There’s always another way of looking at things.
After finishing an online game of Codenames on Tuesday night, my friends said goodnight, put down the phone and went their separate ways. I was left alone.
The nothingness swept into the emptiness and I had to sit down.
There’s nothing I look forward to more than seeing my friends. So, for the next couple of months, I have nothing to look forward to.
That was my thinking.
I undressed for an early night, hoping for consolation between the sheets of my bed, between pages of a book.
Then the phone rang. I looked at the unknown number, and unexpectedly answered.
It was a good friend I hadn’t spoken to for four, five years and my thinking was thrown on its head.
When life looks loneliest, there are people thinking and caring about you. Sometimes they’ll ring at that precise moment; sometimes they won’t and you’ll never realise unless you look at things in another way.
Sometimes these thoughtful people are friends, old or new; sometimes they’re people you barely knew, who crossed your path but once on the streets of New York, who you know can never find you or call you, but who are thinking about you with a smile, singing a song for you nonetheless.
Am I alone? There’s always another way of looking at things.
Here in Bournemouth, hundreds of people are drawn to the seafront. Keeping to the two-metre rule is difficult and demands nimble, if not outright acrobatic footwork.
This could be annoying. It could be an inconvenience. Or it could be the end of perceived isolation. How can I be alone on such a busy beach?
On Wednesday morning, during a half-hour run, I instituted a new rule: say good morning to every person I pass.
Yesterday, I started counting. I ran past 42 people and 32 of them, much surprised, said good morning back, making me fist-pump with pleasure.
(The other 10 mostly had headphones on so probably didn’t notice me.)
Perhaps now the time is ripe for extravagant enthusiasm: for us to go beyond everyday norms and stake out the boundaries of the world we want to see, rather than the world penned by the apparent limits of quarantine.
Extravagant: to wander out of bounds; fantastically absurd, flagrantly excessive behaviour. Also: a choice, a way of seeing things.
Enthusiasm: possession by a god; inspired greatness; a deifying of terrestrial behaviour. Also: a choice, a way of seeing things.
After all, I’d rather be known as the guy who says good morning to everyone than as the guy who… well, almost anything else, right? Perhaps this is the fourth sign of ageing: a contraction of ambition to the point where being known for decency is the pinnacle of heroism, but still…
A poster has recently been put up on Bournemouth seafront. It’s a crowdfunding campaign to buy a stroller for an elderly dog. The dog, the poster informs us, usually accompanies a man who has picked tonnes of litter from the beach over the years of daily exercise.
I don’t know anything about this man, except that he is known for his prodigious litter picking, for his extravagant enthusiasm for making our world more pleasant.
In isolation and loneliness, extravagant enthusiasm is a classic Stoic intervention: working within stringent limitations to explore hidden expanses of freedom.
Some ideas for extravagant enthusiasm:
- Greet everyone. No exceptions. If you’re overtaking, then wait until you’re level or slightly ahead and then turn: most people will look at you.
- Establish eye contact well in advance. This is not a drive-by; this is a firm, positive connection.
- Speak up.
- It doesn’t have to be ‘good morning’. ‘Alright?’, ‘Beautiful day!’ and similar all work. Vary your game if you get bored.
- Don’t be intimidated by groups or people in conversation: be confident and cheerful. You’re not interrupting; you’re like the weather: warm, sunny and just there.
- Maintain eye contact after speaking. People will be surprised and think that you can’t possibly be wishing them well. Disabuse them of this notion.
- If it gets weird, add a nod or a thumbs up.
- Thumbs up is the perfect sign language for people wearing headphones and people at a greater distance as well.
- Feel free to continue the chat at a safe distance.
- If all else fails, pick litter.