The perils of being too wrapped up in ourselves
Children naturally go toward others with candor and curiosity.
They have no second thoughts about what their peers might make of them, they have no airs and graces, they just give free rein to their curiosity. In the summer on the beaches of Europe, you can see toddlers from various countries who don’t even speak the same language play together. British kids playing with French, German, Dutch, and Portuguese kids, enjoying the moment with no second thoughts.
Often, it’s the kids who bring parents together for a tentative conversation in simplified English. Or universal gestures when there’s no English.
Now in their 70s, my parents are world travelers who spent the last 25 years exploring this little blue dot we live on whenever they had time off work. They chose to live simply in a small condo and go meet the world. That they’re monolingual francophones has never stopped them. My father knows enough English to get the gist of a newspaper article and a menu but can’t speak it at all; my stepmom is so approachable she never has any problem communicating despite the absence of language skills.
Everywhere they go, they somehow draw people to them; they’re always laughing and joking, friendly, and curious. As a result, my parents have an extensive social circle that keeps growing even though they’ve been mostly housebound for the last year. My stepmom has Stage IV cancer and treatment has been hit and miss so far; the illness has shrunk their life beyond all recognition. But my parents’ friends haven’t disappeared, quite the opposite. My stepmom’s smartphone is always pinging with notifications and the landline is busy, too.
Even on the day oncology ward at the hospital, everyone knows her by name, and many staff stop by to greet her with kisses on the cheeks as is the customary French way. And of course, everyone knows my father too as he’s always by her side and the one who coordinates her meds and appointments schedule.
And no, this isn’t usual at all; my stepmom certainly isn’t the sickest patient there nor the one who needs the most frequent care. But she’s always with my father and at least one of the kids, be it my stepbrother or me, often both; my stepbrother’s partner tags along frequently, too.
Going toward others is the only way we know how to be and it’s very much a family trait even though we’re quite private people.
Neither my parents nor I let others in easily.
We share the ability to build a rapport with anyone quickly; we do so by focusing on the other person because we’re all curious to a fault. How other humans do human is an endless source of fascination and we’re always hopeful someone who isn’t us might teach us something.
And we’re hardly ever disappointed because people do, this is what makes life so deeply interesting.
What we don’t do however is go on ad nauseam about our person or our respective predicaments to strangers, not even at the hospital. And even between ourselves, opening up isn’t our strong point at all.
Regarding my father, this disposition has taken a turn for the worst since my stepmom got sick; he refuses to talk about how it has affected him. Not even to me and I’ve been trying to get him to do exactly that for eight months now, as has my stepbrother but we yet have to get anywhere.
My parents’ contagious joie de vivre and the obvious love that binds them together is the reason people take to them. It’s quite an extraordinary thing to witness and the novelty hasn’t worn off in 25 years.
As for me, I can be standing anywhere in the world and people will approach and ask for directions, even when I haven’t got a clue where I’m at.
“You look too friendly,” I was once told by a Lisbon friend who worried I was a typical tourist-target. He didn’t know about my tour directing past. I read situations very quickly and assess danger, something that is paramount to passengers and personal safety in that line of work, and I have no qualms about refusing to engage with nefarious individuals. Or indeed letting them know if needed.
Suffice to say I learned this the hard way.
Tomy parents and I, loneliness is an anomaly.
Which isn’t to say we don’t experience it sometimes when thrust into extreme situations.
I lost five years to major depressive disorder upon immigrating to the US; because I’m not that old, this represents a considerable chunk of my life. Those years were so unbearably lonely I spent every day trying to work up the courage to die.
Too cash-strapped to access therapy that could have helped me get back on my feet, I was left to hold my own hand despite being married. The illness felled me shortly after I landed, I didn’t understand it at first, and by the time I did, it was too late and I was too incapacitated to function. I didn’t have a chance to build a social network of my own and my one American friend — whom I’ve known since I was a teenager — lived in the Midwest. I lived in Seattle at the time so socializing wasn’t possible.
My husband, alas, is a loner to whom the concept of friendship is anathema; some folks just prefer their own company and are perfectly content that way. It’s as valid a way of being human as any other. Not only did this come as a bit of a shock to me but I’m emphatically not one of those people.
While I cherish solitude and need it to recharge, think things through, and to some extent create, loneliness is a different thing altogether. It’s not something I would ever choose for myself. As a case in point, I couldn’t wait to host dinner parties for my husband’s family and friends when I moved to the US.
I never did, not even once. We only ever had one visitor in all those years and that visit was awkward for everyone, stilted.
When we were priced out of the city, we moved to a small semi-rural town in the armpit of Puget Sound. The highlight of my life there was the day two young Mormon ladies came to knock on my door and we had a lengthy chat despite my being staunchly secular. Unfortunately, my house was empty of furniture at the time so I felt self-conscious inviting them in for a hot drink otherwise I would have done so.
Those two ladies made my day. Don’t ever underestimate the importance of random acts of kindness and of connection, no matter how fleeting.
What if loneliness were something we do to ourselves rather than something society does to us?
At the risk of stating the obvious, together we make up society, it isn’t an abstract concept.
Thanks to social media, we’ve never been more interconnected than we are now and yet we are lonelier than ever in the US. No doubt raging individualism and American exceptionalism have a lot to do with it. When you’re conditioned from birth to navel-gaze and expect the world and the people in it to serve you, it skews the way you approach human interactions. And it makes you entitled and perhaps even a little manipulative by default
That much is evident online with some people’s tendency to brag and boast and gloat and demand attention by any means necessary. Thus the internet becomes a cacophony of egos jostling for eyeballs and validation in a desperate search for human warmth.
It needn’t be. Much like we are society, we’re also the internet and we can reclaim it as the force for the common good it was always meant to be, according to its creator, Tim Berners-Lee.
Doing so means setting aside our enormous egos and engaging with others by being curious about them and going toward them. Leaving the comfort zone of echo chambers and seeking to learn about how other humans do human is the only way to go about it.
Life isn’t about what others can do for you but what you can do for others so we might live better together.
Exotic though this might sound, I didn’t come up with it. Instead, this is the motto of the French republic and one that is visible everywhere you look in France, on every single public building. Although we frequently struggle to live up to it, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité means no one is ever unaware we all have a duty of care toward one another.
When we get out of own head and stop expecting the world to cater to us, life opens up and there’s no longer any place in it for boredom or loneliness.