On Thursday this week the BBC UK are scheduling a documentary called "The Age of Loneliness". On Monday I was invited into my local BBC radio station to have a conversation about this issue. It's a good time of year to have this conversation. Whilst Christmas and New Year are a time of celebration, in reality for people who are lonely the festive period can be extremely emotionally challenging. I have been listening to people for over 26 years now, and in my experience, loneliness is on the up.
Loneliness crosses all borders... It doesn't limit itself to any particular group of people, there is no discrimination between age, gender, social status and cultural identity. It's an increasing problem, and one that deserves and needs our recognition; in fact one of the biggest problems surrounding loneliness is that we can't actually see it... it's invisible. We could be at a football match, surrounded by thousands of people and feel completely alone... and no one will know.
If I were a teacher with 30 plus children in my class, providing I'm not seeing any outwardly difficult or challenging behavior and my students are doing well academically then I am unlikely to be aware of any internal issues of loneliness. However, sometimes children who are lonely can bury themselves in work and become academically very high achievers, so loneliness is hidden well.
If I attend a family event, with an elderly relative whose recently lost their partner of life, even though they may genuinely be enjoying the event, in reality they may also be experiencing very conflicting feelings. Spending time with loved ones can be a stark reminder of our loss and even when we are surrounded by family and friends who love us we can experience acute loneliness.
I would like to share an experience of my own. Many years ago, my long-term, and for me, deeply committed relationship ended. Some months before I had booked tickets for myself and my family, including my partner, to see a well-known comedian. Because my relationship had ended we had a spare ticket. My children invited another of their friends to join us, however for me, the event was shrouded by painful feelings and thoughts. The show was one of the funniest I have ever seen, and whilst it was lovely to see my children's enjoyment, I simultaneously experienced an acute and overwhelming loneliness. I was surrounded by people having a wonderful time, most of them couples and families, a reminder of everything that I had lost and everything that I had thought I was and would be. If I hadn't been there with my children, I wouldn't have stayed... Despite my enjoyment of their enjoyment, I longed to leave and to retreat, to be away from such a painful reminder.
At the very core of loneliness we will always find sadness.
One of the problems with sadness, and indeed aloneness, is that it can become a close friend and a place of retreat; being alone can become a place of safety. We can begin to wear it like a coat absorbing it as part of our identity, telling ourselves that this is simply who we are... We are just one of those people who are destined to be alone, and we can begin to believe that this is the norm for us.
Over time this in turn impacts on our self-esteem and our confidence, making it even harder to recognise and be responsive to our deeper feelings of sadness in ways that might open doorways of opportunity and possibility. Over time, living in such a manner closes doorways of hope and can reinforce a lack of trust in the world.
So what can we do?
The starting point to create any kind of change, is to recognize and acknowledge that there is a problem. Conversations and programs such as "The Age of Loneliness" are so important, as they bring to our attention a problem that runs deep and yet is unseen.
I think the key here is to develop our capacity to notice, to listen, and to be responsive.
In the example I gave of myself, even though my feelings were overwhelming and acutely painful, they were actually good information. My internal emotional satnav system was letting me know that I wasn't okay... I need to listen to myself, and evaluate what I needed to do about this. I needed to begin to consider what choices might be available to me, and to find the courage to begin to build a different kind of world for myself...
In truth if we are feeling alone and experiencing loneliness, however challenging and however difficult, the emotional information is actually valuable. It's giving us a message, loud and clear. The issue really is whether or not we can listen to this and be responsive to it. And this isn't simply about our ability to listen to ourselves, we also need others to be responsive to us, we need to begin to believe that the world will be receptive and a safe place to step into. We need to know that our feelings are "normal" and that people will be interested.
If we notice that someone may be isolated and experiencing loneliness, there is always the opportunity to offer a gentle enquiry. Whilst I would not want to approach anyone in a manner that might cause embarrassment or an overexposure of vulnerability, by even saying good morning, or offering a smile, we can sow a seed of possibility. We can begin to create the possibility of a conversation rooted in kindness, empathy and care in which someone may begin to be able to speak openly about the way that they are really feeling.
Whenever we see and identify a problem, we have a choice.
Loneliness tends to arrive unexpectedly, we don't begin our lives expecting to feel this way, and it can affect any of us, at any time in our lives.