I recently watched a great documentary on BBC iPlayer about loneliness. I doubt many people could watch it without at some point hearing at least one sentence that resonated with an experience felt at some point in their lives. All demographics were represented – elderly, teenagers, and ‘regular’, attractive people of all ages – all bravely expressing how lonely they feel. Including a lady from Leeds who I think was about my age. A normal youngish woman talking about how heartbreakingly alone she feels. I felt an impulse to contact the programme makers and ask them to give my details to the woman in case she wanted to meet up for a coffee. But I didn’t. I wonder if anyone did. I hope so.
How many of us know our neighbours? How many of us say hello to people we pass on the street? How many of us attempt to make new connections? Not on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn – actual face to face contact. Many judge popularity and social status by number of Facebook friends or Twitter/Instagram followers, but does that actually make your day better if you’re feeling a bit down? Make you feel any more connected with real people? Does it make you feel any less alone?
I was recently running near my house on a route I’ve run hundreds of times over the years, and I ran past an elderly lady who I’ve never seen before or since. We made eye contact, I smiled and said ‘good morning’, she responded likewise. As I passed, her scent fondly reminded me of my Nana, dead for about 20 years. I thought about that lady the rest of my day. I was working from home and didn’t go out again, my housemate had left before I got up and got in after I’d gone to bed, so it turned out she was actually my only face-to-face connection that day; a stranger who made my day better than it would otherwise have been just by a momentary connection. I’ve wondered a lot since then if I was her only contact too; if my greeting made a positive difference.
I often work from the café in my gym, as do several other people. We’re slowly connecting. Forming bonds, building relationships. We’ve all joked that it saves on heating bills, gets us out of the house, enables us to exercise – which is all true – but we’ve all also admitted that if we stayed home we wouldn’t see or speak face-to-face with anyone all day from the moment any family/housemate leaves in the morning to when they return at night.
Despite us all being so busy, with so much to do and so much stimulation, it can sometimes seem such a lonely world that we live in. So many people unknowingly share the same desire for more connection, some for any connection. In his South of the River blog Jeremy has many times referred to South Leeds’ high level of ‘churn’ and the challenges this brings in building and sustaining communities. Connect for Health also recently highlighted the problem of social isolation. A smile and a ‘hello’ can make such a difference.
How many of us stand at the bus stop or in a shop queue staring at our smartphones instead of acknowledging the people right next to us, while at the same time feeling that this semi-isolation isn’t how it’s meant to be? How many people avoid eye contact when they pass someone in the street, yet wish we had more of a sense of ‘community’? We don’t avoid these connections as children but among adults it’s endemic. Why? In case we’re thought strange? Fear of rejection?
It seems that it takes courage to smile, say hi, make a new connection. Surely the worst that can happen is that the other person doesn’t smile back? Hardly the end of the world. But the alternate possibility is that it can make your and the other person’s day so much warmer, and potentially even lead to your worlds expanding. And these connections don’t just fight loneliness, they are one of the building blocks of community.