Lonely in a crowd

Locals have left tributes for murdered West Heidelberg toddler Sanaya. There are outpourings of grief and rage, and messages to Sanaya from people she never met. While I understand how crisis brings people together, and sometimes it takes a shock to draw attention, it saddens me that Sanaya’s mum, now accused of also being her murderer, was described in the media today as having 1000 Facebook friends, but no-one in Melbourne she could really talk to.

It feels to me as though we are very good, these days, at signing petitions, attending vigils, and leaving offerings at the scene of crimes. But we’re not so great at drawing isolated people into our community.

We drive to and from huge, impersonal shopping centres without seeing a familiar face. We drive to and from work. We don’t know our neighbours. All too frequently we don’t even socialise with our work colleagues. We’re too busy to put down roots, to know our community, and to see the loneliness on the faces around us – in fact we’re often too busy to see the faces at all.

And some of those faces are struggling. Lonely, isolated, or even trapped in abusive relationships, we give them total privacy, when what they need is a hand stretched out.

My students will tell you I’m not a fan of the Facebook attitude to privacy, but sometimes I wonder if it would be better if Mark Zuckerberg was right and privacy really was dead. I think we venerate it too much. I think we are so concerned with each other’s privacy that we sometimes fail to reach out.

We build fences, create higher walls, and plant screening hedges so that no-one can breach our defences, but maybe it’s our defences that are killing us.

I’m really lucky. I have an incredible collection of friends. We catch up with each other, but frequently need to schedule catch ups weeks or months in advance, because life is so busy. Just dropping in is a luxury we can’t afford – often because we don’t live close to each other. Community is no longer the people around you. That means we can choose our friends, and it’s easier to stay connected with the people we love even when they live on another continent. But it also means that the people we walk past every day are often not people we connect with.

It means when you’re having a rougher day than usual the people around you won’t necessarily notice or care. And it means that when you’re like Sanaya’s mum – struggling and lonely – there may be no-one around you who will smile and reach out a hand. It turns out that we were great at giving her privacy, but not so great at giving her community.

I worry about our future. Online communities can be wonderful, but they don’t see you walking past. I get a lot of support from my Facebook friends, but they can’t pick me up if I fall down in the street. If I couldn’t post for some reason, I doubt my Facebook presence would be missed for quite some time. Reaching out, whether on Facebook or on the phone, is really hard when you are feeling raw and vulnerable. Sometimes you need the people around you to notice.

Of course, it’s not easy to reach out to total strangers, and I don’t know what Sanaya’s mum’s story is. Maybe people did reach out. But I do know that I don’t reach out enough to the people in my own life. There are so many small ways we can keep each other from falling, and I think I could do more.

To check in with friends at work who have been absent for a while, to see if they’re ok. To stop when I see someone is upset, and ask if there’s anything I can do. To arrange more coffees. To send more emails – or better yet, make more phone calls. To really listen when I ask someone how they are, and not just take a quiet “ok” for an answer. To put a flower, a chocolate frog, or a cup of coffee on a friend’s desk when they’re struggling. To take the time to be really appreciative when someone does something nice. Even to admire a new haircut. Just to connect.

Sometimes we all fall through the cracks. Some land harder than others. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do a little more catching?

 

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