We take for granted the human touch, the gentle thrum of heartbeats around us. A handshake here and there, a warm embrace at the beginning of a social gathering, a kiss on the cheek at the end.
This morning, I woke up to find our daughter had climbed into bed with us in the middle of the night. Her foot was in my stomach. I rolled my eyes. Then, I noticed how serenely she slept, this mass of bone and skin and blood I had once been lucky enough to grow inside me, so I nuzzled up to her, felt her hot breath on my face, placed my hand in hers and smiled to myself as her fingers instinctively curled around mine.
Sometimes, I catch myself sighing when she asks for another story at night, or makes a noisy request that I stay and cuddle her until she falls asleep. I catch myself because she won’t always want me to read her stories; because how long before she draws away from me in embarrassment when I try to clutch her to my chest?
“Cherish every moment,” they say to you, when you are deranged with exhaustion, an angry, mewling newborn clamped to your nipple. “It goes so quickly.” You grit your teeth and force a smile. At that moment, with leaking bosoms and fresh stitches and a packet of frozen peas placed strategically under your hoo-hah, it could not go quickly enough.
How often do we yearn for “me” time? How many articles have you read in newspapers and magazines, some of which I may have even written myself, where the journalist makes an impassioned plea for space, for a moment alone, for a period of enforced solitude where they don’t have to talk to other people or do anything for anyone else?
We are busy or squeezed or pressed for time. We don’t have enough hours in the day. We are rushed off our feet. We live in a world where constant demands are placed on us, where other people and their needs are seen as a nuisance, rather than a fact of all human life. Just leave me alone, I’ve had enough of the world and everyone in it!
And yet for many, the rarely-spoken of reality is very different. A report this week by Age UK revealed that half a million people over the age of 60 routinely go through an entire week without any direct human interaction. It concluded that 1.2 million older people in England alone should now be classed as chronically lonely.
Hear the heartbreaking tale told on the Today programme this week by 95-year-old Bob Lowe, who served in Africa and Burma during the Second World War, and lost his wife six years ago. On New Year’s Eve, as he remembered past festive periods surrounded by family, he found himself crying. “You have got to accept that it is a blessing that you are healthy – but the loneliness…” Because what is life without company and companionship?
It isn’t only the old who experience this. Loneliness is a silent epidemic, one that is, ironically, not endured in isolation. On every street and every train carriage, there will be someone who thinks they have no one. People feel it more than ever, in this age of social media when we’re all superficially connected but in reality have never been further apart.
An old man on crutches approached me at a crossing on Thursday, asking for help across the road – he said he had tried in the Costa on the corner, but everyone was too busy with their phones. I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for: him, with his broken leg and his alcohol-tinged breath, or the people who exist in a bubble where nothing matters outside their Facebook feed.
One of the most eagerly anticipated books of 2017 in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a first novel by Gail Honeyman about a 30-year-old who is completely alone. Honeyman said she felt compelled to write it after reading a piece about an “ordinary woman in her 20s, with a job and a flat in the city, who said that, unless she made a special effort, she’d often – and not by choice – spend entire weekends without seeing or speaking to another human being”.
The book is a heartbreaking study of isolation in which the narrator concludes that “loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”
A society that allows half a million people to have no human interaction for days on end should feel ashamed of itself. We have evolved communally, in tribes; it takes a village to raise a child, after all. That we fail to notice the needs of neighbours and even family members, because we’re too busy being busy, is something that should make us all feel profoundly sad.
Hell is other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre. But it’s not, really. It’s feeling you don’t have a single other being in the world to turn to – it is not having a hand to hold, or a shoulder to cry on. This new year we would do well to remember this: that in reality, hell is not having other people.