The times I can feel loneliness are when I’m in a crowd, in a busy street, at a station, in a shop, at a party. Twice in the last year I’ve felt completely invisible in the midst of people busy about their lives: once at Oxford train station, and once in a park in London. And I finally realised why.
It’s a survival mechanism. Without it, we’d probably go nuts. Some of us go nuts anyway, of course.
Earlier this month I was in London for two days, staying with friends and enjoying the change from the peaceful bubble of paradise in the mountains. On Sunday morning, while my friends were at church, I went for a stroll in the park near their house. It was a glorious day – warm and sunny, a rare thing for London this summer. People were out enjoying the late summer weather, walking dogs, sitting on the grass talking, playing tennis, strolling through the trees.
I’d wandered over to the tennis courts to watch people playing reassuringly bad tennis, soaking up the sunshine and getting a bit of exercise chasing missed shots and fuzzy yellow balls soaring over the chain link fences to bounce away over the dry grass. A London Sunday. I heard two English voices – mother and son, by the look of it. All other voices were speaking foreign languages, few of which I could even identify. London: world city. It was relaxing, pleasant to watch people for a while, sitting on a bench by the path, in the dappled shade of a lime tree.
As figures passed me by, I realised how we all cope in cities where there are too many humans in the crowded space. We have learned the skill of ignorance. Literally, being able to ignore what we don’t have to notice.
It’s self-protection, being able to pull our awareness in to avoid bumping up against other presences, other energies we don’t know and we don’t want. We can live in our own little bubbles, protected from strangers, pretending (subconsciously) that we have all the space in the world when in fact we are crammed into pens like veal calves and battery hens.
You must have noticed… we can survive the city commute every day, rammed together in busy trains, on the bus, on the rush-hour pavements. Nose to armpit, wedged between three other hot bodies, managing to avoid eye contact and retreat into our own worlds. You don’t glance at anyone, don’t smile, don’t talk, never connect. Not enough space.
In a small village, on a mountain path, walking by a river, you’re more like to catch the eye of a passing stranger and say hello or compliment their dog. Plenty of space. No threat. Time and peace to connect with another human being. Every animal needs its territory.
I found it quite pleasant sitting there, invisible. No responsibility, no accountability if you’re not really there. But on a bleak day I might feel the chill of disconnection and alienation.
The presence of other people is far from enough if you’re feeling lonely. Accidental contact is not enough either. You need to make eye contact, swap a smile, maybe a friendly and deliberate touch on the arm. Awareness, intent, interest exchanged. It only takes half a second, the connection, but it counts, where an hour in a crowded park may not.