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.

Busy doing nothing

Busy doing nothing

For our summer holidays in 2015, my friends and I hired a cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District. There were some spectacular views, some spectacular food and a lot of spectacular rainfall. Thankfully, it only rained early in the morning and in the evening, so we were able to walk, go for a trip on Windermere and visit a lot of cake shops (you’ve got to love a fruity scone).

We spent a lot of time just relaxing in the cottage. Halfway through the week, I realised that we didn’t speak much when we spent time together in the lounge. We weren’t sitting awkwardly in silence or staring into space (well, I did a bit of that, but I think that was just me), we were reading, playing some solo games or doing a crossword.

I started to stress about this a bit. Why weren’t we laughing hilariously all the time, like people seem to in adverts? Why weren’t we taking selfies? Why weren’t we putting the world to rights or discussing deep, philosophical matters? I grew a little disappointed in myself. I began to wonder if I wasn’t very good company. I’m not a huge fan of ‘banter’ (and even less of a fan when it’s shortened to ‘bants’), but I had thought myself to be more of a raconteur than seemed to be the case.

I am an inveterate worrier, so this thought played on my mind. If I wasn’t very good company, then these friends might not want to carry on spending time with me. If we didn’t come home with tales of the times we spent talking late into the night or of when we did amazing things, then perhaps I was a bit of a friend failure.

In the 21st century, we’re assaulted on all side by images of what our lives should be like: adverts feature ideal lifestyles, people’s Facebook feeds are crammed with photos of them living life to the full, TV programmes and websites feature lists of 50 things to do before you die (‘Come on! Swim with dolphins!’). If we judge ourselves by these standards, as I had started to, sitting in that cottage in Grasmere, we will always come up short. Because these are idealised, carefully edited pictures of the perfect life. They’re not real life.

And after a bit of fretting, I realised that we weren’t failing to have an amazing time, we were enjoying doing nothing together. And once I’d worked this out, I enjoyed myself all the more – reading a book, watching the birds feeding in the garden, playing patience. If you’re single and live on your own, you don’t get much opportunity to share this ‘doing nothing’ time with anyone else. And so, this time doing very little as the rain cascaded down outside became very precious.

The journalist Felicity Green once said, ‘I have plenty of people to do things with, but I just have no one to do nothing with.’ She made this comment after she had been widowed, having spent years together with her husband. Esther Rantzen and the actor Sheila Hancock have both said similar things after losing their husbands. Getting used to being alone after sharing life with someone for so long must be heart-rending, but this idea of having no one to do nothing with applies to all single people.

So much of life is constructed around doing ‘things’. We arrange to meet for dinner, we go to the football, we go out for a walk. We never invite people round to our house to spend an afternoon binge-watching a box set or to sit with us as we do the ironing.

It’s the same with church – small groups, prayer evenings, services and other regular meetings are complemented by special events around festivals or the local calendar. It’s all do, do, do and there’s little time to be. We have the idea that if we do something that isn’t structured or doesn’t involve anything explicitly spiritual, we’re wasting everyone’s time. Even during times of retreat, when we’re meant to stop being busy, the expectation is there that you’ll spend the time in prayer and meditation. I’ve never heard of a retreat time when a group of people are told just to sit about together and do nothing in particular…

I wonder what ‘doing nothing’ looks like in church. How can we connect people together and help facilitate this important, but woefully underrated part of our lives? There’s no doubt that providing a space to do nothing, or a network of people who would be happy to pop round and do nothing with each other would be of great help to many people of all ages. And as churches, we are uniquely placed to provide something like this. So why don’t we?

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…

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.

On friendship and being a part of a great group

On friendship and being a part of a great group

This weekend, I was part of a group that produced an open-air concert, called Movie Matinee. It was a lot of hard work, and we only did two performances. I know that some people wonder why I put so much effort in for such a short performance run. It seems crazy, I know, to spend so much (in terms of time and effort) for such little return (number of performances and size of audience). And I suppose, yes, it is crazy in a way.

There a couple of reasons why I put myself through it, two even three times a year. Number 1: I’m a show-off. I can’t deny it. I love performing on stage – singing, acting and dancing – basically entertaining people. Being part of a theatre group means that I get lots of chances to do that (providing the director casts me!).

The other reason is that I get to do all this with my friends. Movie Matinee was a lovely cast to be part of – I met some great new friends, got to know others better and worked side-by-side with some of my very best friends. Everyone pulled in the same direction, helping and supporting each other. They got stuck in where they could and were sorry when they couldn’t.

So I want to say thank you. The MD was the phenomenal Adrian Johnson. The sublime cast were Simone Bates, Matt Morris, Pauline Gruner, Daisy Weston, Claire Duff, Andrew Oxford, Jane Hopton, Katie Bannister, Kate Ayres, Wendy Thomson, Peter Corrigan, Niamh Hopton, Jodie Commercial, Justine Ephgrave, Sian Mander, Mel Best, Michelle Marlborough and Chris Tennant. Others helped amazingly behind the scenes, including Andrew Scholefield and Lorraine King. They were a joy to direct and work with, and I am so proud of the show that we produced together.

I’m not the most emotional of people, in fact, I have a bit of a reputation for being dead inside. However, every now and again it’s important to reflect on how much I appreciate these times with friends, both old and new, so allow me a little moment of getting misty-eyed about this. I’ll go back to being hard as nails in a minute.

But for now, you were all awesome.