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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, DH News Service, Jul 17 2017, 12:26 IST
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, DH News Service, Jul 17 2017, 12:26 IST
Early Sunday morning, the phone rang. One of our neighbours was calling on behalf of another to say that they have left a bag of mangoes for us outside our door. Why did they not ring our doorbell and think it nice or necessary to say hello? The primary reason we exchange food, chats, concerns with each other in a community is to maintain camaraderie; to convey that we’re there for each other. Exchange of stuff cannot replace that.
Why is it not a surprise that the number of lonely people in big, crowded cities is on the rise? Is it not true that we’re not investing sufficient time and interest in forming meaningful relationships and day-to-day interactions with the people around us — neighbours, colleagues, and even family? According to studies, urban loneliness is as much a cause of early mortality as is obesity.
Chandrika is 24 and lives in a metro, away from her family. On a typical day, she leaves for work at 8 am and reaches home by 8 pm, to either cook a simple dinner, or order in, and then exhausted, calls it a day. On weekends, there is personal work and household chores to attend to. There is no time to socialise, meet up or make new friends in a new city. The interactions, even when there are people to go out and eat out with, remain superficial. She is alone in a city full of people.
Shift in priorities
What is revealing is how Chandrika is resigned to this situation. She says she is very clear that at this crucial stage at the start of her career, she would rather focus on it than invest time in making friends.
This is the story of a growing number of young people who we least expect to be lonely – not just those who stay away from their families, but also those who stay with one. There is only so much that they can fit into their lives and they would rather give the time they have to their careers and professions. Doing well in life is valued more than their being happy and having strong bonds with others. Our careers and professions have come to define us in more definitive ways.
Loneliness is generally associated with people who are single, old and socially awkward or those who choose to stay away. But with single, individual households on the rise, especially in big cities where people move for work or education leaving their families behind, it spares few. Too often, many of those who move to big cities and metros support families back home and do not earn enough to have their families come to live with them. This is especially the case with house helps, cooks, drivers and security guards. Also, social structures are in a state of flux — marriages are less lasting, people are marrying and having children late. So, more people than ever before are living alone.
There is a thin line between individualism and selfishness. Be yourself, realise your dreams, achieve your full potential — they are all very inspiring and empowering ideas to live by, but these may also be leading us to become excessively individualistic and to focus all our energies in our own achievements. My life, my money, my home, my time — we’re becoming more and more self-absorbed. Each person in the family is seeking and pursuing opportunities of personal growth that may not always contribute to a happy family life. Our days are neatly slotted to fit in work, commute, and housework, but there is nary a slot for conversations with family, meeting friends or calling up relatives. Unplanned visits or phone calls upset our schedules and are not welcome.
German psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, in her seminal essay on loneliness, defined it as the ‘want of intimacy’. So it is not a surprise that loneliness can be experienced while living with family, in the company of others, if one cannot make meaningful connections with them.
Apparently, when the radio came, it was said that it would isolate people. We have transitioned many times since — to television, the computer, the Internet and the smartphone. The fact that modern technology has helped us to connect with our friends and relatives across the world cannot be contested. But it is still a my-will-my-time engagement. A person battling loneliness may not have the inclination to engage with ‘friends’ online. People who lack social skills, or have social anxiety, retreat into the ‘connected’ world of the internet and become lonelier from the lack of ‘real’ interaction.
When India won the World Cup Cricket quarter-final against Pakistan in 1996, instantly and instinctively, everyone in our housing society in Delhi came out cheering, dancing and beating thalis. I have not seen anything like that since. Even with all the communication on Facebook and WhatsApp, it is difficult to get a sizeable group of people together for a social cause or event. We’re given to armchair activism and there is a marked decline in our civic and social engagements that bring people together.
We also seem to need each other less. Mutual dependence is increasingly frowned upon. Everyone has help at their fingertips — whether it is to call a doctor, a cab, to order food or any other service. In small towns and cities, people still make the effort to visit the sick, the home-alone and the bereaved.
Neighbours and friends would earlier cook food for a grieving family. It was not just about providing food – it was about people coming together, talking, sharing, being around. When we do away with age-old traditions, we sometimes also lose vital human ties built on closeness and warmth.
Recently, when our friends had an open house, we had a wonderful time mixing casually with people of different age groups and backgrounds. It made me think of our childhood homes that were always ‘open house’, where people dropped by any time of the day and more often than not, shared a meal. Often, children in families that have limited social interactions are awkward with visitors. It is normal these days to visit someone and not get to meet and talk to their children at all. Children are no longer encouraged to meet or greet visitors.
Parents seem to prefer to have children depend on technology more than on human interactions. Look around in a restaurant and you are sure to spot a baby or two sitting quietly staring at the screen of a phone or a tablet. Parents get them hooked to these ‘pacifiers’ to free themselves of the responsibility of taking care of them, engaging with them. This, when people are clearly noticing good-versus-bad parenting. Recently, a blog post about a couple at an airport patiently caring for and comforting their twins, went viral. The writer called them ‘parenting champs’. It takes a lot to care for children. So does making and keeping friends. As for technology, whether it is a boon or a bane is totally in the hands of the user.
Give to receive
Manjul is a single parent, and when her daughter left home for the university, I asked her if she felt lonely. Quietly but very surely, she told me she’s too busy to be that. Manjul runs a not-for-profit for women who have fewer opportunities to earn and live with dignity. I’m sure she’s lonely sometimes, but she has chosen a way out. When we extend a helping hand to others, we help ourselves the most.
The elderly become lonely when they give up participating in life, feeling too old to follow their passions. The body and the mind do slow us down and life’s little tragedies – passing away of contemporaries, retirement, empty nest... can all lead to a greater feeling of not being useful, of abandonment.
But every individual, in any circumstance or stage of life – old, infirm, unhappy, grieving – has something to share with the world, something to give. Each of us has to go out and get to work, sharing our skills and stories, caring for someone, cooking, gardening, dancing, exercising, keeping oneself gainfully occupied so we help ourselves and others. This is the only way to guard ourselves against loneliness – to invest in hobbies and pursuits; to take interest in the work of others and to contribute to our communities in the meaningful ways that we can.
A recent news story tells us of a retirement home in the Netherlands that provides students with free accommodation in exchange for spending time with its elderly inmates. The company of young people helps the elderly cope with the challenges of old age and isolation.
There is also avant-garde R&D going on into building humanoid robots that not only assist humans, but can also express emotions. This year, a social robot, iPal, is slated to be launched in the US. The robot is expected to give company to the lonely – home alone children and the elderly. According to news reports, "Its emotion management system senses and responds to happiness, depression and loneliness. It can act happy when the child is happy, and encouraging when the child is sad." A scientific feat no doubt, but also one that exposes our human failing.