Lurking right under my nose amidst all the gaiety of this past holiday season was human evidence that cleverness and cash can’t always capture the perfect gift. Try as we may though, on December 24th my sister and I combined a delightful visit together with a last minute shopping spree. A twofer of sorts which satisfied both our joy of familial interaction with the sheer excitement of acquiring something new, both for ourselves and for the folks on our Christmas list.
Despite feeling the uncomfortable excesses the season is widely noted for, namely, too much food and too much spending and thus making a promise to myself that next year would be a much more conservative affair I made one last stab at purchasing the kind of joy only a pretty pair of pumps can deliver.
Do you have these in a size eight? I asked the saleswoman.
“I’ll check,” she said with a solemnity usually reserved for church, which was in complete contrast to the excitement my sister and I were were feeling about being together and about Christmas itself.
She was pretty and young but seemed downtrodden. I felt sorry for her. Fastening the shoe onto my foot only made matters worse. What should have been an opportunity for salesmanship on her part ended up resembling something akin to servitude and I was suddenly struck by a Cinderella moment. I don’t mean the part where the glass slipper fits and she gets her Prince, but before that, at the fairy tale’s beginning when we all bear witness to the cruel conditions under which Cinderella suffered and the sadness she felt when her two evil stepsisters were getting ready for a ball to which the lovely Cinderella had not been invited. A prescient thought indeed.
“Are you cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow or is someone cooking for you? I cheerfully inquired trying to lighten the mood.
“Oh, um, I don’t really have any plans,” she said appearing more “Cinder like” by the moment as the the reality of a missed invitation settled in on all of us.
My sister and I quickly exchanged surprised looks.
I mean it was 4:00 o’clock on Christmas Eve. If you didn’t have something fun arranged by now chances are Christmas was going to be a solo affair.
I couldn’t think of a thing to say that wouldn’t make her feel any worse than she had to already be feeling.
“It’s okay,” she said, politely downplaying the disappointment we might think she was experiencing.
“I have tomorrow off (which was Christmas) and then,” she said, “I have to work the next day, so…”
She never finished the sentence but I suspect the picture she was painting was one that suggested Christmas was simply another day on the calendar that happened to be slotted between two other identical days so very little was to be accomplished by making a holiday out of a holiday which is exactly what holidays are aren’t they? An opportunity to turn the ordinary into something special.
There clearly had to be a back story here. She said she had moved from California to Florida. But that was 6 years ago. Don’t you make friends in 6 years? What about family? How had she or they overlooked Christmas?
I felt so bad that I almost invited her to my Mom’s house. We’ve always had lovely strays for the holidays so what was one more? But I did not extend the invitation. I sensed something unreachable about her. Something that a simple supper, no matter how grand, would not cure.
And I wondered how many other people live through the holidays, or life for that matter, feeling lonely.
More than you’d think.
Neuroscientist John Cacioppo has been studying loneliness his whole career. In an article written by Lydialyle Gibson in the University of Chicago Magazine about a book he had written on the subject she shares his prediction that “20 percent of Americans, about 60 million people, suffer from loneliness that is chronic and severe enough to be a major source of unhappiness.” Those numbers climb to 43% for those over 60 according to other studies.
What’s more, Cacioppo describes “how the need for social connection is so fundamental in humans that without it we fall apart, down to the cellular level. Over time blood pressure climbs and gene expression falters. Cognition dulls; immune systems deteriorate. Aging accelerates under the constant, corrosive presence of stress hormones. Loneliness, Cacioppo argued, isn’t some personality defect or sign of weakness—it’s a survival impulse.”
We crave company as a nurturing mechanism much like flowers need sun and water. We are built to be together and have been for eons.
“Cacioppo believes,” writes Gibson, “in a powerful evolutionary force binding prehistoric people to those they relied on for food, shelter, and protection, to help them raise their young and carry on their genetic legacy. He hypothesized that the distress they felt if they drifted toward the outskirts of their group served as a warning to re-engage or else perish. Small wonder that isolation makes people feel not only unhappy but also unsafe.”
“Are you ever lonely?” I asked my Mom who is by nature a shy person.
“No,” she answered. “But sometimes if I am alone too much I get a little antsy and just go for a walk to get over it,” she said.
Brilliant move according to Cacioppo who has said that ‘Some people get stuck, but on average, when you get lonely—or when you’re in pain or when you’re hungry or you’re thirsty—you do something to get out of that aversive state.”
To test his theory I walked past the store where my sad saleswoman worked. As she had already told me that she was working the day after Christmas I knew she would be there and so I opened the door to the shop to inquire about her holiday.
“Did you do anything yesterday or just chill out,” I asked.
“I went to a friend’s house,” she answered.
I was so glad for her.
And when she smiled, I could tell she was too.