No faith, no hope, no charity: why isolation is making us selfish

Put the kettle on, make a pot of tea, for one. Plan dinner: no need to consider anyone else’s dietary needs and allergies. Eat what I want, watch what I want, listen to what I want. Discuss it all with only the teapot to disagree with me.

And does this self-centredness make me happy? Of course not. Helping others, doing things for others, not only makes you happy, it promotes a sense of purpose and satisfaction, lowers blood pressure, eases physical pain. But altruism is outlawed. I’m not allowed to do anything for anyone else. I can’t make a coffee for a neighbour, I can’t hug a friend who’s sad, I can’t drive my elderly neighbour to the shops. I can’t feed people.

When my sons were young, the house would always be full, with other people’s children, other parents, staying for impromptu meals, staying for sleepovers. Since my divorce, and the boys leaving home, my home has still been open to others. I love to create a comfortable space for friends to stay, I love to cook dinners, to squeeze as many folk as possible around my tiny kitchen table. No matter what THEIR experience, this was making me happy. As did those small kindnesses we do almost without thinking: watching someone’s bag on the train while they go to the buffet car; offering a lift to a hitch-hiker; holding a door open; standing for someone on the Tube.

Work, too, made me happy, using my writing and creative skills to help promote the businesses of invariably lovely people. Now those businesses are closed, or limited, or struggling, and I have no work. I’ve used the time to start writing a book, which satisfies the creative urge, but it’s all about self-satisfaction, and that nowhere near matches the satisfaction of doing it for others. My other great joy came from supporting small, provincial and fringe theatres, previewing and reviewing their productions to raise their profile and, perhaps, sell a few more seats. No payment, the occasional free ticket, but an immense feeling of satisfaction, of happiness.

Lockdown and isolation have left us bereft of faith, hope and charity. There’s no faith in an administration which has fed us lies, bombast and false promise. Hope is being eroded day by day because of that. And charity means so much more than giving money. Charity means love and caring. Charity is the enjoyment in doing my sons’ laundry (“please, bring some dirty washing” I beg them when they’re planning to visit); the warm feeling when I can invite inside a neighbour who’s lost her key; the joy of offering food and companionship to those who arrive at the door.

I’m sure there are couples, and families, who are by now heartily sick of each other’s company, but at least they have more than a teapot to talk to. Solo lockdown is mentally unsettling. I’m a social animal; I need the presence and stimulus of other people to verify my own existence, quite the opposite of Descartes’ I think therefore I am. I’m weary of being the sole occupant of my universe, of having no one else to think about – worry about – apart from me.

The notion of the exclusive support bubble to help single people is fatuous. If we had one person in our lives who wanted to spend time with us, exclusively, we wouldn’t be single. Instead, we have wide circles of friends, for different occasions and different activities, and they each may well have partners and children and extended families. So we sit here and talk to the teapot. “Spend as much time outside as possible,” said a wise friend, and indeed in the spring and summer that was the key to survival, not just the long walks and runs, but the companionship in the neighbourhood as families sat outside in their own gardens and chattered over the fence. Now I open the front door onto an empty street, a wet, cold, grey landscape that entices me out for a short time only.

A wonderful opportunity arose; I offered to take my neighbour’s son to school a few days a week. He’s great company, a pleasure to have around, and it’s a rare opportunity to be useful. His mum is grateful, but the joy is mine. When ‘this’ is over…if only I can resurrect a morsel of hope? …. the kettle will be on, the door will be open, dinner will be on the table. And yes, please, bring your dirty laundry too.

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