No one is immune from loneliness, but we have a cure within ourselves

I loathe the kind of mawkish stunts that cause human beings to cry for the camera. So when people on social media began urging me to watch a video of a lonely pensioner from Oldham called Terrence receiving a surprise visit from local college students – a clip that was guaranteed to bring a lump to my throat – I was resistant.

Picturing my grandparents, I thought how little they would have liked a stranger to see them weep – even if the stranger in question had been someone they knew from the telly. (The man behind the students’ visit was the BBC Breakfast presenter, Dan Walker, to whom Terrence had previously revealed that for the past 20 years he’d spent Christmas Day alone.) Frankly, they wouldn’t have wanted a stranger to witness even their happier emotions – as an expert from Antiques Roadshow once discovered when, on a recce to Sunderland, my granny presented him with a certain unexpectedly valuable rose bowl.

But that’s another story. The clip kept appearing in my feed, and eventually I gave in and played it – and, yes, it did bring a lump to my throat, though in truth I found it chastening rather than uplifting; a lesson in brutal reality rather than in festive cheer.

If it was desperately sad hearing Terrence explain to Walker how, before his mother died, he used to buy her “little bits all the time, like cigarettes, and parcel them all up at Christmas and take them to her” – to me, all of his loneliness was held, as if in amber, in the modesty of the phrase “little bits” – it was even more pitiful to see him press his face into his handkerchief in the moments after the students carried a Christmas tree into his front room. His reaction was instantaneous: as if a gate, long-locked, had been kicked wide open inside him, or the icy surface of some internal lake suddenly cracked. I realised that he wasn’t embarrassed by his tears for the simple reason that there was no time for such a feeling to creep over him. Barely six seconds can have passed between the appearance of the tinsel-bearing young people – Walker’s carefully staged surprise – and his first gulping sob.

Terrence stayed with me for ages afterwards. I couldn’t get past the idea that his ambitions when it comes to Christmas consist only of giving (and, perhaps, of receiving) a few “little bits”. This year, as he also told Walker, he will, thanks to his involvement with the charity Age UK, be spending Christmas with a new friend, a 90-year-old woman with dementia – and I thought again and again of how happy he had sounded when he said the word “friend”, her illness seemingly taking the shine off the prospect of her company not one iota. Every time I remembered his gratitude for what Walker had arranged (as well as the tree, the students sang his favourite carol, Silent Night), it made me feel something very close to shame. It was so easily won.

Loneliness. The media talks of an “epidemic”, encouraged not only by the fact that GPs are reporting increasingly high numbers of patients suffering from it, but also by the news that scientists are investigating the possibility of developing drugs that may reduce its symptoms; in 2018, the government even got in on the act, when it appointed a minister for loneliness. (The remit of the minister for sport was expanded following the recommendations made by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.)

Personally, I’m not sure how to feel about this. Even if one accepts that loneliness is on the rise – I think this difficult to prove – it is surely strange to medicalise it. The emotional poverty that is loneliness has so many causes, and can be found in so many places for so many different reasons; the isolation of a pensioner who has outlived his peers is hardly the same as the isolation experienced by a teenager whose social life takes place entirely on the screen of her phone. It’s not even as if you have to be alone to suffer from loneliness. Wasn’t it Chekhov who suggested that those who truly fear it had better not get married?

But it’s also possible to overcomplicate things. When, in her latest book A Biography of Loneliness, the cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti asserts that there are no easy solutions to such a state, I’m inclined both to agree and to disagree. Loneliness is sly. It can sidle up even to those who are the least vulnerable to it. I know this because I sometimes experience it myself, and I am neither old nor poor, my mental health is robust, and I have a family and close friends. (As a writer, I choose to be alone, but even as I cherish such a state, I also know how easily it can become a turning inwards, an introversion that brings with it feelings of anxiety and doubt.) Of course the same remedy – volunteer, take up yoga! – is not going to cure everyone.

Nevertheless, the case of Terrence is instructive. Our needs are really not so great. If we are all complex, we’re also very simple. Just as those who are surrounded by people need sometimes to be alone, so those who are alone sometimes require company – or if not that, then at least some momentary contact, even if only as fleeting as a smile. This is something we should all bear in mind; it needs to be felt (perhaps it needs to be taught) as a collective duty.

Is it really so hard to meet the eye of the man who is serving us? To talk to the woman who is next to us in the queue? Must our headphones always be clamped to our ears? Why the dread at the thought of actually phoning someone? At the very least, we could try to answer the emails of those we know and care about. We picture them as harried, and insist on feeling this way ourselves. But in reality we do not know when last they properly talked to someone. How could they, given that there are times when we can hardly remember when we last did so ourselves?