Walking with my little pug-terrier Primrose, the behavior that frustrates me the most in the moment, is also the behavior that when I step back and look at the bigger picture, I admire and adore the most. If she sees a dog within a 20-50 meter radius, she goes wild. It doesn’t matter the breed, the color, the size, or the sex. She throws herself with everything she has to do whatever she can to meet that dog. It’s like a 20 pound weight on the end of a rope flying off in any and all directions. I tend to steer her away from other dogs, but if we do meet, I bashfully say she has no manners, as she pushes herself right into the other dog’s space. But maybe I’ve been wrong this whole time, and I’m the one without the manners.
When was the last time you ran up to a complete stranger, and said hello?
In today’s normalized nutty world, it’s too common to start my day off agitated, and feeling rather hopeless. I mistakenly went on twitter today for example. The divide, blame, and anger continues to thrive, and it’s exhausting me. Then I sit and stew, alone.
Imagine we lived in a world where not only did we say hello to everyone on the street, but they said hello back. It’s recently learned behaviour that we stopped answering our phones and opening our doors. Online is even worse because we skip even the basic pleasantries. We go right to criticizing, cowering, or jumping on a tag line bandwagon. And then we sit by ourselves with our thoughts, waiting for some sort of e-connection, but it never makes us feel better. It usually makes us feel worse. It’s lonely.
Research shows that people in smaller towns tend to be happier than those in cities. Zooming the lens out, and having my own lived experience, I believe a component of that happiness comes from being able to make consistent and manageable connections with your community, and identifying with your tribe. Our core human tribe. A lot of it has to do with the eye contact, the hellos, and the waving at strangers driving by. I can wave at the 10 cars that pass me within 30 minutes, compared to cities where at most moments, someone is pushing you out of the way, fighting for your seat, or starring blankly through you. A huge trigger for me is when people are walking directly towards me, playing chicken while staring at the ground. I bend out of the way, try to use angry eyes to get them to look up and step back to their aisle, or curse them passively out loud, or in my mind. No one wins, it feels gross, and yet we continue to repeat this same behaviour. We’re lonely in a crowd of thousands.
Many of us want to live in cities because we believe we are surrounded by things we like and therefore will be happier and more connected: access to arts, shopping, and history; people like us. A pretend paradise where we can truly be ourselves because we’re with likeminded others. Instead, that disconnection continues to expand at a trumped up rate. Cities have normalized unfriendliness and lack of connection for decades. We talk about our neighbors, yet we don’t talk to them. No wonder loneliness is on the rise around the world. Yes, we’re not without people around us, but we are more alone than ever before. Research is now showing that this lonely experience is actually killing us. It triggers many mental health issues. We are functioning at a very low bar. And it feels simply awful.
Kids are being normalized to this cold, fear driven behaviour every second of their lives: They don’t say hi to strangers. They push to the front of the line without saying excuse me. They spend dinner in front of a screen. Stereotypes and scary stories keep us in our lonely state. Look what happened when those lessons grew up: They became us. Now, our kids are as lonely as we are. These are good safety guidelines, but we should consider what we have gained, what have we lost.
I recently started going back to therapy for this very reason. I’m often overwhelmed or angry by the fear that’s running this world, feeling lonely, and rather stuck. I’m aware enough to know that I have resilience, I have a loving partner and great friends, and I’m able to do a lot of things that I love. I can see these effects starting to trickle in, and I am privileged enough to be able to access resources to help me. But when I’m on my own, often surrounded by strangers, I feel isolated, lonely, and low. My therapist suggested I write about it, about that loneliness, and also the hope that I can still see in it all.
This is where the light comes in. What I’m offering is that we need to bring back more connections with neighbors, with strangers, with the environment, and with ourselves. And maybe it’s not as hard as it might seem.
I’m not saying get in cars with strangers. I am saying that we get back to basic human connection. Our bodies and biology are craving and needing it. When we do feel that connection, we feel a positive chemical jolt best described as love. Love between one person and another. I know when I lock eyes with someone on the street and we share a smile, I instantly feel that lift. There’s many cool biological reasons we feel better after a hug. Knowing this gives me compassion, encourages patience, and anchors me with hope. And the exciting thing is that we, everyone at all ages, have the opportunity to change things. Especially in cities. I would say it’s our civic duty to rewrite our course. But I can’t do it alone (that would be a rather lonely way to tackle loneliness, wouldn’t it?).
Tying it all back to my social dog Prim. Dogs have the privilege of not being able to worry about the past, or fret about the future. This allows them to be fully present. Prim has the outlook that everyone is a potential connection. I think this is one of the reason’s why she’s my best party trick: she lives with love, and people react openly to that. And I believe that kids are the same, until they are taught to act differently. So let’s change this lonely narrative around to one that thrives on connection. I’m inviting you to simply make eye contact with the next person who walks towards you. Even better, say hello. And if you’re not ready for that: adopt a dog, and see what happens.
Song of the Day: Best Day Ever (Spongebob Squarepants The Musical)
Resources: Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown, and Love 2.0 by Barbara Fredrickson