even when I was with my closest friends, I still felt a deep sense of loneliness.
If loneliness could be solved by being with people all the time, many of us wouldn’t deal with it. We could find a way to distract ourselves—whether those people were good or bad for us.
One night, I asked my godmother, Susie, what she thought this loneliness was really about, and her response was simple: “Loneliness is a guide to self-awareness. It is when you have to count your blessings. Loneliness is not about being alone, but about being disconnected from yourself.”
Susie’s answer felt so right. And I tried, but to no avail, to discover what my disconnect was really about. I was happy with my career. I loved my friends. I was, on the whole, generally happy, fulfilled even. My life was far from perfect, but for the first time, I saw myself as content.
At that time, I wondered if my loneliness was about needing real love in my life—if the absence of a partner was causing this loneliness. But as I reflect on that period now, I realize that idea was just an excuse.
In early May 2012, as I felt my loneliness ramping up, I was in Los Angeles and was walking through an outdoor mall with two close friends. We had ended up there unexpectedly because we all wanted to go to an action film that had just been released and was sold out everywhere else.
One of my friends was uncharacteristically insistent about buying tickets to one of the few available showings, and I agreed to go despite the fact that the only seats to be had were in the first couple rows of the theater. My friend’s insistence on going to the movies turned out perfectly, though, but for reasons we never could have anticipated.
As we left the theater and walked around the mall, we met a dog from a rescue organization that saves cats and dogs in city animal shelters from euthanasia. The dog was a tiny, short-haired mutt wearing a cape that had “Rescue Me” printed on the back. The woman holding the dog told me and my friends that there was an adoption fair just around the corner. Just for fun, we decided to take a look.
While I had been a dog owner in the past, getting a dog was the last thing I wanted to do. I shuttle back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, and I didn’t want to be bogged down by the responsibilities of a pet. In fact, just a couple months before, while talking with a friend about our mutual love for dogs, I had insisted that I wouldn’t adopt one until I was in a serious relationship and had someone to help me with the responsibility.
As my friends and I turned the corner to the pet adoption fair about two hundred feet away, I started walking toward the animals much faster than the rest of my group. When I noticed one of my shoelaces was untied, I stopped to bend down and tie it.
Before I even got a chance to reach my shoes, a dog jumped on me and put its paws around my neck—like a hug. She was big, with a white coat, black spots, and brown brindle patches, which looked almost like tiger stripes. She also came with a brindle-colored patch over her left eye. I’ve always been a sucker for dogs with this sort of marking. It’s the equivalent of dimples on a human being—just irresistible.
I felt an instant connection to her, an ease and comfort.
I’m not one of those people who sees dogs up for adoption and develops an almost irresistible urge to take one home. I have no problem saying no. But in this very particular case, as soon as this dog jumped on me, I knew she was going home with me.
People who have rescued dogs sometimes say that dogs pick you—instead of the other way around. And there’s no doubt that this little girl picked me. I learned from the adoption folks that her name was Canulita, after one of the members of the band the Gipsy Kings.
I took a picture of Canulita and filled out an adoption form.
When my friends and I were leaving the mall, we decided to rename my soon-to-be dog “CC,” because we met her in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Century City and because of her coloring; she looked like cookies and cream. Judging by my initial interaction with her, I could already tell she was a climber—like a monkey. And since I figured she deserved a more colorful, interesting name, I decided to call her “CC the Monkey.”
I spent a week with CC in Los Angeles before taking her with me back to New York. Just before I left Los Angeles with CC, my friend Ariadne, who had been with me at the mall, looked at me as I was packing up my stuff, and she shared a pretty incredible observation. With a level of earnestness that still makes me emotional, she said, “You will never feel lonely again as long as you have her by your side.”
I believed her. At that time, I thought she was speaking purely of companionship, and I had no doubt that’s what CC would provide.
The first day CC and I were together in New York, I knew this dog-owning experience would be different. With the quiet I had gained in my life—thanks to my new vocation—I was able to be present. I didn’t have to rush off to meeting after meeting or stay late in an office until midnight. With the exception of social engagements and some other appointments, she was always with me. But even though my mind was occupied and CC was loving and affectionate, I still felt lonely. Not the way I felt in February, but loneliness certainly hadn’t left my side yet.
During those first days in Manhattan, I got to see an LA dog (who was, at that point, used to going places in cars and having a backyard to play in) really experience a big, bustling city for the first time. Like most dogs, she had an infectious interest in all things around her. A big moment in her day was seeing a plastic bag roll by or spotting a chipmunk in the park. These sorts of moments wouldn’t have been exciting to me before CC. Now I loved watching her get curious and playful about things that hadn’t ever registered on my radar. I was fascinated with the kinds of things that would spark her attention.
In New York, I would often take CC to a dog park a couple of times a day, and it was here where I had my favorite moment with her. In this particular dog park, there were two small plastic pools for the dogs to play in. One day, CC spent a half hour playing with a black lab who decided jump into one of these pools. CC stood on the side, desperate to join in with her new pal. She spent several minutes looking at the dog splashing and playing in the water. Eventually, she gave in and slowly, slowly stuck one paw in the pink pool and then took it out. She kept going back to the pool, putting one more paw in each time. This continued for an hour. Finally, she went all in and jumped into the pool, bouncing around and frolicking joyfully, just like her new friend.
On that day in the park, when CC finally managed to overcome her fears and jump into the pool, I felt connected to myself again. I finally understood what Susie meant when she said loneliness was about a “disconnect.” My loneliness began recede when I witnessed moments like CC’s ears perking up. When I see CC’s interest in her surroundings stoked by a plastic bag tripping down Madison Avenue, I am reminded of who I really am: someone who is here to enjoy and feel grateful—alive to the pleasurable serendipity that the simplest moment can bring.
CC reminded me to push away all the stressors that come with career, social achievement, and the rush to attain material trappings—in short, all things that fill a day, but may not fulfill the self. That the secret to overcoming this particular kind of disconnect and loneliness is about pushing aside all the noise and being fully present in my own self and life.
I finally acknowledged to myself that I had spun my life during the past few years into such a multilayered disaster of overcommitting, of pressuring myself that I had forgotten what life was really about. CC and her everyday excitement about plastic bags reminded me that my life and all lives are about these simple and simply pleasurable moments. She led me to recognize what loneliness was all about and what do about it.
For many of us, I think a big part of loneliness isn’t about the traditional causes, like old age or the loss of a loved one. Instead, I think much unresolved loneliness is related to how we create expectations in life. The ways in which we live our lives have become so complicated that we are pulled away from the most basic parts of ourselves. As a culture, we are often obsessed with producing perfect results at work, concerned with achieving the material goods of the “American Dream,” and constantly bombarded by outside media influences. As a result, we no longer stop to find satisfaction and joy in things like a quiet night, reading a book alone, or going for a walk to pay attention to what our souls really want and need.
In an effort to be serious and efficient, we push aside our natural desire to play, to have fun. We put aside our natural need for a mental break, and, instead, push through and ignore the warning signs.
We’re the only animals on the earth who continuously ignore our own internal warning signs, our instincts and intuition. This constant neglect of our fundamental human needs creates an emotional space between where we are now and where we should be. We are lonely because we are out of touch with these basic human needs, and while this disconnection can exist for some time without any evidence, it soon rears its ugly head, and we feel one of the biggest symptoms: loneliness.
My loneliness wasn’t because I didn’t have enough human company. It wasn’t about the absence of romantic love. It was about being absent from myself. That loneliness came about when my internal compass was telling me that I had stepped away from my basic needs and desires.
A study conducted by the University of British Columbia discovered that dogs have the mental abilities of a two- or three-year-old child. It would have been so easy for me to characterize CC’s excitement and her explorations of New York as those typical of any dog or of any very young child. Instead, I chose to see those moments for what they truly were: a reminder for me to keep it simple, to find satisfaction with the most basic things in life, and, most important, to do what feels natural.
CC’s gift to me, the lesson she has unintentionally taught me, isn’t simply about being present or affectionate—that wouldn’t have solved my feelings of loneliness. The gift she gave me was that she brought me back to myself.
And she didn’t have to do much. All she had to do was bounce into a little pink plastic pool and have the time of her life.
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