Today, I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, and an older gentleman was in front of me. He was carrying on a conversation with the cashier about wanting to have some candy because he has got something of a sweet tooth (quite relatable!). There were jokes about “staying off of drugs” (the drugs being the candy) because that’s what Nancy Reagan taught us, and that, “Oh, I guess I gotta pay for this!” followed by laughter.
And it reminded me of something I’ve come to realize these last few years, which I would posit is perhaps the core element at the heart of every human being, often manifesting in good (and bad, for sure) ways in our culture, our polity, our religious institutions, and certainly our various interpersonal relationships — not that I think you can do a Theory of Everything as it concerns the complexity and nuance involved in human behavior, but maybe this gets close.
It is this: We all want to be heard. All of us. We want to feel heard and listened to. We want to feel validated in our personness. We want to feel like we matter in relationship to others, our institutions, our culture and in the overall madness that is “living” with death careening toward us.
While I started with an anecdote about an older gentleman, I don’t think this is confined to older people by any means, although I do happen to have a job where I’ve noticed it more frequently among older individuals. That is, the demographic who still reads the print version of the newspaper tends to skew older, and they tend to be the ones who don’t mind talking my ear off for an hour at a time, and could surely go longer! Not that I mind this; I find it flattering and humbling, so as long as the talk is interesting (the job also tends to attract … well, those you wouldn’t want to listen to at length, to be fair).
Old, young, children (yes, children! I think we underestimate greatly the extent to which children simply want to be heard and taken seriously), teenagers, professionals, blue collar workers, and people of all backgrounds and socioeconomic upbringings. Everyone wants to be heard.
I’m not trying to make an argument that we need to hear some people out — those who have repulsive ideas, like a Nazi, for example — because I’m not necessarily talking the political (although again, it can manifest in that way), but the essence of being a human, and we know humans are social beings, is that we want to be heard. We want people to hear about our toil, and our successes!, going through life.
Paradoxically, this need can make us bad listeners to others who want to be heard, too! Because we can get so myopically focused on our own desire to be heard that we forget to hear. I don’t think people who are bad listeners, or lapse into bad listening, are being nefarious and/or narcissistic necessarily. It’s a hard skill that needs to be honed and that aforementioned need can get in the way of developing it. (As a general rule of thumb, we ought to recognize that most people are good people acting in good faith unless shown otherwise.)
What tends to happen when we are not heard is that humans get lonely, isolated and have all the related deleterious health effects from those conditions. In fact, the National Institute of Aging, under the National Institutes of Health, said research links social isolation and loneliness to “higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”
It’s also worth pointing out, as the NIH does, that social isolation and loneliness are not necessarily the same concept. People can live alone and not be socially isolated. Conversely, people can be surrounded by family and friends and still feel lonely. The loneliness problem seems most pronounced when it is unexpected, i.e., due to the death of a spouse, loss of mobility, lack of transportation, etc.
I would also take a moment to note that I live alone (unless I happen to have one of my dogs!) and do not feel lonely. Or socially isolated. For the most part, I feel okay being “alone.” But like all other humans, even my introverted, socially anxious self still needs some form of human interaction and to be heard.
I didn’t intend to go down a research rabbit hole here, as I was merely musing, but I do find the research interesting. Like with other conditions, loneliness particularly becomes a health concern when it is chronic because it tends to distort one’s perception of the world, NIH said. In other words, chronic loneliness has a biologically negative outcome.
I’m not saying, and I’m not smart enough to say, that “listening” to these people is enough of a health intervention to stave off some of the aforementioned health risks, but I do think people feeling like they still have a place in the world wouldn’t have their underlying biology transformed, right? They’ve become untethered and we need to tether them again!
Interestingly, lawmakers have actually tried to address this issue and allocate funds toward it. In August 2021, a bill was introduced to allocate $250 million for the Area Agencies on Aging to “develop, implement, and evaluate programs that foster connectedness.” There seems to be some reason for optimism that these community-building programs are effective at “re-tethering” people, if you will.
As the author of the article I linked in the previous paragraph notes, two of the limitations of the funding is that it is geared toward older adults (thus, missing that social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone of any age), and that the government through the allocation of more resources can only do so much. As with most things, it requires community action beyond the scope of governmental action.
I don’t have the answers, but it’s neat from my going down my quick research rabbit hole to learn that there are indeed many community-based, nonprofit organizations working to address the issue. People are pretty cool, huh?
And I hope the gentleman is enjoying his candy right now feeling validated from his little, but important interaction at the grocery store today.