Creación de Adán by Michelangelo
Recently, a radio program caught my attention. CBC was interviewing, George Monbiot, about “the age of loneliness.” Mobiot worried that our competitive culture is driving us apart. He argued that we’re designed to be deeply social and that loneliness is dangerous.
“It’s true,” said Girl one as I turned off the ignition. “We really are living in the age of loneliness.” And off we went to wherever it was we were going.
Having heard the first part of the interview, I found myself turning to my own thoughts about loneliness. Not as much around how much we compete with each other as much as how much we ignore each other. I hesitate to discuss my significant and deep concerns about social media, smart phones. I worry about sounding like someone who makes you want to change the channel. But all those virtual “friends,” aren’t helping. We’re getting too distracted to listen. Or think about what we’re doing.
I am profoundly troubled by parents unable to put aside internet access to focus on their children, by children and adults more taken with the world you can see than the world you can touch. We fail to recognize real people because we cannot separate ourselves from technology that preys on our insecurities, feeds our addictions, and lulls us into levels of shallowness and disconnection that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago.
Surely the rising levels of speech impairment in children bear a connection to an adult world too otherwise absorbed to stop, make eye contact, and speak to them. In full sentences. One after another. Without interruption. Watching a father with his daughters grunt pleasantly from his phone I wondered if even the angle of his head tilted toward the phone was resulting in a distorted view of his lips moving to make the few distracted words available for observation.
An older friend has a basket by her front door. Not unlike the guns of the wild west, grandchildren are required to leave their phones at the door. It took extra courage, she said, to require the same of her son-in-law. But what is the point, she asked, of coming to visit me if you can’t just talk to me?
In October, Monbiot published an article in The Guardian about the ravages of loneliness. If disconnection is a matter of life and death, why are we disconnecting? Addictive behaviors aside, what are we medicating for? If loneliness kills, why are we running away from each other? Why are the imperfections of strangers easier to bear than the habits of the person next to us?
If we could prove that the world was dying of loneliness and we were given the strength for one courageous act to benefit humanity, perhaps it should be to look at the person beside us, smile, and not look away. If we survive this, we might try again. And again, until we know each other. Someday then we might wake up to find ourselves embraced in all our failures by equally imperfect people. We’ll realize that we’re not alone, we never were, we just got a little mixed up for a while.
A picture from Newfoundland for free . . . although I’m guessing it’s a lot whiter right now.
I want to move to Buffalo. All that snow appeals to me. But Buffalo is a passing fancy. As is Newfoundland (I think). Newfoundland, small foreign villages in pick-a-country (Ireland, Spain, the Philippines, anywhere in South America or Africa without the overgrown insects). Sometimes I dream of going north north. They’re always looking for teachers and nurses up there.
Sometimes I dream of cities, preferably somewhere cold. Cities with soup kitchens and streets and friends that you don’t have to drive to. Cities with vibrant churches, schools, museums, and concerts. Cities with artists, musicians, and other writers. Cities, or maybe towns, with neighbour kids and lots of people who live next door.
When I visit my grandparents, my fancies turn to the Finger Lakes. And what of Michigan, I said last year when a writer’s retreat took me that way. For a woman who likes where she lives, the near yearning for new lands is a puzzle.
Unless it’s not. Unless the restless searching is part of being here and not quite home. I’ve been thinking about that for myself, but also how it might relate to dementia. What if it’s we, the memory rich, who forget we don’t belong here. That there’s a reason we can’t quite settle in. What if somewhere deep down under what we see, people with dementia begin to glimpse in stages that their belonging is somewhere else?
My loneliness, emptiness, the hollows of my soul. Maybe we all forget that they’re not mine or yours, they’re ours. That we walk a planet full of lonely people together. It is either insanity that we don’t connect enough to fill each other’s emptiness – or it is reality that we never really can. I’m guessing it’s a little of both. That we’re put here to hold hands and help each other, but we can’t quite make it all better.
Why that makes me want to go to Newfoundland is anybody’s guess. But maybe it’s ok sometimes to feel a little disconnected where we are. To wander a bit down here in search of there.
Boy one came home unusually chipper the other day. He had happened across someone who compulsively turned open padlocks backwards and set closed locks to zero when passing lockers. Together they had raced the halls in a mad attempt to set every lock in the school to zero. Although he spent a great deal of time bemoaning the hallway they had failed to finish, the first words out of his mouth were, “Mom, I actually met someone like me. I’m not the only one.”
I was once a woman in her early twenties, at least battling depression. Post traumatic stress syndrome would have fit too. I was haunted by nightmares that paralyzed me, drained me of energy, and left me unsettled for days. Being objective about my emotions was an idea I could grasp but not put into practice most of the time. I tried to rise above my troubles, but my downfall appeared inevitable. I felt confused, hopeless and desperately alone.
I didn’t know anyone, including myself, comfortable with mental health issues, or knowledgeable about the need for help and where to get it. I sought advice, but for years did not find anyone who understood. I remember an older woman I spoke with. That she was a woman with a lifetime of fragile mental health was unknown to me. She was respected and admired. She was old and not dead yet. That was put together in my books.
I was in the habit of testing people on small doses of me, so I poured out enough troubles to relieve the pressure. I remember at first, I was irritated, wondering if she’d even heard me. But what seemed at first a non sequitur, made a lot of sense.
“You know those stairs down the hall?” She had a bit of a southern accent. “When I stand at the top and look down, I know I’m going to fall. They’re so steep I don’t even like to think about it. Every time I can hardly move because I know am going to fall. But I stand at the top, grab the railing tight and step one stair at a time, two feet on every one. Takes me forever, but I get down. And I haven’t fallen yet.”
Lately, sadness and loneliness have sat their ample bottoms down on my chest and refused to move. Life goes on, but they are heavy and quitting tempts. Monday, I remembered the railing, two feet on every stair until I get to the bottom. Which reminded me that we are never alone. A long time ago, someone who didn’t know me or understand me, possibly accidentally, gave me really good advice. My stairs were different, but we were both afraid of going where we had to and it helped.
I picture her stairs and think. We are inadequate answers to each other’s questions, and insufficient medicine for each other’s pain. Yet out of the immense alone, what cannot be, is. In darkness for tiny seconds, we find each other’s arms and we are known. You too? Yes, me too. From imperfect and impossible rises us. We glimpse our belonging and for that moment, heaven.