My first experience of loneliness was in my late 20s. Although I'd always enjoyed good friendships most of my friends were not local to me. After university we'd dispersed across the country and settled into careers and relationships. As a single person, I'd often spend a whole weekend without speaking to anyone. My family lived much further afield.
This new experience of loneliness took me by surprise. I thought (naively) that it was only the elderly who experienced loneliness. As a survey by the BBC in collaboration with Wellcome Collection in 2018 highlighted, the loneliest demographic is the age group of 16 to 24 year-olds.
Loneliness is a painful experience and has recurred over time. I've needed but not always found human connection. Modern life promotes shallow connectivity with tweets, posts and sound bites. Most people (excepting my parents’ generation) seem to prefer to text rather than call or speak face to face. Interactions become briefer and less satisfying. Perhaps this trend has something to do with increasing levels of loneliness. At the gym or on the bus I see people plugged into devices with earphones and gazes locked into screens. Few people seem to look up or look around.
Over time I consciously didn't go with this flow. And even though I'm an introvert, and small talk isn't my preference, I'd smile at others and chat a bit simply to be present to myself and my environment. Once I sat in a café at my local nature reserve and a couple sat beside me on a nearby table. The lady struck up a conversation with me and said she always did this because she knew so many people were feeling lonely, with some folks going days without speaking to anyone. I knew exactly what she meant. She joked that her husband, who sat beside her, didn't like her doing this but she felt it was important. I thanked her for caring and for showing kindness in this small way, being one of those people of whom she was mindful.
Experiencing loneliness has made me more empathic. It's prompted me to do small acts in a positive way to reduce the sense of isolation and reach out to others. It's made the difference.
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