Updated: Oct 6, 2021

As I sat in my favoured coffee shop, I noticed an elderly man, one whom I could imagine being called doddering, sitting opposite me. He was with who I assumed was his son, though perhaps it was a carer. Either way, the elderly man’s companion was on his phone: attention fixed, unmoved, from this screen.

Now, I can understand the need to detach for a while. It seemed like they had spent at least the afternoon together. Perhaps, if it was a carer, it could have been all day and all night for the last week. You need time away. Perhaps he was connecting with someone else. Yet I still hurt.

Being refused or being unable to be in relationship with another, experiencing the dignity of belonging to humanity is always piercingly tragic. Loneliness is one of our deepest hurts.

The elderly man was not going to give up easily, though. ‘Good for him!’, I thought. Some elderly people can hold onto the dignity of their humanity far more than I can. He tried starting a conversation a few times. I didn’t catch how, though I did see him tapping his knee in frustration at the monosyllabic responses and unmoved eyes of his companion. In the end, I heard him asking what it was he was looking at, civility masking irritation.. I felt an old wound exposed and plastered badly, as it is in many of us: we long for a sense of belonging, are crippled without it.et, even when we are ignored, rejected, we must remain polite:‘No, don’t worry about me. I’m OK.’

Somehow, when loneliness becomes our normal companion, so used to it are we, so little do we have anything else, or so safe does it feel in comparison with the anticipated or real rejection of others, it’s like we should be grateful when others give their attention, and completely understanding when they don’t. We give up that fury that is fighting for our soul.

Perhaps it’s my own hurting and loneliness I feel when I see scenes like this. The hurt of feeling misunderstood, or the fear I would be misunderstood, if I ever revealed myself to a busy, cool, big world. The hurt that builds after spending hours in my room practicing guitar, rather than risking the rejection and uncertainty of company. The hurt that grows out of the emptiness of anger that’s lost its energy.

After several minutes of this, the elderly man resorted to, perhaps, all he had left: a retreat to the facilities. He asked his companion if they were at the front, and started to get up. The man, without looking up, got up and walked the opposite direction to the back (where there were also toilets) with a comment that ran along the lines of:, ‘You want the bog? Come on. I’ll take you.’ Back bent, the elderly man was led, denied at least the dignity of walking there himself, denied the dignity of privacy, denied the dignity of escape.

I remember those moments when all I wanted to do was escape, and felt unable to. When I felt I had to endure the torment of being unseen and misunderstood, staying desperate to belong and somehow feeling like I couldn’t excuse myself, like I had to be OK. When the toilet was a necessary escape from it all. Thankfully, I’m not in those days any more. Thankfully, the toilet is now more a relief from the stimulation of - as well as the social anxieties that remain in - connected company.

A few minutes later, as the companion waited a few metres outside the door, the elderly man walked out. I realised he was dressed in a shirt and trousers, as some older people do, still facing the world in the clothes they are used to and prefer. He asked if it was time to get on, claiming - gently, perceptively - the dignity of his choice and power. And then, passing my table, he caught my stare. I smiled. He smiled back and waved.

Maybe it was that something in my smile that told him someone had seen him and that somebody cared. I know how joyful such a moment is for me. Or maybe it was his own life and power bursting out. But he had a full smile. The smile, it seemed to me, of a person who knows that life is simple, even in its frustrations, complications and vulnerabilities; that, whatever, life is better when we act out of our dignity, choice and power; and that, whatever, life is still best when we connect.

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