When I worked on the tills at the local supermarket whilst I was at university, I would get the same customers coming to me every weekend. I worked a ten hour day on a Saturday and the only way to pass that time was to talk to people, so I did. I think I was possibly the chattiest checkout operator in the world. Polite small talk during the course of the transaction soon turned into remembering details about each other’s lives, asking after their extended family and forging a genuine kind of friendship. There were times when customers would join my queue even if another till was free just so we could ‘catch up’. We didn’t know each other outside of this weekly 5 minute chat, but there was a genuine and mutual feeling of interest in each other’s lives and soon giving up my weekends to work didn’t seem such a bad thing after all.
My favourite customers were a son and his elderly mother. Every Saturday he would take her for her breakfast at the supermarket cafe and then they would do their shopping together. He was the only one of her children that took her out and they had a bond that was so heartwarming to see. I looked forward to chatting to them every week.
One week they didn’t come into the store. The week after they didn’t show up again. In fact, it was about two months later when I finally saw the son again. He was doing his own shopping, alone.
It didn’t take a genius to work out what had happened. When he came to my till, he told me through tears that his mum had passed away a few weeks ago and that he couldn’t bring himself to come into the store without her. It was heartbreaking. I told him how sorry I was for his loss. He was touched I remembered his mum. We had a bittersweet chat about her and her funny ways. Then he told me something that stuck with me for a very long time after – that coming to the supermarket was how she got out of the house and that I was one of the very few people she socialised with in a week.
I was nineteen at the time, going out with my friends from home every weekend and at uni with my other friends on weekdays. I was surrounded by friends and family and in a relationship. I couldn’t imagine my life without other people around me. I couldn’t imagine sitting in silence with nothing and no one but my own thoughts for company. I couldn’t imagine a life where going to the supermarket once a week was the only thing on my calendar and therefore was the highlight of my week.
Then I started thinking of all of the other people who passed me by that probably were going through something very similar to the old woman who I looked forward to chatting to each week. I remembered elderly people at the bus stop saying hello to me, people making conversation when I’d sit down next to them on the train, people that stood alone but smiled at you with hopeful eyes when you made eye contact with them. People, lonely people, they were everywhere.
The older I’ve got, the more I have seen that loneliness really is all around us. It’s like an epidemic that has silently swept through society, and it’s not just elderly people that are effected by it too. People might have a friend list that goes into four figures, but when they just need someone to listen they have no one to call. Their photos might get hundreds of likes but there is no one physically there when they need help. We live in an age where we should be more connected to people than ever before but in reality we are detached. We think that sending a text saying ‘miss you’ or ‘catch up soon’ ticks off a box that means you’ve checked in with someone and buys you a few more weeks of avoiding actually seeing people. We delude ourself into believing that pressing ‘like’ on a friend’s photo equates with showing you care.
Loneliness is not okay. In a world inhabited by so many people, no one should feel like they have no one to turn to. Silence should not be your only friend.
I can’t imagine a life where visiting a supermarket is the highlight of my week, but for some people that is their reality. The reality of that is also that in that social situation some people might still be made to feel just as alone there too. The person on the tills might not speak to them because they just can’t be bothered with customers that day. Another customer might not help them get that item down from the top shelf because that might slow down their shopping and they want to get out of there as quick as they can. The smiles that they dish out may be ignored because people are too focused on what they are getting for dinner that night. They might walk around the supermarket, picking up their meals for one, as invisible as they feel inside.
And that is not okay. Kindness costs nothing. You don’t know what the person in the queue next to you is going through or what they go home to. Even the most put together, respectable looking person could have more pain going on inside than you could imagine. You, the person next to them who has picked up the same brand of biscuits as they did, might be their only human interaction. You could be the first voice they hear in days. You could be the difference between complete isolation and a branch to the outside world.
It doesn’t take much to return a smile or to hold open a door. It doesn’t take much to exchange a joke and small talk about the weather. It doesn’t take much to show someone that they aren’t alone. It doesn’t take much to be the human in humanity.
Loneliness is a manmade issue. It also has a manmade solution. Be part of it.