“…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.” – By Olivia Laing, The Lonely City.
In the summer of 1999 I moved from New Delhi to a little place called Antrim in Northern Ireland. I lived in a tiny room in the accommodation for junior doctors on hospital grounds. I didn’t know a soul there. Slowly I made a few friends at work. Unlike now, there were no mobile phones, whatsapp, skype, facetime or facebook then. Telephone calls costed a bomb. People were friendly but everyone was a stranger. Initially I didn’t get their sense of humour at all. I felt foolish. I longed to speak my own language with someone. Anyone. But there was no one who would understand.
One evening I went to buy some chocolates to a nearby petrol station. There were 2 cashiers but only one of them had a long queue of people waiting their turn. I didn’t understand why. I went up to the cashier without a queue and made my payment. I didn’t get the meaning of the looks on people’s faces. It didn’t help that I was the only coloured person for miles. From some face expressions it was obvious that they had never ever seen a coloured person outside of the television. I felt alone. Very alone.
Urban loneliness is a common phenomenon. Isolation causes inflammation. Inflammation can cause further isolation and depression. The cytokines released as a result suppress the immune system giving rise to more illness.
Frome is a historical town in Somerset. It is known as one of the best places to live in the UK. Dr Helen Kingston, a GP, kept encountering patients who seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives. They were treated like a cluster of symptoms rather than a human being with health problems. Staff at her practice were stressed and dejected by what she calls “silo working”.
With the help of the local council and Health connections Mendip, she launched a community initiative in 2013. It main intervention was to create a stronger community. They identified and filled gaps in communications and support in the community. They employed ‘health connectors’ and trained up volunteers to be ‘community connectors’. They helped people with handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs or lunch clubs or exercise groups or writing workshops or men’s sheds (where men make and mend things together). The aim was to break a familiar cycle of misery.
In the three years that followed, emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% across the whole of Somerset. In Frome they fell by 17%.
No other intervention, drug or procedure on record has reduced emergency admissions across a population.
After Saagar’s death, it felt as if a big black boulder had landed in the middle of our living room. There wasn’t much space around it. It occupied the entire room. I had no escape from this uninvited guest. I had to squeeze my way around it to get past. Its roughness abraded my skin. It was stubborn, heavy, ugly, lifeless, crude and unmoving. It had made a home in our house. It was here to stay. I had no choice but to live with it and look at it. It stared right back at me non-stop. Its weight was suffocating. It sat on my chest, jutting its chin out, determined to get me. I pushed with all my might but it didn’t budge an iota.
It’s still there. But I can negotiate my way around it without the jaggedness making me bleed. We can sit and watch each other without wanting to kill each other. It has relaxed and settled into my space and I can breathe. A green shoot has peeped from underneath it. Another slender sapling has appeared out of the crevice near the window. The old sharp corners don’t catch anymore. They have rounded off. Life is happening around it.
If I had remained firmly rooted in the pure physicality of the world, I couldn’t have co-existed with this deeply unpleasant and unwanted occurrence. Spiritual teachings and practices have been a respite from my mind, the generator of pain. I am nowhere near ‘wise’ but I remain open to universal knowledge. I allow it to bring me peace, however momentary.
Amaravati Buddist monestary is one of my refuges. A few months ago I spent 5 days there in Silent retreat. A beautiful plant with asymmetric leaves overflowed from an indoor pot. With permission I brought 3 leaves home, allowed them to root in water and then planted them in soil. They look happy.
In December 2017 we planted an Acer in Saagar’s memory at Amaravati. It’s called ‘Winter flame’ or Acer Palmatum. A friend of a friend is a ceramist. She is making a set of drums and drumming sticks with Saagar’s initials, to be placed at the tree. I have never met her. She has never met me or Saagar. But we are connected. We all are connected.
An excerpt from a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Anando:
“We suffer because we constantly chase pleasure. We run away from pain.
Loose the greed for sensuous things.
See that the letting go of the world is peaceful.
Time is nothing. There is only ‘now’ and ‘change’.
Past and future are ‘thoughts’ in the Now.
Is there any way you can get into the past? Or the future?
Is there any way you can get out of ‘Now’?”
When I was 9, a music teacher came home every Tuesday evening to teach me singing and Kathak dance. That was my favourite time of the week. One week I waited and waited for what seemed like a very long time but he did not come. That evening I had a very high fever and had to be taken to the doctor. Last week I have been having a high temperature, a cough and a cold. Withdrawal?
‘Growing up in the UK’, a report published by the BMA in 2013 found that we fail many children and young people every year. 2.6 million children in the UK live in absolute poverty. Children are at higher risk of living in both relative and absolute low income than the overall UK population. 14% of the most severely materially deprived kids from 30 EU countries live in the UK – same percentage as Romania. The severe economic hardship from the 2008 financial crisis in the UK and consequent spending cuts have been disproportionately detrimental to children, young people and low income families, particularly those who were already at a disadvantage such as migrant children and lone parent families.
‘We like to think of ourselves as a child-friendly society, but the facts do not support that comfortable, complacent assumption’ – James Appleyard, treasurer of the BMA.
Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’
According to the World Happiness Report 2013, Dutch kids are some of the happiest in the world. Here are a few possible reasons. Dutch parents are the happiest people. Dutch Mums have found the perfect work-life balance with 68% of them working part time, 25 hours per week or less. They don’t care so much about being charming or about how they look. Dutch dads are more hands on and play a large role in child care. Many of them also work part time. Dutch kids feel no pressure to excel at school. They have no homework before the age of 10. There is no competitive university application process. They can simply attend school for learning rather than competing in academic performance.
The Dutch breakfast mostly consists of a slice of white bread with butter and chocolate sprinkles on top. The United Nations called it healthy. What makes it ‘healthy’ is that breakfast is taken as a family every morning. The kids have a right to express their opinions as they are meant to not just be seen but also heard. Grandmothers have an active role in bringing up the grandkids and that has a huge positive impact on the kid’s self-esteem. The Dutch government gives money to families to help with expenses. People, including kids safely cycle everywhere. A huge emphasis is placed on ‘gezellighied’, a concept of pleasant togetherness that is more bracing than coziness and more exciting than contentment. ‘Gezellighied’ is an untranslatable Dutch word. Its closest meanings are convivial, sociable, fun, nice atmosphere resulting from general togetherness of people giving rise to a strong sense of belonging and a warm feeling. People work hard to bring this into their everyday family lives.
Why do we fail so many kids in our country?
Politicians make blunders because they surround themselves with like-minded people who are completely disconnected from the general populace. There is a failure in advocacy for children. As a society we need to examine and change our attitudes towards the importance of children. Mentally and socially some people manifest a bunker and silo attitude leading to isolation and exclusion. We need to create nurturing communities locally which could be based around the arts, music, exercise, spirituality, sports, play groups and after-school clubs.
Families, government and education policies and practices need to emphasise the importance of creating nurturing environments for kids.
“Helping others is the way we help ourselves” -Oprah Winfrey
Simple ideas change the world. A Clinical Psychologist, Dr Charlie Howard was taking a walk around her area. Having recently had a child, she was looking for her next “thing”. She asked random people what would make a difference in their community. “A Problem-Solving Booth right here on my street” answered a young man in the queue in a sandwich shop. “A place where people can go with the stresses in their head and where we can help each other”. The idea was genius and Charlie’s head built on it quickly. “Maybe we could try one here?” Charlie suggested, “we could do it together”. The young man smiled at Charlie and said “yeah maybe” and then his phone rang and he ran off down the street. No one knows his name and no one has seen him since. He probably has no idea just what his throwaway words have since inspired.
Problem-Solving Booths are a great way to bring members of the community together to have conversations that they might not otherwise have, by helping each other with their problems. One chair is for the “Helper”, the person listening to the problems. The other is for the “Helped”, the person describing their concerns. The aim of the Booth is that people swap roles regularly as we all have both the potential to have problems as well as to offer help.
Thrive London is a citywide movement for better mental health for Londoners supported by the Mayor of London and the London Health Board. Problem-Solving Booths have become the local arm of Thrive and we’re working out what they are, what they do and what they can do, with everyone we meet from street to street, borough to borough and organisation to organisation. It’s cool.
A simple source of hot water in Delhi is the sun heating up supply pipes. Very eco-friendly.
Another simple yet highly un-eco-friendly source is an immersion rod. I used it today after about 3 decades. It was like revisiting my university days. The plastic bucket and the broad clip reminded me of the 2 parallel burn marks on the edge of the light blue bucket in college. The soft hissing sound of the frantic molecules was all too familiar. Seeing the little eddies set off by the heat waves made me smile. All those times when I had completely forgotten about the water and got distracted only to come back to the horror of half a bucket or less of absolutely boiling hot water! Adding just the right amount of cold water was crucial especially at the peak of winters.
The geyser with a red and a green light is another old friend. My brother lives with his family in a rented house in a little village in India. The landlord and his wife live in part of the house with a separate entrance. For some reason, the guest-room (my room) bathroom geyser is shared with the land-lord. The switch happens to be in their house. This is never a problem as most people are around most of the time. We forgot to ask them to switch it on in time, hence the immersion rod.
This kind of arrangement between neighbours, land-lords and tenants is normal here. It’s no problem. It’s perfectly workable. There is no desire to change it. I suppose things like this make it a close community. It would be quite unthinkable in more ‘advanced’ settings.
Fact: 4 days is the time it took for our next-door neighbour to find out that Saagar had passed away.
This forgotten book-mark in a book being revisited after two years is an origami crane – a symbol of healing in Japan. A school kid had given it to me at Hiroshima as a token of gratitude for helping him practise his spoken English.
Paper folding started in China in the first century and reached Japan in the 6th century. Here it was cultivated as an art of understatement. Origami suggests. It implies without announcing outright. It intimates without brashness. In Japanese folklore, a crane is fabled to live for a thousand years and is held in high esteem. It is believed that folding 1000 paper cranes brings the folder’s wishes come true.
A young girl called Sadako Sasaki survived the Hiroshima bomb when she was only two years old. Less than 10 years later she was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. The disease progressed rapidly and the prognosis was not good. She set out to make a thousand paper cranes. She could complete 644 before she died on Oct. 25, 1955, less than a year after being diagnosed. Her classmates, family and friends made more to bring them up to 1000 and buried them with Sadako.
Her story captured the imagination of the country and the world. Today, we recognize the crane as a symbol of peace and hope.
“She let out both the pain of our parents and her own suffering with each crane.”
“Her death gave us a big goal. Small peace is so important with compassion and delicacy it will become big like a ripple effect. She showed us how to do it. It is my, and the Sasaki family’s responsibility to tell her story to the world. I believe if you don’t create a small peace, you can’t create a bigger peace. I like to gather those good wishes and good will and spread to the world,” said Masahiro, her brother.
“Terrible poverty causes brain damage”, says Charles Nelson, a professor of neuroscience and paediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
In 1989, when the communists were overthrown in Romania, 170,000 children were abandoned and were living in government-run institutions under very poor conditions. Nelson and his team started studying them in the late 1990s. They found that the kids were deprived of key experiences during critical periods of development. Babies lay in cribs for their first year or more and their visual experience was limited because often the ceilings were painted white. There was no one to talk to them and care-giving was limited, so they were deprived of psychosocial stimulation. Their physical growth was greatly stunted too. The kids were very very small.
“We had a rule: no crying in front of the kids. But I can’t tell you how tough it was.”
The team wanted to find out if high-quality foster care for these kids could rectify the negative impact of poverty they might have. They recruited a sample of 136 kids, from 6-31 months of age and randomly assigned half of them to high quality foster care. The other half remained in institutional care. Foster parents from Bucharest were volunteers who had been intensively screened and interviewed. They were paid a small wage and provided with material support such as toys and diapers. The families were closely monitored by social workers.
Two years into the study they found that across the board, the kids in institutions lagged behind in language development, IQ and mental well being. The prevalence of anxiety and depression were reduced no matter how old the kids were when they were placed in foster care.
They are now about 16 years old. Those in institutions are starting to experience significant mental health issues such as psychotic disorders and paranoia. 20 of them showed a sharp drop in IQ from the age of 12.
One year following this research, the Romanian government passed a legislation banning the institutionalisation of children below the age of 2 years unless they were severely disabled. They also started government foster care.
This is a classic example of science giving rise to political will to improve lives of kids.
UK’s Child Poverty Action Group reports that 3.9 million children in this country live in poverty at present. This means more than one in 4 children are growing up in families with less than 60% of the median income. In the US, 15 million children live below the poverty line. Western levels of poverty may not be anything close to the hardship endured by many in developing countries but it has long lasting detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of children.
With a strong political will, child poverty can be alleviated but despite setting goals and targets, our government is spectacularly failing to deliver. Dealing with child poverty and its life long consequences is not a matter of political choice but that of moral duty.