(Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, November 4, 2023)
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
– The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
We’re all lonely to one degree or another, this side of eternity. If it was different, there’d be no longing. Or expectation. Even so, we’re living in unusually lonely times.
Some call it a loneliness epidemic. Alice Aedy, a British filmmaker, calls it a dystopian time. “Almost Orwellian.” Call it what you will, maybe, with some help from our friends, we can do something about it.
Aedy made her short film, “Disconnected,” not long after the U.K. acquired the world’s first (if you can imagine) Minster for Loneliness. The documentary gives voice to people simply leaving phone messages. They talk to nobody in particular, often desperately, about their loneliness. That’s how much they want to be heard.
Some people need to be alone, to have space to reflect, or recharge, or just be themselves. We’re around. “You’re a high-functioning introvert,” is what a friend once told me. It’s a compliment, I think. So being alone can be quite fine.
Human disconnectedness, which is growing in western nations, is something different. The pandemic exasperated it. But it’s becoming more systemic. The poet Coleridge wrote, “water, water everywhere, with nothing to drink.” Think, “people, people everywhere, with nobody to talk to.”
Not really talk. Not with any intimacy. Not without fear. Or shame. Nobody to know and nobody to be known by. Nobody to meet those deep human needs going back to Eden, so much in our DNA.
The voices in Aedy’s short documentary are anonymous voices, so they’re honest. They’re voices looking for catharsis. And connection. Over and over, this is what they say. They’re experiencing crushing loneliness while surrounded by people. This is the strange truth of it.
Surveys show about one in ten Canadians are often or always lonely. That’s four million people.
And social media? “The fundamental promise of the internet – better connection – has failed.” These are Aedy’s words. This aligns with the research, that in the west, in rich countries like Canada, it’s Generation Z, our youth, so well-connected technologically, who are the most lonely.
John Cacioppo, a Chicago neuroscientist, was regarded as the world’s leading “loneliness expert.” He believed loneliness can even get into our cells and alter genes. And why can social media create such a profound estrangement and fake intimacy? “Because surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.”
So take a minute – 13 minutes and change, actually – to watch “Disconnected.” It’s conveniently, if not paradoxically, online. It might break your heart like it did the filmmakers.’ They listened to these lonely people, these voices, all night long, fighting tears, until this message came: “Your mailbox is full.”
Then go and talk to (no, listen to) people. Really. With November now biting, with deeper darkness and upcoming holiday stressors, people will appreciate a warm “hello” more than you realize.
On my morning walk, a stranger recently talked to me about the death of his dog. Before that I listened to an artist in the nearby park explain aspects of his work and how, that day, he was shut out of the studio he normally uses. And, no, my natural disposition is not of Mister Bubbly.
Anyone can do this. Anyone can slow down and anyone can take a minute. Don’t worry people will think you’re weird. Or a threat. While the odd person might rebuff your “hello,” most welcome the friendliness. The surveys shows this. Just show tact. And after saying hello to some stranger, rekindle some old friendship.
We especially need to give each other permission to be honest. Certainly young people – your children and mine – should be made to feel that they can be vulnerable. Because when you live online, you’re especially leery of expressing yourself for fear someone will come after you.
It’s like you’re not allowed to breathe. And that’s no way to live.