Welcome back all, and thanks for bearing with me. In part 1, I spoke of my childhood experience of loneliness and some of the ways in which I began to break free. Part 2 had me thinking about the different behaviours I’ve seen in other people that revealed their own isolation, either overtly or covertly. As I said at the time, I’m not a qualified expert on the matter, so please keep that caveat in mind as I now consider what we might actually do about it in this, the final part of the series.
There are countless ways we may become exiled by family, peers, or the world at large (and indeed, being a pretty screwed-up species, we find a whole bunch of ways to isolate ourselves too). This can actually feel like an escape – all to the good, provided we have the freedom to move on with our lives. However, it is all-too-often a damaging experience, chipping away at our self-confidence, leaving *us wounded and resentful.
We are not policy-makers, you and I. We cannot make the kind of large-scale pro-social structural changes necessary to improve the world, but that doesn’t mean we’re entirely helpless. Any life that we can touch, any spark of **salvation we can bring to a person who is suffering, is an action worth taking. It may not mean a lot in the grand scheme of things but the recognition of one person’s pain, and your efforts to ease it, can make all the difference to them.
So what can we actually do? I have a few thoughts.
1. The simplest one is Active Inclusion.
It’s easy to get caught up in your ***bubble, to see and interact with those same familiar faces, but do you ever notice the people in the periphery? (Hovering nearby, too anxious to get involved.)
Phil Sloman’s gentle encouragement brought me into editing in the first place, but the greatest gift he gave me was sticking by my side during my first literary conventions. He was confident and jovial, and he seemed to know everybody. It would have been very easy for him to go off and just have a good time, leaving me to my own devices, but that’s not Phil. Instead, he made sure to introduce me to everybody, bringing me into the conversations, checking how I was doing when it all seemed a bit overwhelming. Without him, I would have slunk to the edges, barely interacted, fled at the earliest opportunity probably. This active inclusivity ensured I met dozens of new, exciting, wonderful people, many of whom became (and remain) great friends of mine. I have never forgotten it and, whenever I can, I try to pay his kindness forward.
Let’s think for a second about the bigger picture. We may be hosting an event, we may be setting up a website, or a local community group. We know the people we know. Social networks develop quite naturally over time, but there are always gaps.
So who is out there in the community that we don’t normally see? Have we considered people who face physical or sensory challenges on a daily basis; people who are neurodiverse; people of different cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds? Every person – and I do mean every person – has a unique set of experiences, abilities or alternate perspectives that can enrich our lives and our community. ****Are we making the effort to get them into the room? To get them around the table? To hear their voices?
2. Next up, let’s think about Communication.
Shocking, I know, but people aren’t always good at it. That can lead to situations from which you (or they) may find easier to escape rather than persist in the effort. Bridging that gap is vital though, if we’re to tackle the scourge of isolation.
I used to work with a guy who stammered. It was debilitating for him and difficult for everybody else, many of whom just tried to avoid talking to him. He was clearly quite isolated. I recalled hearing that the best way to help a person who stammers is to just be patient. No rush, no pressure – just let them get the words out in their own time. It took us a little while, but over the course of a few weeks he felt so much at ease in my company, the stammer all-but vanished.
Communication is a two-way street. Once you recognise what the difficulty is (e.g. shyness, speech impediment, imperfect fluency in a second language etc.) it’s important to adjust what you are doing to accommodate the other person. And if you are the one experiencing difficulties? I’d say it’s best to just be open about it. We cannot depend on everybody else being intuitive; tell the other person what support you need from them. It’s the only way to be sure.
Online communication brings its own problems, of course. It’s harder to spot loneliness, for one thing. Those who withdraw are literally invisible and inaudible, whilst those who cry for help often get drowned out by algorithms. It is important to find your people though – folks with whom you share interests, who appeal to your sense of humour, who are interesting and informative and welcoming.
I’ve found fan-groups useful on social media. You already have common ground with everybody there. You can step forwards or back to your comfort level and you can mute, block or leave if you feel red lines lines are being crossed. The point is, you can meet people with a certain sense of safety because those initial barriers of physicality and awkward small-talk are just gone. The same goes for online gaming sites like Steam or Boardgame Arena. Shared spaces and shared interests bring opportunities.
I have seen people afraid to voice their thoughts and opinions for fear of saying the wrong thing. Anxieties keep them isolated. Being damned for your truth is one thing, but being damned for a misunderstanding is quite another. I’m an over-explainer, so trust me … I know where you’re coming from. All I can really do is to reiterate that patience and kindness tend to win the day. If you can demonstrate good faith, a willingness to listen, and an ability to accept that some people are different to you, most folks will appreciate and welcome you.
And if you’re on the other side of the fence – if you’ve spotted somebody who seems to be struggling, and if you have the spoons for it – actively reach out to them. Notice the kind of things they like. Be a cheerleader and a commiserator. Drop them a comment now and then so they know people can actually see them. These things matter.
3. Finally, make sure you Recognise Your Limits
We are not all care-givers; we do not all have the time or the energy or the resources to deal with difficult things. Reaching out to someone new can take a lot out of you, and sometimes there’s more baggage to handle than you’d bargained for.
That’s okay. Care for others requires self-care too.
It’s important to be aware of what you are able to offer and what you need to protect. A personal example: having lost a friend to exhaust fumes and a rubber hose, I find it pretty hard to contemplate getting close to somebody else with suicidal tendencies. Those kinds of wounds stay fresh.
Does that mean pushing away people in need? I’d like to think not. Help where you can, for sure, but your decision to show kindness and inclusivity does not demand a lifetime of commitment and responsibility. We are not, cannot, and should not be the sole life-line for people. We all need to reach out sometimes, and this is where the community plays its part.
Friends, family, support groups, doctors, charities – there are support structures out there. However you are suffering, whatever side of the isolation gap you find yourself on, there are multiple resources available to help. Here are a few of them:
I’ve barely skimmed the surface. Part of me wants to dive much deeper, but I’ve taken up enough of your time, and far too much of my own. (Editing deadlines are coming up fast.)
It felt important to try to capture some of this though, to recall my own experiences, to think about the people I’ve seen hurting through the years – and a few people I’ve been able to help in some way. I know that there’s not much we can do on the big scale, but it really does feel to me that these small acts of kindness add up. Those lives that we touch matter. Every lost person we find and bring into the fold is a little stronger, a little happier, a little healthier for it. Society is people, when all is said and done. Every one of us contribute to it. If we want to see a brighter future, we have to light the way.
Now get out there, you beautiful bastard, and help us make a new world.
*And please note, this is not purely on the individual level. Zooming out for a moment, we find whole swathes of our society demonised, excluded, belittled, slandered or made mockery of. Racism, homophobia and misogyny are still very much rampant in Britain—championed in fact, by our Government and our Press. Every marginalised group suffers that same chipping away, that same sense of resentment. When we hurt them, we hurt ourselves. We should be better than that.
**I am emphatically not religious; this just seems the most apposite word. For me, the sense of my life as Hell was potent in my younger days. Vividly so. I couldn’t imagine a future where I wasn’t living in constant fear of those around me. I couldn’t imagine having a true friend. I couldn’t imagine being in a romantic relationship, let alone the fulfillment I’ve found as a husband and father. For clarity, I don’t think of ‘salvation’ as being the bestowed gift of any one individual; more as a sense of freedom discovered. Release from a mental prison into a world of possibility. That takes time, trust, and the small actions of many different people.
***This applies to our online existence but let’s just take this out of the pandemic context for a moment and remember the world as it was. As it will be. You know, when we’re allowed to meet up in meat-space again. Same thing.
****This is not meant as some kind of judgement; we all have blind spots, and I’m certainly no exception. Active inclusion is about more than just spotting the person who’s struggling; it means making the extra effort to find our blind-spots, to recognise the absences, and to make things as welcoming as possible for everybody. There can be no diversity when whole swathes of people go unseen. We can always find ways to be more accessible, and we should. It benefits us all.