“Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
― John Milton
On Monday afternoon, I forced myself to bundle up and head out into the late afternoon sunshine for a walk. This long, brutal winter is taking its toll on so many of us. I confess to feeling isolated, compounded by a low-level anxiety sitting squarely on my solar-plexus. Getting outside despite the ice and cold helps. As does good old-fashioned self-talk. So, as I walked, I was thinking over the changes that I’ve made in my life in the past year. So much happiness and light on one hand, so much difficulty and anxiety on the other. I wondered, “Am I happier than I was this time last year?”
Just as I pondered the question, a young man walking toward me stepped out of the tiny footpath carved in the deep snow and ice, giving me room to pass. Our eyes met, and he said, “Good afternoon! Would you be willing to be part of a documentary film project? I have one question, and you can say as much or as little as you like to answer it.” He went on to say that he is an art student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design working on a class project. I’m a sucker for college students, so willingly agreed to be filmed (despite my resemblance, in my winter gear, to a Minion from “Despicable Me”.) He lifted his camera, started rolling, and asked, “Would you say you are happier today than you were last year?”
I started laughing. What are the chances he would pose the very question I had been considering? Synchronicity on this scale cannot be ignored! For a brief moment, I felt the sun on my back and glanced at the cityscape in front of me and felt the magnitude of change my life has gone through in that year. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but in that moment my answer was, of course, “Yes!” (and that I had just been pondering that very question). After I finished speaking, the student stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “My name is Boris, by the way. What an amazing coincidence! Thanks for helping me out.”
I’ve written quite a bit, lately, about these brief encounters with strangers. I’ve said that striking up conversations with people I’m not required to talk to has enriched my days in a variety of ways – and has helped me feel less alone in my new home. Meeting Boris was one of many happy exchanges. You can imagine, then, my immediate reaction to the new project from Oprah/Skype – “Just Say Hello” – was a positive one. The project proposes to battle loneliness, endemic in our modern, socially isolated culture by encouraging people to simply say hello to one another. It enlists enlists a cadre of celebrities and even has a theme song, written and performed by Rita Wilson. I 100% endorse the concept – and, as you know, I really work to practice it.
Meaningful connection is what is needed to combat loneliness. It isn’t simply a matter of how many people say “hello” over the course of a day, though that can help. It is much more important that we find and connect with people who understand us, love us, upon whom we can rely. In her August 2013 article on Slate.com, Jessica Olien cites the research and concludes: “Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it..” (see the article, here) We don’t talk about it, because admitting we’re lonely, no matter how many of us are, makes us feel like losers. In my experience, we tend to hide the things we think make us look bad – which, when the issue is loneliness, means that we tend to shut ourselves off and self-isolate even further.
My fear is that the “Just Say Hello” campaign will turn out to be just another one of those touchy-feely-celebrities-making-themselves-look-approachable campaigns that will dissipate into nothingness. And reading the #justsayhello on Twitter didn’t exactly allay my fears – 140 characters is way more than double what it takes most people to say “Hello, Oprah” (even the ones begging her to follow them back, plz!). In my humble opinion, we have more than enough sound-byte inspiration and motivational memes. What we don’t have is enough people making it past that first 140 characters of interaction into the realm of real relationship. And I’m not dissing Twitter here (or other social media, for that matter) – I know a number of people who have developed friendships IRL from Twitter interactions. My own life has taught me, though, just how hard that shift from “Hello stranger” to “Hello friend” can be – how much more work, time, shared experiences it takes.
Over this past week, I’ve followed Oprah Magazine’s on-line efforts with the “Just Say Hello” campaign, and I’ve been heartened to see that they are taking it further. There have been stories about how that first howdy has led to lasting friendships, stories attempting to de-stigmatize loneliness by sharing statistics and causes, stories encouraging people to reach out. The focus is often on how you may not know what your “hello” means to someone else, though. On how you can help someone else who is lonely. I don’t take issue with that – I simply want to add to it:
My name is Jenion, and I am lonely. Even though sometimes I feel like a loser right now (and I HATE admitting that and would prefer to pretend I’m fine) I know it will change, that I won’t always feel this way. The power to change that resides within me – and I can be proactive in bringing it about. First, instead of curling into myself and isolating, I need to make extra effort to stay connected to loved ones both near and far. Rather than hiding my loneliness, I need to expose it so that those who WILL support and love me CAN. Second, I need to keep saying hello. Right now, most of the people I see in a given day are strangers. None of them will become friends if I remain silent when we meet. Third, I need to stop being ashamed of my loneliness. Given my current life circumstances, it’s pretty normal to feel this way.
If, like me, YOU are lonely, I encourage you to do the same. Being lonely does not have to be chronic or debilitating. If it makes it easier to reach out, focus on helping someone else – in the end, the life you save may be your own. By all means, just say hello. But whenever possible, take it one step further. Don’t let it stop at hello, take it one step beyond hello into the realm of true connection.
“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe