It’s that time of year again, and we are being bombarded by images of the perfect Christmas, lots of happy people, in groups, usually large groups all positively bursting with seasonal joy. Or if it’s not that it’s the saccharine sweet nonsense of CGI’d residents of the Antarctic looking for love! What upsets me most about John Lewis’ offering this year, isn’t the bad acting (the kid obviously, NOT the penguin… it’s not real!) or the perfect middle classness of it all, or even the shameful promotion of the stuffed Emperor penguin which can be yours for only £129 from a John Lewis near you , along with another 177 penguin inspired gifts! It’s the underlying message of the advert that you (and more importantly those around you) can’t possibly have a happy Christmas, or be fulfilled if one beggar at the feast is loveless and without a significant other to pull their cracker. Now I suppose it could be the penguins long lost brother or sister popping out of the hat box, maybe it’s a subtle plea to the Home Office about the importance of the right to family re-union; but giving all the shots of snogging (elder snogging too!) we have to assume that the visitor is definitely the love interest.
Now this is not the “poor me whining” of someone who is not expecting (or seeking) much misteltoe action this year. I have enough experience to tell me that I don’t need to rub noses with someone to make my Christmas special, or any holiday or any special occasion more special. But what concerns me slightly is the subliminal message that if you are alone, or on your own at this time of year (or possibly any time of year) somehow you are seen as a bit odd, a bit sad, that you are not keeping your end up, not playing the game, you are spoiling it for everyone else. Popular culture, advertisers and retailers are singing from the same carol sheet and that carol simply says that Christmas is about being happy, and being happy requires you to be a surrounded by large groups of people and above all Christmas means love and romance. Whereas we all know the horrific reality of Christmas with large groups of relatives, we know that Christmas is about over indulgence of the wallet, senses and stomach and that the divorce rate soars post-holiday season.
But aside from all of that it completely ignores and diminishes those people who ARE lonely, on their own, sometimes by choice but not often. We are urged to chap up elderly neighbours and bring them a cup of festive cheer, invite them to lunch. We are coerced into giving to charity, brought face to face with people “less fortunate than our selves” and in the 6 week run up to the big day (with Children in Need as the official starting pistol) we are expected to find a compassion for others that most of us find completely absent the other 46 weeks of the year. And all of it to make us feel less guilty about those people who don’t fit the happy norm and whose presence amongst us and whose plight might make us feel a bit bad about the extremes we go to.
But like the puppies, Loneliness isn’t just for Christmas.
And bang on cue a journalist chum emails me to say her magazine is doing a feature on loneliness at this time of year. No, she’s not asking me to write about the emotional desert of being partnerless that I navigate every day (!) or the horrors of having to go to Christmas parties on my tod. She, to be fair, works for the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work and she wants to know about the impact of loneliness on asylum seekers and refugees. That it’s “this time of year” I’m pretty sure is the hook but it does show some understanding that sometimes people who are lonely are not being lonely just to spoil the party for everyone else.
It’s surely one thing being lonely in a city you recognise in a culture that you connect with and in a language you speak, imagine then, the crushing sense of aloneness you might feel if these things missing are as they are for asylum seekers and refugees. The latest dispersal cohort of asylum seekers to Glasgow (the only city in Scotland to house them) are mostly men, single men. Without families and with no realistic chance for re-union any time soon, they are housed in some of the poorest areas of the city, where markers of social deprivation are off the scale, and amongst the indigenous population, weighed down by poverty and illness, there’s not much energy for welcoming the stranger.
A subject of research just now, into the impacts of these lack of social bonds and bridges, this community paint a bleak picture. Unable to communicate well, they fall between the cracks of service provision; their health, physical and mental, is poor, their motivation to engage with support – which might lift them out of poverty- once they are granted leave to remain, is low. With contact to family and a previous life restricted to emails and skype on the rare occasions they can access a computer, when their stories are generally not believed by the authorities, and they are living with a dread of the “knock on the door”, being alone is tinged not just with sadness but with fear and anxiety.
A growing trend in Glasgow is to see these young men, forced to spend time with others in a similar position, but in no way people with whom they have formed friendships necessarily, congregating on street corners. There’s no money for coffee and going for a pint is out. But in gathering like this, being mostly from the Middle East, and in this political climate, they become the subject of fear and suspicion, further removing them from the chances to make connections which might tum them from social pariah into contributing citizens. For this group loneliness is more than a poignant tug on the heartstrings at Christmas, it’s a dangerous and debilitating disconnect which needs to be addressed, because not to do so risks affecting social cohesion in Glasgow and in other cities in the country where the same sad scenes are played out. And it is, in turn, this break down of social cohesion which ramps up racial tensions which can spill over into violence, this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, Fill British cities with disconnected and un-engaged migrants and see what happens cants the Daily Mail. And I’m not seeing too many calls for people to pop round and bring an asylum seeker a cup of festive cheer.
Elsewhere in the migrant community with, punishing immigration rules on family re-union and temporary leave to remain becoming the norm rather than let people settle permanently when they might put down roots, get an education, work and contribute, loneliness abounds. I stopped long ago asking clients if they had any children, when one African woman looked me in the eye and said “Maybe”. The chilling realisation that for many of the people we work with, the reality of family life is the not knowing where they are and if they are still alive. How much would they revel in a typically fractious, argumentative, tired and emotional relative filled Christmas day?
We have all experienced at some point how you can feel lonely in a room full of people, so take a moment and think about people you know who might not be surrounded by loved ones, or who are a significant other, light, but who will be doing their best to survive the lovebombing onslaught that is December in Britain. They aren’t worth less than you, they are not flawed, they are not trying to spoil the party, they are not to be feared, they are not to be pitied, they are to be accepted and celebrated for the people they are, for the lives that they lead, however difficult they may be at times. Diversity is a wonderful thing!