The sound of silence

The sound of silence

You wake and look at the clock. 7.14am. It’s a Saturday, you don’t need to get up. You lie there thinking through the day and realise that you might not speak to another person all day. What to do? You could go window shopping and treat yourself to a coffee, at least that way you’ll be around people and have the opportunity for a quick conversation or two. Or you could watch TV. It’s not like anyone would want to talk to you, so you’d only be disappointed when you go out and no one speaks to you. Yes, much better to stay in.

Welcome to loneliness, the new national, if not worldwide, epidemic. We all suffer from loneliness from time to time, but for increasing numbers in our communities, it’s becoming a crushing daily reality. Thousands of people all over the country are suffering from lack of friendship or lack of contact with others.

The Campaign to End Loneliness describes loneliness as a ‘subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship’. They go on to say that ‘loneliness can be a transient feeling that comes and goes. It can be situational; for example only occurring at certain times like Sundays, bank holidays or Christmas. Or loneliness can be chronic; this means someone feels lonely all or most of the time.’

According to figures collated by the Campaign to End Loneliness, loneliness and social isolation is a real threat to health, having the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who suffer from severe loneliness are at greater risk from high blood pressure, dementia and depression.

It’s widely recognised that older people are at risk of feeling lonely, due to bereavement or a lack of outside contact. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone while, according to Age UK, for two fifths of the older generation (almost 4 million people), the television is their main company. However, loneliness doesn’t just affect the elderly. People of all ages and from all backgrounds are feeling the effects of social isolation.

In her TV documentary, The Age of Loneliness (Wellpark Productions for the BBC), Sue Bourne interviewed people from different social backgrounds, different generations and different experiences about their feelings of loneliness. She found that loneliness can affect anyone: students, parents, those recently bereaved or divorced, those who don’t have a partner, as well as the elderly. One of her interviewees, an 84-year-old woman called Dorothy, put her finger on loneliness: ‘You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t touch it. You can only feel it when you’ve got it.’

Loneliness is a part of older life. We recognise that, even if we don’t think it’s a positive thing. However, loneliness is not ‘socially acceptable’ in other generations. Lou is in her 30s and works as a schools’ worker in Kent. She calls this the ‘but’ of loneliness. ‘I am not allowed to be lonely,’ she says. ‘People often seem surprised: “But you have friends”, “But you are really sociable”, “But you have a new house to play with”. I can’t answer them, because I tell myself this too. I feel guilty for my loneliness, and ashamed. However, I am learning to allow the loneliness to be a true feeling and in accepting it I am beginning to grow.’

Parents are not immune to feeling lonely, which seems strange, as they are often surrounded by people. And yet, thanks to the pattern of work, childcare, or even separation or divorce, family life throws up isolation as well as community.

Em had different experiences with her two children: ‘With my first baby, I made a group of friends. Some days were lonely but we shared the preschool years and spent lots of time together. A few years later, when my son arrived, those friends were back in work, my first child was in school and we’d moved across the city, so it was like starting again with a very different child. He would want me to be with him and not concentrate on anyone else which meant that even when we were surrounded by people – and perhaps even because of that – I felt incredibly lonely.

‘I was often told to “make the most of it; it goes so quick”, which I knew was true but it didn’t stop the day-to-day being really hard or change the fact that I felt so isolated. I’m grateful I was able to take time out of work to be at home but it was an extremely lonely time – there were days when I was pretty desperate for company, for someone who could really just “do life” alongside us.’

Toddler groups, such as those run by thousands of churches across the country, can be a lifeline to parents of young children. Tessa Rust is Early Years Mission Adviser for the Diocese of London. She spends a lot of time visiting toddler groups. She says: ‘Some parents come to groups after the birth of their children, many realising that they don’t know anyone in the local area. They feel lonely. Toddler groups provide a feeling of family, when biological families are too far away.’

Other factors can be the cause of loneliness. Any kind of additional need can result in barriers that are hard to overcome. Daniel is in his 20s and works on the railways. He has Apserger’s Syndrome, which means that he finds friendships harder to initiate and maintain. He is aware that, when meeting new people, he sometimes doesn’t get things right. In addition, he finds that a lack of understanding on other people’s part can put another obstacle in the way of building relationships. This isn’t insurmountable, but it adds another layer to a potentially tricky situation.

‘I have to be careful,’ says Daniel, ‘not to put too many expectations on friendships when they start. Because I find making friendships difficult, I am learning to manage my emotions to that I don’t get anxious.’

For some, it’s ‘situational’ loneliness that is the issue. This comes about when the pattern of your life results in a time when no one is around, when you’ve nothing to do or when events conspire to force you to be on your own. Di has recently lost her husband, having helped him face a battle against cancer. Now, although she lives a varied life, Sunday afternoons are a lonely time for her. Sunday morning is spent working for her local church in the Sunday School but, while her fellow church-goers go home to a Sunday lunch or an afternoon with the family, Di returns to an empty house.

‘I feel my loneliness is somewhat tempered with frustration because the easier option is to go home and close the door,’ says Di. ‘This is because when my husband was alive Sunday afternoons were spent together walking in the park or going for a coffee. Now, it is an effort on my part to arrange something else.’

Xan too suffers from situational loneliness. He works from home, but balances that with an active social life. ‘Sometimes, it just so happens that all your friends are busy when you’re not, and you’re left with nothing to do but watch TV or read a book. This is fine once in a while, but if it happens regularly in a short space of time, then you start to feel left out or like you don’t have many friends.’ He also recognises how, in today’s hectic, mobile culture, it’s easy to lose contact – close friends turn gradually into mere acquaintances. ‘There are quite a few people I have lost contact with whom I would have counted as good friends, and that’s sad. And if you’re lonely, it can be weirdly difficult to pick up the phone to chat to these former friends – you think they’ll be too busy or they’ll think it too strange to be called out of the blue.’

In situations of loneliness, social media can be both a blessing and a curse. Yes, you can reach out to people through Facebook, Twitter or whichever platform you prefer, but that also brings you into contact with people’s timelines – photos and comments that they have posted about their life – and that can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, rather than make them better. When your Facebook feed is stuffed full of photos of other people enjoying themselves with family or friends, this can be a dispiriting thing. You’re brain starts whirring: ‘Why am I not laughing and joking like these people?’ ‘Why are my friends out having fun without me? Don’t they like me any more?’

In the documentary The Age of Loneliness, several of the interviewees, particularly those under 40, identified the pressure of social media as something that only made their loneliness worse. Xan agrees: ‘It’s easy to forget that what people post on social media is actually a carefully curated version of their life. People want to present the best side of themselves – the most sociable, the craziest, the liveliest side – we all do it. They don’t publicise the times when they’re binge-watching a box set in their pyjamas, eating nothing but chocolate digestives. We only see the highlights, but that can lead us to think that our lives are somehow “less” than others’.’

Loneliness is a hidden affliction, often seen as shameful by those who suffer from it. We need to have our eyes and our ears open to those who need a comforting word, a place to belong, an offer of a cup of coffee, a chat or just someone to ‘be’ with. Showing a little understanding and kindness (but not pity) can make everyone’s lives more connected, valued and fulfilling. Just one phone call or invitation can break the cycle of loneliness and open up a path to a better, more connected life.

This article was originally published in Families First, the magazine of the Mothers’ Union.

Photo by Marina Shatskih from Pexels.

On the sidelines?

On the sidelines?

Recently I went to the dedication of the child of some friends of mine. It was in south London on a Sunday afternoon, meaning that I needed to make the trip down to the capital using Sunday trains – always an ‘experience’. Now, I travel to London quite regularly, but for some reason, on this journey I kept getting everything wrong. First, I walked all the way to the station before realising I’d forgotten my railcard. I was quite early (I’m always early, I spend most of my time waiting for other people to turn up), so I decided to go back and get it. When I eventually arrived at Euston station, I was still early, so I went to take some photographs around the city. ‘I’ve got loads of time,’ I thought, ‘no need to hurry.’

Wrong. I ended up being 20 minutes late.

I stumbled into the church just as my friends were going to the front for the dedication part of the service. Still, I’d arrived for the part I had gone to see and I even got to take part in the church’s after-service tea (there were some lovely egg sandwiches).

Now I’m not telling you this to show how incompetent I am (although I can be an idiot at times). Despite the rather wonky journey, it was amazing to be there at a landmark in the life of my friends’ family, to celebrate and to thank God for this cheeky little 1-year-old. These times of family celebration – birthday parties, baptisms and more – are such joyous events and important in the development of the life of a family.

I can’t say what it’s like for single women, but as a single man, I don’t often get invited to children’s birthday parties and the like. Friends who are parents are often asked to come along and bring their children, but it can sometimes feel like I’m on the sidelines. Perhaps parents don’t think I’d be interested in spending three hours in a soft-play area or playing musical bumps with a group of over-excited toddlers. But the thing is, I actually would.

Now, the lifestyle of parents and that of those who are child-free are very different, and sometimes misunderstandings can arise about others’ priorities and ways of living. It’s true that being long-term single and child-free does make you a little bit selfish – more often than not, you don’t have to consider other people before you make a decision. You can decide to go out without having to arrange a babysitter or spend an hour trying to convince a 3-year-old to put their shoes and coat on.

And when you don’t have children, spending time with them can be an experience you’re not fully prepared for. I always forget how the need for attention and entertainment is constant (some might say relentless, I couldn’t possibly comment). Added to that, children are loud, so very loud. And children’s toys are some of the most annoying things in the world. If anyone wanted to interrogate me, all they would have to do is lock me in a room with a plastic musical dog and I’d tell them anything they wanted to know.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to play a part in the lives of the families of my friends. As I said in my previous post, there aren’t many points of celebration in the life of a single man, so it’s fantastic to be able to share in those landmarks with those I care about. Children are joyous, fun and can change your perspective on life. They are frustrating, amazing, exhausting and loveable. Helping celebrate the special times in their lives is life-affirming and a treat for me.

Moreover, parents have access to a wealth of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ that can be drawn from their circle of friends. These almost-relatives can add to the richness of the life – and faith – of families. In the US, an organisation called the Fuller Youth Institute did a substantial piece of research called Sticky Faith, looking into what helps children’s faith to last into adulthood. They identified several key factors, one of which being that children and young people need relationships with adults who are not their parents in order to enrich their social, emotional and spiritual development.

Organising this takes effort. I am godfather to four lively and energetic children, and I’m not very good at keeping up with them. My life takes over (remember I said being long-term single can make you a bit selfish?) and suddenly months have passed without me seeing them or even contacting them. If you have a family, time can play the same tricks, with the endless churn of school, clubs, church, shopping etc meaning that families can go for long periods without seeing people outside these circles.

So, to parents, I’d say that you shouldn’t assume that your single friends don’t want to come to events in your family’s life. They probably would love to be invited and would prove significant and important features of your children’s upbringing. To single people (particularly single men like me), I’d say that you shouldn’t let time slip away from you – keep in contact with friends with children. Make a note in a diary or set a reminder on a phone to send a card or make a call. Just don’t forget.

This article was first seen in Mothers’ Union’s outreach magazine Families First

Lost friends

Lost friends

A while ago, a friend from university (Hello Orlando!) posted a link to this article, about how friendships can slide away from you when you reach your 30s or 40s. It’s an interesting read, but I’m not sure it comes to any real conclusions as to why people, especially men, lose contact with friends when they reach this age. Is it marriage? Career? An ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality?

I thought about this idea as I was volunteering on a primary-school trip to St Paul’s cathedral with a friend’s science and maths group. On the coach on the way back, we drove past a block of flats in Islington where Nick, my best friend from sixth form, used to live. Even before I’d seen his old place, Nick had been on my mind for a few weeks. I’d even done a bit of internet stalking to see if I could track him down. I hadn’t seen Nick for years, and it occurred to me how much I’d missed him. I recalled a time when he and I had sat either side of our friend Debbie on Salford Crescent Station and subjected her to more than one terrible (and incomplete) rendition of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’ from Oklahoma.

Similarly, Jindra was a great friend while I lived in the Czech Republic, and I hadn’t heard from him for years either. I was heading to Prague to celebrate my 40th birthday, and I wanted to meet up, but I wasn’t sure he got any of my emails. But, joy of joys, I managed to meet up with them both – Nick at Christmas and Jindra in Prague. And on both occasions, it was as if we had never been apart.

Now I’m not saying that I don’t have any friends now, and it’s difficult to maintain friendships over long distances or even in different countries, but the fact that I had lost contact with these to fine gentlemen made me a little bit sad. And as I reflect on other relationships closer to home that aren’t now what they used to be, I get the same feeling. I realise that times come and times go and sometimes we’re not in a position to keep up friendships because life gets in the way, but I don’t think that we should surrender valued relationships just because we’re too busy.

What should I do about it? Well, I need to pick up the phone and ring old friends. I need to set up times to meet and catch up. I need to get off my bum and make the effort. So, if you haven’t heard from me for ages, get ready for a call…

One (challenging) singular sensation

One (challenging) singular sensation

Last week, I got to indulge one of my worst character traits – I’m a terrible show-off – by performing in the musical, A Chorus Line. Set in a theatre in 1975, it follows a group of dancers auditioning to be in the chorus of a Broadway show. I love performing and being on stage – as I’ve said already, I’m a terrible show-off – but I found this show quite difficult.

Even though there were large parts of the show where I did very little, I was on stage almost all the time (most of the cast were). It sounds a bit daft, but not doing very much while still staying in character is actually quite tricky! The temptation is either to switch off and start thinking about something completely unrelated (like tomorrow’s dinner) or to become a spectator and watch the action as if you were an audience member (albeit one with a very good view).

It was also difficult because the dancing was quite complex and because I had a long monologue to deliver. The worry that I would forget dance moves or parts of the speech kept me awake at night for weeks before the show. And on stage, concentrating on routines and lines was quite hard work.

And yet, I think these issues made it a more enjoyable experience. I appreciated the challenge of the dancing and of the character I played: needing to find the emotional journey to take the character on (if that’s not too much of an X Factor cliche) meant that I had to spend time working at it.

If I’m honest, I think I enjoyed it more than last year’s Acorn Antiques, even though I’m a massive Victoria Wood fan. For me, Acorn Antiques was comfortable and fairly easy to do. I loved the comedy, the silliness and the songs, particularly the epic and daft ‘Macaroons’. But in terms of a sense of satisfaction and achievement, A Chorus Line was streets ahead.

Now, I’m essentially a very lazy person, and when I’m faced with a challenge, my first though is that I’d rather not take it on. I’d rather have an easy life. Better to sit on the sofa than to put the hard work in. Nevertheless (and if you’re a client of mine, this might be a relief to hear), it won’t be long before I’m squaring up to what needs to be done and the rewards for that hard work will vastly outweigh those of just watching TV. And A Chorus Line is proof of that – something that needed to be worked at but brought great reward.

I’m not sure where my next challenge will come from. Writing the Guardians of Ancora brings new challenges every time I have to create a new quest. I’ve just written a column for the Mothers’ Union which was a struggle to produce, but that they were very happy with (which is encouraging, but I’ve got to write five more and I’m not entirely sure I can!). However, wherever it comes from, I need to remember the satisfaction and sense of achievement I’ll get when it’s finally done and in print/on stage/on film. So, who’s going to challenge me?!

A tale of two hospices

A tale of two hospices

When you think about the word ‘hospice’, what images come to mind? A grey place where people go to die? A place of sadness, illness and overcooked cabbage? You wouldn’t be alone – these are certainly some of the things that I conjured up in the past.

But I want to tell you about a hospice. Well, two, actually. Children’s hospices. They are places where children and young people with life-limiting conditions go to be cared for and yes, perhaps to die. However, they aren’t drab, they aren’t depressing or oppressive and there isn’t even a whiff of overcooked cabbage.

Christopher’s in Guildford and Shooting Star House in Hampton together make up Shooting Star Chase. These two amazing places serve families across south-west London and Surrey, helping to manage the care for children and young people with life-limiting conditions, and their families. I provide editorial support to the charity (and even voice-over work) – I’ve just finished doing some editorial work on their supporter magazine and my head is full of the tough, but inspiring work that Shooting Star Chase puts in to make the lives of the families they work with immeasurably better.

They don’t only manage and care for the medical needs of children and young people, but their emotional and psychological needs too. Nurses and carers get to know a child’s likes and dislikes, their habits and comforts, as well as their medication and therapeutic requirements. Chefs, maintenance staff and volunteers strive to create an atmosphere of support, relaxation and fun. Social workers, care managers and support staff work hard to make sure children and young people get the best care possible.

I was lucky enough to visit Shooting Star House about a year ago, to see for myself the fantastic facilities, meet one or two of the care staff and even have a fine cup of tea from the creative kitchens. It was a privilege to see everything in action and a help to my editorial work for the charity, to have seen the facilities within which the stories are all set.

I’m writing this partly because my mind is buzzing with the stories of children, young people and families well cared for, but also because their story, and the stories of children’s hospices around the country, needs to be heard more widely. Financially, Shooting Star Chase only gets a tenth of what it needs from government funding, and so has to raise the remaining 90% itself. And when your care bill tops £10 million each year, that’s a big ask.

So, if you live in south-west London or Surrey, why not find out how you can support these two fine establishments? And if not, is there a children’s hospice near you that can make use of your time or money? That places like Shooting Star House and Christopher’s have to rely of charitable support is discomforting, but the work they put in to make the lives of children, young people and their families immeasurably better is worth every penny.

Community service?

Community service?

Recently, I have been spending a lot of time eating macaroons, wearing a tight white suit and singing a song about breaking a man’s leg. This strange and questionable behaviour can be explained by the fact that I was in a production of Acorn Antiques – the Musical, produced by my theatre group, Company MK. It’s not ‘my’ group because I own it or run it like a tin-pot dictator, but because I belong to it.

I belong to the group because I share its aim to produce top-quality amateur musical theatre. I belong because lots of my friends are also part of the group. I belong because it gives me the chance to show off perform on stage in interesting shows. I belong because I feel proud to be identified with the group… and I know lots of other people feel the same way.

When we started to put on productions again after a two-year hiatus, one of my objectives was to help build a community that was welcoming, fun to be part of and that gave everyone a fair crack at being cast in a role. By no means do I think we’ve done this perfectly – we’ve got things wrong on the way. We’ve made mistakes and have offended or disappointed people, or just got up their noses (and if we’ve done this to you, we’re really sorry).

However, I think we’ve started to build a group where people enjoy themselves, are stretched artistically and feel welcomed and included. People have stuck with us and the feedback we have had after successive shows has been how much people have enjoyed being part of our community. We’ll probably make more mistakes and be idiots from time to time, but we’ll try our hardest to continue this ethos and produce the best shows that we can, as we look to 2015 and beyond.

Thinking more widely, surely this is the same with any group we’re part of: a church, a sports team, a school… Even if we’re working with dysfunctional and difficult groups (and, given that all groups contain humans, each one is going to have its dysfunctional and difficult aspects), we need to work together to make things better. We need to be generous and gracious when others make mistakes or get on our nerves, just as we hope they will be when we inevitably mess something up ourselves. We need to encourage and push each other to reach higher, to develop skills and to surprise ourselves in what we can achieve.

Talking about groups in this way can sound idealistic and a nice idea (‘it’ll never happen’). But if you don’t give it a go, you’ll never know.