Last year I went public when I confessed to an audience: “I am lonely.” I was quick to qualify that (not all the time!), but yes, I am. Acknowledging it made me feel vulnerable, as though I had something wrong with me.
There’s a stigma to loneliness, and the fear you’ll be the object of pity, like those in the refrain of the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby.” “Ah, look at all the lonely people”?
Experts say we’re in the midst of a second epidemic, concurrent with COVID-19 and not unrelated: one of loneliness. An alarming new study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (specifically its Making Caring Common Project) reported that 36% of Americans said they suffer from “serious loneliness,” including more than 6 in 10 young adults and more than half of mothers with young children.
Loneliness has increased substantially since the COVID-19 outbreak, explained Richard Weissbourd, lead author of the report, adding, “These levels of loneliness are heartbreaking. We have big holes in our social fabric.”
Loneliness is not about being alone – plenty of people spend long hours by themselves but still feel connected to others. Real loneliness is about that sense of disconnection, of being unseen or unheard.
Loneliness during the holidays
Now comes Thanksgiving, kicking off a holiday season that can be difficult for many. There’s so much expectation – to be surrounded by family, feeling bright and jolly, full of mirth and joy. And so much dread: remembering losses, facing political arguments, worrying about money. For too many people, the holidays are steeped in disconnection (whether or not we’re among nearest and dearest).
So how do we connect? How do we show others we care, and that we share their emotional space?
I appreciate it when someone looks me in the eye when we’re speaking. I like it when my neighbor puts my newspaper on my front steps. I was overwhelmed when friends brought me plates of food when I had COVID last year. And when I have the opportunity to reciprocate, I am thankful for the opportunity to help a friend or neighbor – or even someone I might not know.
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Simple acts with profound consequences. It reminds me of a story I love to tell. At first it might not seem like a Thanksgiving story – but as all those TikToks remind us – “wait for it.”
A story about a scone
Six years ago, I was waiting in line at a local bakery where the scones are my favorites, hands down. On this particular Sunday, I joined a long line that was already spilling onto the sidewalk. I imagined the pile of scones in the case, dwindling one by one as the line inched forward. As I got closer, I observed that a single beauty remained – its peaches browned perfectly, its crust flakey light. There was only one problem – the woman ahead of me who stood between me and “my” scone.
Then I heard her declare, “I’ll have a croissant.” My scone was saved!
A moment later I pointed to the solo scone and told the clerk, “I’ll take that.” No sooner had I spoken than a fellow behind me, a complete stranger, shouted, “That’s my scone! I’ve been waiting in line 20 minutes.”
“Who is this guy?” I thought. “He’s got some nerve to tell me how long he’s been in line, when he’s behind me.” My New York City origins produced an instant surge of testosterone and cortisol, almost leading me to say, “Don’t mess with me, buddy” (or worse).
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Instead, I stood there for a moment processing the guy’s outrageous claim to my scone. I didn’t tell him off or assert ownership. Instead, I turned around, looked him in the eye, and asked, “Would you like half?”
It was a simple question, but my response had long been in the works.
A reminder to be kind
For several years, I had practiced taking a deliberate pause before reacting to a provocation. Just a breath or two, enough for me to choose my next action instead of its choosing me. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield puts it this way: “In a moment of stopping, we break the spell between past result and automatic reaction. When we pause, we can notice the actual experience, the pain or pleasure, fear or excitement. In the stillness before our habits arise, we become free to act wisely.”
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In that pause, I observed: Two guys. By themselves. Each wanting the same scone.
I thought: You never know what someone is going through, so be kind. Here’s what happened: I made a friend.
My scone rival looked as befuddled as I felt. He took a pause of his own, then accepted my offer and raised me one: “Why don’t I buy another pastry and we can share both?”
Whoa! All these studies about kindness begetting kindness – maybe they’re true. But the truth of the matter is that kindness can’t be transmitted without human connection.
Sitting down with a stranger
Looking back I can see how I overcame my sense of isolation and disconnection that morning. We took our pastries outside to a bench, where we talked for nearly an hour. At first, I saw only ways we were opposites – in careers, ages, political views, sexual orientation and marital status. But I was wrong. We had shared a surprising moment of connection, and now instead of eating breakfast alone, I had a companion, as did he.
I saw past his conservative politics and (I believe) he through my progressive views. Each of us opened up about our “feelings” (how I hate feelings), rendering us vulnerable to each other. In chatting we learned we had more in common than the eye (or his behavior) might have suggested. In short, we bridged the loneliness gap that experts believe fuels mistrust, anger and polarization.
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A friend of mine who is a psychotherapist tells me many of her patients feel “unseen” and “invisible” these days, making them withdrawn or angry. That day at the bakery, two strangers saw each other. My offer of half a scone was another way of saying, “I see you. You matter.”
I’m reminded of this story as Thanksgiving approaches. Yes, we will be provoked (over football, politics or pumpkin vs. pecan pie). If we can take a pause, just a breath, I’m certain we’ll be able to counter our ingrained impulses.
That moment allows us to see the person, unfreighted by history or conflict, and they us. It’s one small step toward connecting, making someone a little less lonely this holiday season. In fact, that person may be you. No matter what words you use, you’ll be saying, “I see you. You matter.” Isn’t that what all of us are really seeking?
More from Steven Petrow:
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Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books, including “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old.” Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow