When you close your doors, and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?” ~ Epictetus (55 AD – 135 AD), Discourses
To see a child completely absorbed in play, away in a world of her own, is to see a child happy and fulfilled. Solitary play is great for kids, and one of the best protections against chronic loneliness – if they always have their inner world to explore and enjoy, they’ll build resilience, imagination, creativity and their sense of self. Solitary play never goes out of fashion, and you need never grow out of it. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes was what Matisse and Picasso both said took all their adult lives to learn.
What in children might be naivete and innocence can be the best defence against cynicism and alienation in later life – hanging on to the clarity and freshness of children’s wonder at the world helps keep us positive, interested and playful throughout our lives.
I’d always believed that a life of quality, enjoyment, and wisdom were my human birthright and would be automatically bestowed upon me as time passed. I never suspected that I would have to learn how to live – that there were specific disciplines and ways of seeing the world I had to master before I could awaken to a simple, happy, uncomplicated life.” ~ Dan Millman
Mirror columnist Brian Reade has written a powerful piece today about the lesson to live well and make the most of life. This was prompted by the death last week of Paul Rice, well known among Liverpool’s business community.
When my sister Ginny got really ill from cancer, not only did she show great courage and strength in facing the pain that the experts couldn’t stop, but while she was in the ward at Exeter hospital she was a quiet exemplar of love and compassion to other patients. Whenever a new person arrived, Ginny would get out of bed and go over to her, introducing herself with a smile, which must have done so much to break down the loneliness and fear of being in that place. Never passive, she didn’t let her approaching death stop her from living as much as she could. She became deep friends with a woman on the ward called Ruth, sneaking outside with her for a crafty fag, and talking for hours. Ginny was shattered when Ruth died very suddenly, but when a teenager arrived in Ruth’s place, Ginny was there with the same warm smile and some remark which made the girl laugh and relax.
I took Ginny out in a borrowed wheelchair one Sunday, about three weeks before she died. She’d decided that sitting in bed waiting to snuff it was not an option, so she rather shakily got dressed, and we went into Exeter. She made me push her up a steep cobbled hill to the cathedral – laughing evilly at my puffing efforts. She took charge and left me to watch as she sped round the cathedral, doing racing turns at each corner and knocking bits of ancient stone off one pillar, to her shameless glee and my horror. We had a glass of wine and a few olives in a bar close by (Ginny’s first ever olives at the age of 56), and after watching people racing around and playing on the beach at Exmouth, she had espresso and chocolate brownie at a cafe. She’d hadn’t been able to eat much for ages, and she paid a price for the delicious treats later that evening, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her enjoying herself to the full.
The approach to our death might be the loneliest time, as no-one can share it with us. But as Ginny and Paul Rice showed so brilliantly, it doesn’t have to stop us having a giggle, loving life and sharing their joy of it with those around them. As Brian Reade says, it can take a touch with death to make us realise how to live. If only we could all learn the lesson early and remember it every day.
A big factor in loneliness is fear – fear that we can’t cope, that we’re on our own when facing problems, that we’ve got no-one to help us.
Here in my Transylvanian village, that just doesn’t apply. My neighbour Emilia struggled up twice through the thigh-deep snow this morning – once to bring my litre of fresh raw milk she’d just extracted from Joiana the cow, and again to bring me a warm plate of chicken and mashed potato for lunch. She said again that if I needed Ionut (her 20 yr old son, all muscle and kindness) to help me with anything, just to give her a ring. Roxana, up the hill, said the same. ‘You have neighbours,’ she said, reminding me that I had no need to worry about anything.
Emilia asked if I had enough bread – we haven’t been able to get down to the shops for ten days, and it’ll be another week at least before the road is vaguely passable. I said I should be able to make bread, but my cold hands are better for pastry – my bread ends up flat or solid. ‘I’ll help you!’ she said. ‘Just ring. I’ll help with anything.’
Neighbours – vecini – are very important in villages like this, as they used to be in England when I was a child. When you have less, and it’s difficult to get more, you understand the need to help and share without being told. It’s part of the ethos here, and it’s a really heart-warming change from urban Britain, where you can go for years without speaking to near neighbours, and can die alone, unmissed.
That would never happen here – people come in and bring post, bring food, bring gossip, bring help. So the cats wouldn’t have time to start gnawing my ankles if I did keel over…
Why do you think more affluent countries have all but lost this culture? Relative affluence is certainly one factor, as is mobility – we can jump in the car and nip off wherever – so we have become independent with not so much need to co-operate, share and look out for each other. What else are we missing in Britain (and elsewhere) that has made the difference?
Hell’s teeth… This is a day when panic begins, just begins, to gnaw at my vitals. There’s snowed in, as being unable to get the car out, and there’s snowed in, as having to dig one’s way out of the house to get logs for the fire. This is the sort of day when living alone is not so amusing. Still, I’ve got enough food, heat and electricity (for now). But I felt like shouting to the world as I stood outside the front door: ‘I’m going inside. I might be some time.’
Young Britons have an average of 237 facebook friends but nearly two out of three people (61%) say they could only turn to two friends at most for support in a crisis, according to a new poll by Macmillan Cancer Support for Cancer Talk Week (23-29 January 2012).
A poll of 1,000 people, age 18-35, reveals that one in eight (13%) surveyed couldn’t even turn to one single friend for support when faced with a serious problem. Men were more likely (16%) than women (12%) to have no-one to turn to.
That’s a really scary prospect. Even those of us who are perfectly happy with our solitary lives, when things are going okay, can be hit for six when something goes wrong and there’s no-one we can turn to. Worst of all is the not knowing, and it really, really helps to have good friends around to talk through the fears and worries, lend a hand if they can, give us a cheering boost when we most need it.
Jeannie Wilkinson, a Macmillan-funded Relate counsellor, says:
“It is surprising and concerning that people confide in such a small number of friends and family – and more so that others may not confide in anyone. It is important that, when going through something tough, like a cancer diagnosis and treatment, you can speak openly about what you’re going through to ensure you get the right support you need. We meet a lot of patients and people caring for someone with cancer who feel like they need to be ‘strong’ and bottle up their emotions. This causes great strain on relationships.”
For some, however, there will be friends waiting to help, but we just don’t realise. So many Brits ‘don’t want to make a fuss’, or feel ‘it’s not fair to burden anyone with my troubles’. But it’s okay to ask for help – there are lots and lots of organisations, big and small, who exist purely to offer help. That’s what they’re there for. They want to hear from anyone in need – that’s not just their job, it’s their purpose in life.
Don’t feel alone when you’re facing a mountainous problem – you have more friends than you know. As a wise man once said: ‘Ask, and it shall be given.’