Magazines 2020 Nov - Dec The loneliness vaccine

The loneliness vaccine

21 December 2020 By Tim Huff

We are all alike in the core pain of what we are experiencing, writes Tim Huff. We are lonely for one another.

Over the past few Christmases I’ve been feeling the need for a new Santa suit. I’ve been doing backyard Santa gigs for 24 years, and the handmade one I wore all these years had worn so thin that I would wear red long-johns under them in case there were any wardrobe malfunctions. (I’d rather make happy memories that will last rather than awkward memories people wish they could forget.)

Shy on the funds – but more shy about anything untoward occurring – a week ago I made my way to Malabar’s custom theatre and costume shoppe in downtown Toronto and made a quality Kris Kringle investment.

Tim Huff
Tim Huff

Walking back to my truck, I stopped to talk to an old homeless man sitting among his soiled belongings by a traffic light on Queen Street. I had to keep socially distanced, of course, which is an unthinkable and painful new reality for any old-school street worker.

Oh, he was heartbreaking and adorable. The kind of homeless person you’d see portrayed on a really syrupy Hallmark Christmas movie, sans the inevitable happy ending, I fear. With no upper or lower teeth, he kind of reminded me of a muppet when he spoke. (Yes, these are the kind of things only long-time street work veterans feel lovingly comfortable to say aloud.)

While we were chatting, he noticed a patch of red velvet and white faux fur peeking out from the hanger hole in the suit bag I was carrying over my shoulder.

He tilted his head, pointed at the swatch of Santa suit and asked sweetly, “Are you my secret Santa?” (Oh, how my heart is stirred by ancient survivors who have held onto their great wit despite their suffering and all the injustice they’ve known.)

“Maybe so,” I giggled back. “What would you like?” This was wise old me asking an aging man who pretty much needed every single thing most of us take for granted every single day of our lives.

“Well, I’m past needing just my two front teeth,” he snickered, pulling at the sides of his mouth to show nothing but gums. Then he pulled two sets of dentures out of his coat pocket and held them up towards me. “These don’t fit no more. Hurts too much.”

I bought him some soup and we had the loveliest little visit I’ve had all crazy Covid year.

People are lonely, Santa

“People are lonely, Santa,” he told me between slurps. (He kept calling me Santa, and I kept liking that he did.)

“Are you lonely?” I asked. And he did what street angels always do. He made small simple sentences profound – a gift, I am convinced, only made possible by endless days existing solely in the moment while watching people pass you by with no regard for your thoughtful and tender soul.

“I’m ok… I’m used to this… But I hear all the conversations at them red lights, and in all my years, I’ve never heard people as hurtin’ lonely as now.”

When I walked away I realized he wasn’t talking about strangers. Not about masses of pedestrians. He was, in fact, talking about YOU. Yes, you. And me.

Long before Covid-19 mugged the world of its would-be “normal,” endless surveys and stats have been identifying the same shocking thing: the number one fear of adults is loneliness. That was a pre-2020 truth, so imagine what that means for the world now.

Sure, the realities of our living situations and circumstances might distinguish the gravity and dynamic of that loneliness – but we are all alike in the core pain of what we are experiencing. We are lonely for one another. Lonely for nearness and touch and loved ones beyond our “bubbles” or unthinkably off limits. Lonely for smiling, maskless, friendly encounters in the supermarket and drugstore. Lonely for crowds we want to be in and congregations that we’ve always known as life-giving.

But if and as we survive this unimaginable time, perhaps by God’s grace and some overdue soul searching, we can become our better selves, never again taking a precious moment with one another for granted. Sharing our time together more thoughtfully. Hugging one another a few seconds longer and a bit tighter. And maybe, just maybe, seeing toothless old homeless people differently.

Much good, very good, we can do

But there is much to do on the loneliness front in the meantime. Much good, very good, you and I can do right now. Safely, inexpensively, purposely. Humbly shared…

It’s been a long time since many of us have handwritten and mailed a card. Too long, if not ever for some. Be assured, gracious and loving handwritten words tie souls together beyond comprehension. And the sight of a handwritten address on the envelope alone is a joy.

Since the inception of the smart phone, we have all primarily lived by the “put down your phone, c’mon, it’s Christmas” notion. But maybe this is the one unprecedented year that we need to do the opposite. I would suggest that our phone calls and texts, Facetimes and Zooms might be more priceless on Christmas day 2020 than they have ever been in our lives.

Find the ones you are lonely for, absolutely. But too, as or more importantly, find the ones you imagine might be lonely. The ones you may not normally reach on Christmas day. And then truly spend your words with a tenderness that transcends even your best normal.

And if you must get to your online platforms, fill your social media with nothing but goodness and hope.

And then a week later make resolutions that are commitments to the broken-hearted.

These are more than the not-so-secret Santa things we can do now, as we end this exhausting and sorrowful year, that can unfold into habits that change our lives for good and forever.

And in your own loneliness, as privately or publicly as it’s known, be reminded always of “Emmanuel.” And whisper it often. (It means “God with us”.) Receive it dearly and nearly. Never let the word pass you by in a Christmas carol or on a Christmas card that you don’t breathe it in with comfort, hope and promise.

Ultimately, the Christmas story is the loneliness vaccine.

May peace, joy and love find you and all those you cherish. Warmly, Tim.

Tim Huff is founder of the Compassion Series at Youth Unlimited. His books include Bent Hope, Dancing with Dynamite and The Yuletide Factor as well as several books for children. Photos provided.