And the solution is – Kill loneliness before it kills you. Let me tell you how!
But first an alert: This is going to sound a bit preachy. Please bear with me. I am talking to myself.
First, when they tell you that age in a number and that it is all in the mind, believe me, it is true. You are as old as you allow yourself to feel. This is not a pep talk. This is fact. I am 63 and I know what I am saying. It is your call. Pick a number.
Remember, work doesn’t kill you; retirement does. If you love what you do, you never need to retire. Read on. I am going to tell you what I did. You can do that or pick your own. So, here is my 9 – point program. 9 things you can do to kill loneliness.
1. Accept it: The first thing to do is to mentally prepare yourself that the day will come, sooner than later when you are going to be alone. Deaths of loved ones may hasten it but one day it will be upon us. All you need to do to accomplish it, is to remain alive. So, the first thing to do is to get used to the idea and accept that one day you will be alone. It is important to think about this, talk about it and reflect on it, because it is inevitable. The sooner you start thinking and talking about this, the easier it will be when it happens. I have seen both, those who do and those who don’t. The difference is stark and the pain entirely avoidable. But remember that this is a problem only if you hate solitude. Learn to love solitude. Seek it actively. Keep a time in your daily life when you are alone with yourself, thinking, reflecting, meditating, praying, reading, writing, looking at the world go by, watching birds fly and grass grow, listening to the wind in the trees, listening to the brook talking to itself as it flows past you, and lying on your back and looking up at the dark star-filled sky (that position doesn’t give you a crick in the neck). If you are lucky and have some energy to go where you need to go to see them, you can also watch flocks of geese crossing the rising sun, talking to each other. You can watch Baya Weavers, weaving their complex nests, as they prepare to commit matrimony. You can…okay, I will leave you to fill in the blanks. In short there is a huge number of things that you can do for which you don’t need anyone else. Being alone is not so bad after all. It can be very enjoyable indeed.
2. Get a hobby: It can be anything, but it must interest you. The sooner you begin, the better. Pick one that needs you to do something, some research, some reading. Something that needs effort. Connect with others who have the same hobby so that you have companionship and can compare yourself and what you have with others. Not to create unnecessary stress in meaningless competition but just to initiate new friendships. It can be great fun and it opens doors to aspects of yourself that you never imagined.
When I started to learn Hindustani classical singing, the most amazing discovery I made was that there is no actual record of what I sang (unless I recorded it). Unlike writing which by default is a record, a note or a line of song you sing, is a one-time thing. Whether you did it right or wrong, it remains a memory in your mind or in the mind of others. But there is no physical record of it. That was such a liberating feeling that I was doing something which would not return to haunt me. It opened my eyes (and ears and heart) to a whole new way of expressing myself. I recall one time, when I was standing in neck deep water of a river in a forest in Tamilnadu, singing Raag Asaawari and watching how the water that touched my throat seemed to ripple in harmony to the sound. Was I imagining it? I don’t know. But I still remember it very clearly. I must have looked rather peculiar to those who were watching me. In India there is always someone watching you. But who cares?
I also realized that singing has more to do with listening than to do with making a sound. You can’t sing if your ears are not attuned to the difference in tone from one scale to another. When you learn to sing, you learn to listen. The better you can listen, the better you can sing. My teacher told me this and I experienced it. I trained for three years, from 1994-97. Then I gave up formal training because I went off to the US and got busy with building my consulting business there. But there I got interested in the recitation of the Qur’an. Guess what turned out to be a big help in that!! I would drive endlessly from one appointment to another, reciting Qur’an in my car, conscious and thankful that what was helping me then was the voice training that classical singing compels you to do. Another place where this voice training helped me tremendously is in public speaking which is a major part of my work as a trainer and keynote speaker. I speak about leadership, teaching, raising children, the Glory of the Creator and all the while, in the background what helps me to project my voice, to express passion and emotion, to show feeling and to connect with people, is my voice training as a singer. I teach conflict management and negotiation. This is another area where listening for tone, helps me very much. There is much that people give away in the way they say something. If you are listening to the tone, not only to the words, it tells you a lot more than the words do, and usually more than the speaker may want you to know. Learning to listen is a hugely important and valuable skill and learning to sing is a very enjoyable way to learn it.
The same thing happened to me when I started photography seriously. I was on a trip with a dear friend of mine, Aditya Mishra who is an avid and excellent photographer and showed him some of my photos taken with a point and click camera. He looked at them and said, “I think it is time for you to get a decent camera and lens.” It took me a while to get what I now use, a Nikon D-500 with a Nikon-Nikkor 200-500 lens but all through that journey which continues, it opened my eyes to the world. Nobody sees the world like a photographer, framing an object to photograph it. I photograph birds and animals and sometimes landscapes. I learnt to pay attention to detail. I learnt to enjoy color and texture and shade of light. I learnt to admire camouflage; to look at a patch of scrub in dappled light, not high enough to hide a jackrabbit and then to suddenly realize that I am looking into the eyes of a tiger. I would never have seen that if I wasn’t looking at it through my lens. I learnt to admire the flight of a falcon and then to watch it drop out of the sky to take a pigeon on the wing, the force of her strike sounding flat like a gunshot in the still of the early morning, with a puff of pigeon feathers to bear witness to the play of life and death being enacted before my eyes. I learnt also to simply put down my camera and look at the world outside the viewfinder. Thanks to the camera I learnt to see. Not simply to look.
Photography taught me major life lessons. Courage and resilience, for example. Not from tigers or lions but from small birds which are defenseless. They can’t fight anyone, they are on everyone’s menu, yet they survive, never give up, sing with joy every morning, build nests, raise young, sometimes only for them to become monitor lizard food. But they don’t despair, don’t go into depression, don’t commit suicide. They build another nest, lay some more eggs and raise some more young. In the end, the little bird wins every time its youngster takes to the air.
3. Become friends with yourself: Learn to like your own company because you are going to get a lot of it. Develop an interest that doesn’t need your immediate family to share it with. In today’s world of social networking that is not difficult to do. Technology can be your friend or a stranger, even an enemy. That depends on you. You don’t need to become a rocket scientist, though there is no law against that. But you can certainly learn to become techno friendly. My Hindustani classical music teacher who was 75, had a 486 PC with a camera. Behind the computer on the wall, she got someone to print out the whole sequence of things she needed to do to start the machine and logon to Skype – days of DOS-OS remember? –and off she would be talking to various friends and family across the globe. By today’s standards, the connectivity, speed, picture and audio quality were enough for one to pull out all his hair in frustration but in 1994, a 486 was state-of-the-art and lightning fast and a huge improvement over the 386. Life is relative.
Get a routine. A routine is your best friend. With a routine you are never at a loss for something useful to do. That keeps you and your mind active and out of brooding and depression. Develop an interest or a hobby. Where possible, keep a pet. Not a bird in a cage or a fish in a tank. But a real pet like a cat, or a goat or a horse. Or a chicken. Country chickens have great personality and attitude and make lovely pets. Depends on where you live, of course. But if you want to know what it feels like to be looked down upon and be valued purely as a meal ticket, keep a cat. Those who have millennial children, need not keep cats because they know what that feels like very well. Gardening, and that can be one pot, is another wonderfully therapeutic hobby. Keep a bird feeder in your yard, balcony, on your terrace. Keep water out for birds in the summer. Grow your own veggies in pots in your balcony or on your terrace. The idea is to do something that requires your contribution and where you can see it making a difference. That responsibility, even if sometimes it seems arduous, is what keeps you alive and the Big A at bay.
4. Don’t lose the ability to make friends: One of the first things that older people lose is the ability to make new friends. And when they lose their old friends, as we all do, they are left all alone. The big reason we lose that ability is because we refuse to relate to people different from ourselves. As we grow older, we become judgmental and demand (albeit perhaps unconsciously) that others must conform to our standards, before we allow them into our lives. Instead we must become more open to new ideas, new ways, new standards. I am not talking about what is clearly good and evil, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, respectful and insulting. I am talking about, for example, hairstyles, way of speaking (not ill manners, just a different way of talking), cell phone use. If he looks like he stuck his finger in the power socket and has all his hair standing on end, it is okay. His head is his piece of real estate. Not yours. He is still a nice kid with a brain and your eyes and ears into his world. But only if you can get past the porcupine look.
As for cell phones, I have never heard anyone complain if a youngster has his head buried in a book. But if that same head is buried in a phone, we have major issues. Why? Maybe he is reading a book on his phone. Maybe he is browsing the net and accessing information that he wouldn’t have found in a hundred books. We oldies must become more tolerant, while maintaining our boundaries of what is fundamentally good and evil. When we are with youngsters, we feel younger, more energetic, we learn new things, we see the world in a different light. And we are challenged to add value to them, so that they don’t get bored with us.
What doesn’t work is when you start your stories with, “In my days, you could get one dozen eggs for one rupee and one goat for three rupees and one cow for ten rupees.” Someone went on like this for a while until one of the youngsters said, “Uncle that is great. So, in your father’s time, everything must have been free.” Live in the present with them. When I was 15, almost all my friends were 30 years older. I learnt from them. Today I am 63 and most of my friends are 30 years younger. I learn from them. We have a great relationship, and both enjoy it. Ask them, if you like.
5. Prepare your body: It is critical to ensure that you are physically fit. The vast majority of geriatric ailments are lifestyle related, not illnesses. Watch what you eat. Eat natural, not processed foods. Sleep early and wake early. Exercise moderately. Don’t do any heroics, thinking about what you used to do at age 20. Today you are three times that age. Don’t try it or you will suffer the consequences until you die. Get out of your house and hit the gym and the park. Walk a few kilometers every day and do some strength exercises. Don’t get over ambitious, don’t try to impress anyone, don’t try to break any records but also don’t let a day pass that you have not exercised. The main thing is to get out of your house into the open and connect with nature. Eat sensibly. Don’t dig your grave with your teeth. Let them use an excavator. The biggest curse is excess weight. It drags you down, makes you lethargic, makes everything a burden and gradually kills you very painfully. A pot belly is not a death warrant, it is a lifelong pain warrant. Death is inevitable. Pain is not. So, get rid of it. Think about that with every morsel of carbs you eat. Make sugar Haraam on yourself. Avoid all fizzy sugar drinks. Stop eating sugar. Sugar kills. And (sugar free) Aspartame gives you cancer. Take your pick.
I won’t even talk about cigarettes. If someone wants to pay for cancer, who am I to object? Makes no sense to pay for cancer, because cancer is free. Do you get my point? If your body is healthy, half the battle is won. So, pay close attention to that. The slide is insidious, seductive and lethal. Stay away from it.
6. Prepare your mind: Keep your mind healthy. Read. Read. Read. Pray. Pray. Pray. Focus on your mental and spiritual self. If you are like most normal people, both would have been hugely neglected. Repair your connection with Allahﷻ. You will need it soon enough. Learn a new language. It doesn’t matter if you never master it. The act itself is important because it will challenge your brain and keep it active. Play games that require cerebration. It means use your brain. Consciously look for the positive things in life and shut out all negativity – especially what you can’t control. I love watching wildlife and nature movies and I love wildlife and bird photography. Again, it is good to want to be the best at whatever you do, but don’t worry if it takes you a long time to get there. Keep at it. Don’t watch the news, talk shows, TV debates and all the totally negative, toxic media that we have allowed to take over our lives. Focus on the positive. There is plenty of it, and if you can’t find it, create your own. Nobody can stop you from doing that. Go help people. Visit hospitals and talk to strangers. Pay their bills if they can’t afford to pay them. Visit schools, especially in poor neighborhoods. Offer to teach for free. Connect with children, listen to them, talk to them, sit with them, laugh with them. This is therapy and it is free. I do this 80% of my time, every year. People think I am doing great public service. But I know why I am doing it. Believe me, it works. Also, since 2000, I have written 35 books, done over 2500 short lectures and over 650 longer ones, all free. Question to ask yourself is, ‘What am I prepared to pay for my mental health?’
7. Stop living in the past: Yes, our good old days were good, but not as good as we like to recall now after fifty years They were as good and bad as today, with the only difference that what was good and what was bad, differed. Prices were cheaper but we had very little spending money. Competition for jobs was less but there were all of four career choices. Schools were less crowded, but we did rote learning and had corporal punishment. We didn’t have high medical treatment costs because we had almost none of the medical facilities that we have today. Life is relative. Live in the present because that is the only thing we really have. The past, both the good and bad of it is gone. The future is only a thought. We may never see it. And the older we get, the truer that is.
8. Appreciate what we have today: An attitude of gratitude is the cure for all ills. We have air travel that is cheaper than it has ever been. We have Wi-Fi and smart phones which help us to connect to the world. We have Google which the opens doors of almost every kind of knowledge that we choose to learn, sitting in our homes and free of cost. We have far superior medical aid than we ever had. We have appliances at home and apps on our phones. We have all sorts of conveniences that our parents didn’t even imagine. And what’s more, far many more of us have these than was the case in our parent’s time. My driver has a fridge and my cook has a microwave oven and both have air coolers in their homes. During my childhood, microwave ovens didn’t exist, neither did air cooling or air conditioning and fridges were as rare as polar bears in the Antarctic. Yes, Hyderabad was cooler than it is today, but believe me, all those sweaters in March are only in your imagination.
9. Stay away from doctors and hospitals: That may sound strange to you, but I have seen so many elderly people who seem to be obsessed with health checkups and medicines. Let’s face it. You are not getting younger, stronger, faster, healthier or sexier. I am willing to contest that last one but not the others. What are the tests going to show you? What will that do to your morale? What is the good of that? We all die. Some die before they stop breathing. Those are the ones who are obsessed with medical tests. Remember that health care has become an industry. It is no longer about curing the sick or even better, keeping people healthy. How does an undertaker make money? By people dying. How does a doctor make money? By people being or believing or imagining and trying to find out if they are sick. ‘Health care’ is a misnomer. Today’s health care has a stake in sickness, not in health. That is the problem with becoming an industry. The only focus then is on profit and return on investment. There are too many glaring examples in our society. I don’t need to give you any examples. I am sure you have your own. Sorry doctors. My father was a doctor, but he died penniless because he didn’t treat people who were not sick. He had a stake in people’s health, not in their sickness.
You don’t need a doctor to tell you if you are sick. If you wake up in the morning with your usual aches and pains, you are as healthy as an old horse. Do what the old horse does. He does his business and goes about his business, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, go visit a farm where old horses are out at pasture and you will see what I mean. Then one day, when his time is up, he lies down in a nice patch of grass in the sun and stops breathing. What do we, who are obsessed with health checkups, do? We spend our last days hooked up to various machines, in an ICU, with tubes coming out of our orifices until we stop breathing, but all the while making doctors rich. If that is how you want to go, please do. I don’t. So, I made a ‘No Hospitalization Will’. And I pray that I will never need hospitalization. Read, ‘Being Mortal’, by Dr. Atul Gawande. Amazing book that talks about this. He is a consultant in Harvard Medical School, so he should know, right? As I told you, if it is your idea to spend your hard-earned money on unnecessary hospital bills, please do. That’s your choice.
Believe me, if you do all this, it will keep you so busy that you will have no time to feel lonely. You won’t sit there yearning for people who passed away to walk in through the door. If they did, you would walk out of your skin. Instead, your new friends will walk in through the door and take you for a walk. That is why you have friends.
And yes, I forgot to mention, stop saving money. Spend it. You can’t take it with you. And your children can look after themselves. Enjoy yourself, go on a cruise, tick all the boxes on your bucket list. Help others. That gives more satisfaction than the cruise and the bucket list. But do both. And then lo and behold, it will be time to go. May that time and that day be the best day of your life because on that day you will meet the One who made it all possible.