This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
Did you know that loneliness is the illness of our time? A bigger health risk than smoking or obesity.
It hit me when I was with a girlfriend and she said to me, “I am lonely.” In my mind she did not fit that category of ‘lonely people’. She is sociable with a large family and a wide circle of friends, active on social media, always liking pictures I put up. She is often sending me a WhatsApp during the day and I always reply.
However, every now and then, when the ‘What’s Apping’ becomes a conversation, I pick the phone up and call her. That is when we engage, we laugh, we tease and we moan. My kids would call it banter but us oldies would call it chat and there is not enough of it about. The advantage of a real chat is nothing can be misinterpreted. Even Emojis don’t really give a true impression of how the person is feeling. No words or emojis in a text or email gives intonation or is a true expression of the sender’s mood.
I know that Grace and Annabel always try to call each other every couple of days as they have found that emails were often being misinterpreted. They may have been dashed off in a hurry and the recipient has thought they were sent in a slightly harsh tone. This was not the case but they have both come to realise that nothing beats a phone call and a meet up is even better.
Since my mother died I hardly get any calls on the landline as she was the only one who used it to call me. She had a mobile but that was for emergencies, she said. When she rang on the landline it was for a chat so I knew it was time to settle down and focus on her. There was often nothing specific she wanted to say but she lived on her own and she needed human contact.
Whilst I revel in the fact that I can save so much time and do a supermarket shop on my phone, my mother loved to go shopping. She liked small shops and not supermarkets. None of that supermarket chat that the till operators are trained in, “Are you having a nice day?”, they ask. Better than silence but not much sincerity in it.
Who famously said, “You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life”? My mother enjoyed engaging in conversation with the butcher or the greengrocer. She felt they knew her and could ask real questions that made her feel they cared and were interested in her life. She appreciated the human contact even if it made her weekly shop a lot more time consuming.
More recently I visited a friend who has cancer and again I felt an overwhelming feeling of loneliness from her. She told me that the problem was when she was on a chemotherapy cycle. This meant her immune system was down and so she could not risk catching a bug. Winter must be very long for those who are in the same situation. Even on a good week planning something is so hit and miss. So she relies on a very tight circle of friends to support her who understand when she cancels last minute.
This last week we have read with great sadness about Molly Russell and the alleged effect that Instagram had on her. At the age of 14 years Molly was sucked into the world of #selfharm and #suicide. Eventually she herself committed suicide. Did social media lead her to that terrible conclusion? It is beyond comprehension that Molly could fall under the spell of these people who are posting these derogatory pictures with such hashtags. Was she so lonely that these pictures influenced her to this end?
A friend and I were recently discussing some of the bad effects that social media was having on her granddaughter, aged 11 years. She was experiencing online bullying which was causing her to feel lonely and isolated. Would these bullies be able to say the same abuse to her face I wonder? However online it is so easy to inflict pain.
This bullying was having a detrimental effect on both my friend’s granddaughter and her family. Her mother finally removed her smart phone. She now has a Nokia which can only make phone calls and there is no internet access. Obviously this does not solve the problem however it is a good start as it has cut down a means of communication by the bullies.
Isn’t it amazing how a grandmother has had to become so concerned about these things. My grandmother only ever worried that I would grow up to find a nice husband! If she came back now she would be blown away by all the instant communication we all have access to. I can hear her saying, ‘I don’t want an email I want to see you then I will know if you are really well.’
The reality is that social media is not social. The true definition of social is relating to activities in which you meet and spend time with other people. These should happen during the time when you are not working. Looking at a screen is not a substitute for human contact.
Friends on Facebook and Likes on Instagram seem to be the modern calculation of your popularity. Do not get me started on the pictures posted on these social media platforms. The word bragging springs to mind in some cases. Having said that a picture of a beautiful sunset or a spectacular view can send a positive message though it still needs to be handled sensitively. Not everyone is in a place where they can absorb these pictures in a favourable manner. They can intensify a feeling of loneliness and friendlessness.
None of us truly lives a perfect life. Even our two young Duchesses are apparently experiencing unparalleled abuse on social media by people who don’t even know them but feel they can judge them. It must make them feel very isolated and they cannot respond to any of it.
Loneliness comes in various forms that are often hard to initially perceive. I wish I could end this post saying something positive that would help those feeling lonely. However I will continue to make sure that I pick up the phone, make arrangements to meet up with friends and engage with other humans, even those I do not know, as I walk around my local town.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” is an English language-idiom. However a phone call or a coffee with a friend must be worth a million more.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk expresses it so much better than I:
“Loneliness is the ill being of our time. We feel very lonely. Even if we are surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. And there is a vacuum inside of us and we do not feel comfortable with that kind of vacuum, so we try to fill it up by connecting with other people. We believe that when we connect with other people that feeling of loneliness will disappear. And technology supplies us with a lot of devices in order to connect. Stay connected. We always stay connected but we continue to feel lonely.”Thich Nhat Hanh
More of Poppy’s thoughts on the subject of loneliness here
If you are interesting in befriending, this article might be helpful.