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expand your heart

A few weeks ago the surgeon general of the United States released a rather alarming report on the impact of loneliness and isolation on people’s health. For those of you who may not know, the surgeon general is like the family doctor for the States. In his report Dr. Murthy suggests that up to half of the population is suffering from loneliness and that the effects of this contribute to an increase in heart disease, depression, anxiety, diabetes, dementia, crime, and premature death.  He suggests that we should consider this public health issue as “on par with tobacco, with substance use disorders, with obesity, and other issues we know profoundly impact people’s lives.” “Loneliness”, he says, “is like hunger or thirst, it’s a signal our body sends us when we’re lacking something we need for survival.” Based on my own experience, working in the community clinic, I don’t think I needed to read this report to understand that people are struggling with loneliness, but I did think, maybe when the doctor of an entire country speaks up we might all start to take some action.

My kids always roll their eyes when I start talking about what it was like when I was a kid but I do think it’s worth considering how much has changed over the past five or six decades. I was lucky enough to grow up in a neighbourhood where we knew everyone who lived on our street. As a kid, I was living, socializing, and eating at the neighbours house almost as much as I was in my own home. The church we went to had a strong sense of community spirit, and the weekly service involved checking in on one another as much as it involved worshipping. People looked after one another when someone was ill or in some sort of trouble or upset. Contrast that with today where the neighbourhood church is being torn down or turned into condos, and my next door neighbour calls the lawn police on me rather than asking if I could use a hand looking after the yard!  

The recent pandemic we all went through really amplified this sense of isolation and loneliness. I can remember those first days after we closed Hemma, in that initial lockdown, riding down the empty streets to work and standing in an empty space that only a few days before had been teeming with people interacting, socializing, and caring for one another. The loss was palpable. Collectively we responded in the best way we knew during that time, which did in some sense contribute to community spirit.  Now though, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic I have a sense that it wasn’t just covid that has contributed to a sense of loneliness.  

The internet, social media, and the smartphone were supposed to bring us all closer together – to connect us to one another at all times. Instead, they have in many ways, separated us from one another. Humans are social creatures, that means we need social interaction, support, touch, mirroring, to feel whole and healthy. Yet our society is increasingly being structured in ways that isolate us from one another. More and more you can go about your daily life without having to interact with other humans – meals delivered to your door, bills paid online, fitness classes on zoom, online doctor visits. All of which can create social atrophy. This isolation also creates distrust, division, and intolerance.

I’m not one to talk really.  As I age, and especially since the pandemic, I have noticed my tendency towards introversion. Despite spending my days working with and caring for people, I often find that I spend a lot of my free time alone. I notice my own tendencies to shy away from social interaction and community, and how much I rely on my smartphone to keep in touch with my friends and family. Still I miss the days when I could walk into my next-door neighbours house when my parents were out. I miss singing songs with a whole congregation in church, and sharing a meal at the monthly town bean supper. 

As most of you know Hemma means home in Swedish.  When we created Hemma it was with a desire to create that sense of community – where people could come together to share, to heal, and to simply benefit by hanging out with people they might not know. That spirit lives on in our new space. Spending time in the company of friends, neighbours, and strangers is an activity we all need to exercise, even as we may find that tendency atrophied. 

One thing I am most proud of as I carry fourth the community spirit that I grew up with is the human connection that is generated at Hemma. People come for many different reasons, and from all walks of life, but regardless of their reasons, each person is quietly contributing to the health and healing of another. Sharing space together, amongst tears, anxieties, pain, struggles, peace, ease. Silently supporting one another just by showing up and spending a quiet moment together.  This healing aspect of a community clinic is not something I thought as much about when I first started Hemma but it is something I have come to appreciate as I have worked in the clinic over the years. Folks who come to Hemma often say the same – that they really appreciate the community aspect of the clinic as much as they do the acupuncture.

If you are struggling with a sense of isolation and loneliness, keep in mind that many other folks are too. That means that taking steps to connect with other humans will most often be appreciated and reciprocated. Try making a few gestures of connection with other humans as you go about your day, even if it’s just to share a smile or a kind word. Think well of one another, and remember that we are more alike than we are different – we all share many of the same needs, losses, and struggles. Expand your Heart.