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 www.familiesfirstmagazine.com

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 www.familiesfirstmagazine.com

A singularity of one

A singularity of one

My name’s Alex Taylor. I’m 40 years old. And I’m a man.

That seems a bit of strange thing to say as an opening line, but my name is unisex and there is the potential for confusion.

And I’m single.

Not divorced, separated or widowed, but long-term, never-been-married single.

I realise that this seems quite unusual – not really in the UK in general, where 28% of all households only have one person – but certainly in the Church. And let’s face it, the Church isn’t great with single people. We just don’t ‘fit’.

Let me take you back a few years. I’m sitting in a prayer meeting. There are clusters of people in small groups (we’re all close together, it’s quite a small room). We’re running through the list of prayer requests, which someone has just presented on a PowerPoint (yes, it was one of those ‘shopping list’ prayer meetings – don’t you just love them?). In fact, they’ve spent so long explaining everything that we’ve very little time to actually pray. At the end of the meeting, a woman turns round and says excitedly, ‘While we were praying, I knew you were behind me and I prayed that you’d find someone, because you’d be so dynamic if you had a wife!’

Really.

I spluttered some surprised and incoherent response and watched her walk out of the door, wondering what had just happened.

And I can’t shake the feeling that this is how lots of people in the Christian world view me and other single people like me. I have lots of stories where my singleness has been unintentionally belittled (while talking about joining the youth ministry team, someone asked me if I had a ‘Godly Christian woman’ as if it were a prerequisite to serving.) Whenever you go to a conference and you read the speakers’ profiles, male contributors are almost always married to a beautiful and supportive wife, with at least two lovely children. You never see a biography like this:

‘Alex Taylor is an enthusiastic baker, singer and fan of Bolton Wanderers. He is single and has no children.’

A single male friend of mine always found himself being volunteered to do things in the church – be on the PCC, do youth work, help with setting chairs out… It turned out that people thought he should get involved because he was a single and child-free man and so had lots of time to volunteer. His church obviously had the idea that he was sitting around, waiting for things to crop up to spend his masses of free time on, all because he didn’t have a wife and/or children.

And that’s just not true. Being single and child-free isn’t an empty existence. However, the Church and the Christian world works in couples and families, and never seems to understand singleness, male singleness in particular. It celebrates (quite rightly) the landmarks in life associated with getting married and having children: engagements, weddings, baptisms and christenings. But there are no such landmarks in the life of a single man. So you end up being volunteered for everything while nothing in your life is celebrated.

And to make it worse, some churches tend to lump all single people together into one group and treat them all the same, like some kind of ‘single’ ghetto. But single people are all different, with different life stories, different experiences of being single. There used to be an over-30s group at my church. I went a few times, but found it an unsatisfying experience because of the different needs of those in the group: there were those who were content in their singleness, but some had had singleness forced upon them, while others desperately wanted a partner and it had never happened.

These different standpoints can be as alien to each other as that of a married person. Those who are happily single and those who have to cope with singleness as an unwanted reality can have widely varying emotions towards romantic relationships. I stopped going because of this, and I’m not sure it’s still running.

I don’t want to be part of a ghetto – grouping all the single people together says to me that you don’t understand me, you don’t know what to do with me and hope that this is a solution to the ‘problem’. But my marital status is not a problem to be solved. As a single man, I don’t feel incomplete, but sometimes the church and the Christians within have treated me as if I were so, waiting for the time when I might meet a woman, get married and see all my issues resolved.

I love my single life and I love being part of a church. I want to be part of a church which values everyone regardless of their family status. I want to be part of a church which celebrates the achievements of all. I want to be part of a church where people from all backgrounds and family situations can mix and be support each other. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

 

This article was first seen in Mothers’ Union’s outreach magazine Families First www.familiesfirstmagazine.com
Photograph taken by Will Commercial Photography