Monday, April 2, 2012

Coffee For One

I’d been living at my brother’s place for a couple of months before I noticed the coffee shop.

The end of something is never easy. Separation, divorce… even when it’s been a long time coming, when it comes as a relief rather than a shock, it still isn’t easy. Something ends, and everything changes. And change brings its own challenges.

Which is how I found myself living in a single room, all my worldly possessions in a pile in the garage. New suburb, new area, new routines. It was only supposed to be for a short time, while I started untangling the strands of my old life, but life doesn’t stop for new beginnings. Life goes on.

My daily commute took me to and from work by a new path now. Different surroundings, and I was still coming to terms with this change in direction; my train rides passed by as a blur. But one afternoon, I noticed the little coffee shop in the row of shops near the station as my train pulled in. Not a bad idea, I thought. I took to dropping in there on my way to the station in the morning, two or three times a week, buying my coffee for the ride in to work. Just another new routine.

One morning, there was a new girl behind the counter of the coffee shop. That morning, I didn’t just start my day with coffee; I started it with conversation. 

People are, by nature, social animals. We like to connect; you could say we need to connect. From the moment we’re born we interact with others, forming friendships, relationships… embedding ourselves in our social network. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years, long before MySpace and Facebook and Twitter; long before “social network” became a buzz phrase.

People need each other. It’s no accident that we have always congregated in numbers; from villages to towns to cities, we are drawn together by the need to be with others. To be a part of a community. We socialise, making new friends and keeping up with old ones, constantly redefining and affirming who we are in the context of our relationships with others.

For some, however, the social network is broken. The connections can be made but they rarely, if ever, connect deeply. There’s a sense of separation, of dislocation; a fundamental disconnect with everyone they know. You’d never know it, but it’s more common than many realise. Such is loneliness.

Many people choose to be alone. For one reason or another they see their place in the world as standing apart, and they embrace that position. But loneliness has little, if anything, to do with being alone. Many choose solitude; no one chooses to be lonely.

In the following weeks I became used to starting my day with coffee and a chat. Tattoos, comic books, music… a broad range of topics we were both interested in, my coffee girl and I. Five minute bursts of connection that I grew to look forward to more than my daily caffeine fix.

This is not a love story, nor is it a tale of obsession. But when your connections are few, you recognise the value of the ones you have, the ones you make. They leave their mark on you, as my coffee girl did on me. My days became better for knowing her. That’s what friendship is.

Loneliness is not about how many people you know, or how few. It’s not about hiding yourself away from the world, and you can’t defeat it by surrounding yourself with friends. It’s inside.

Yet while the human condition is naturally a social one, loneliness is spreading. Our world is moving further and further along a path of convenience and speed, at the expense of the same interactions that made us a community in the first place. We touch so many people these days, but oh so fleetingly.

Everything is bigger, brighter, and easier. We shop in supermarkets and department stores, finding what we want under a single roof, but not what we need. We have drive-through and self-serve checkouts; we have online shopping and home delivery. We commute in streams of unspeakingness, plugged into our iPods or reading the news on our smart phones. And our opportunities to meaningfully connect continue to diminish.

Society has become disconnected, and the impact is rippling through us all. Some embrace the new way of life, while others notice no difference… but the lonely are growing in number, as that disconnection takes hold.

There is no solution for this; I’m not proposing a cure. For while many people crave contact, we also crave convenience, and convenience is carrying the day. So long as we as a society keep choosing the easy path, the quality of our lives will continue to take second place.

Quality of life isn’t measured in download speeds. It isn’t defined by one-stop shopping. It’s not the hours in each day that we save that gives our lives quality; that comes from what we do with that time. And the world keeps shrinking, compressed by global communication that expands our social network and brings every country, every person within our reach… but it’s superficial. There is no depth.

Such is loneliness.

Time never stands still, and life must go on. That’s its way. I’ve finally moved again, from the coast to the mountains, to a place I can truly call home and a space where I can continue to rebuild my life. New suburb, new area, new routines. I have more room, and more importantly, I have the opportunity to stand on my own two feet again and move forward. You’d have to say that’s a good thing.

But I miss my coffee girl.

This article was originally published in The King's Tribune.
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