Loneliness is bad for your health. Most of us intuitively know there is a mind-body connection with regard to anger, stress and heart disease. Now, research launched in 1994 by a psychologist, John Cacioppo, at Ohio State University, has shown that loneliness has physical consequences as well. Lonely people get sick more often, and are at significantly higher risk for dying early. They are more likely to develop Alzheimers in old age, and are more vulnerable to recurrent heart attacks and cardiac disease.With some diseases, like breast cancer and aids, lonely people don’t respond as well to medication The list goes on and on. I won’t go into the chemistry. It’s something to do with stress hormones, inflammation, and the immune system, and it appears that feelings of loneliness, when they trigger gregarious behavior, are part of our survival tools. We need other people to stay well.
Yet, so much of contemporary life seems to point us toward more and more isolation from others, and away from community and intimacy. Technology is part of the trend. You can find anything on the internet, including sex. You can do your banking, pay your bills, buy gifts and have them sent anywhere in the world. No more standing in line at the post office to mail off the packages you should have sent two months before Christmas. Just log on, choose a gift, and have it sent to wherever you need it to be. No stamps to buy for sending a check to the gas company, and who writes letters anymore, when email is so much faster?
One of the consequences is that hundreds of post offices in England are to be axed in the next few months. The post office is operated here like a franchise, with local branches functioning as independent businesses, and central services provided by the government. But Royal Mail is losing millions of pounds per week. People in villages are protesting the closures, claiming that the village post office is one of the key features of a small community, a place where people can connect with each other during the simple act of mailing a letter, a package, or buying stamps. Groups have organized to fight it. At least, it is bringing them together.
I haven’t experienced that in Shere. The post office closed long ago, to be replaced by the corner store, Alldays, a kind of 7-11, where you can leave your dry cleaning, buy groceries, buy stamps, and mail letters and packages. People don’t linger, but you can always find a friendly face just walking the dog, buying fresh vegetables and fruits at the green grocers, or over a pint at the pub.
However, when I lived in Tourrettes, a tiny village in southern France, I had a business. The viability of this little enterprise relied on the efficient mailing of packages to customers, thus, the local post office. The village was so far off the beaten track that Federal Express and DHL had difficulty finding it, so I found it easier, and less isolating, to walk up the hill the 500 yards or so that separated me from Fayence to send my packages and invoices from there.
Ten or fifteen years ago, there were few people in the post office, and of those, most were from the village. Lines were not long, but I sometimes waited 45 minutes or more while the person at the window chatted to the postal clerk about her latest illness, the ungrateful behavior of children or grandchildren, the affair a neighbor was having with a fireman from the next village over. As an American with the idea that efficiency and speed were prime attributes for a post office, I would tap my feet, stare off into the distance, shift my weight. All I achieved was dirty looks from the people ahead of me who were whispering merrily away about some scandal or other. I was an outsider, thus not privy to the private lives of the long-term inhabitants, and my impatience did not help my case. Anyway, the French say you only belong if you have ancestors in the cemetery. I was a curiosity, but not an intimate, but although I was sometimes lonely, I didn’t have to be alone.
Over the years, my status changed as I relaxed into the southern French way of life. I got more consideration from the clerks, after knowing them for 5 years or so, and was greeted with more than stares. But then, more and more "foreigners" moved into the area for its wild beauty, its isolation from the glitz of Cannes and Nice, and its temperate weather. The lines at the post office grew longer. Few people knew each other, their eyes deliberately looking at no one, as strangers do. The faces at the window didn’t change, though, and the chats with customers continued, to the sounds of indignant expletives in English, Dutch, and German while I, an old-timer, clucked my disapproval at their impatience.
By the time I left the village, there were additional postal clerks, and although some of the old faces were still there, newer, younger ones with less patience began to appear. La Poste was on its way to becoming a faceless bureaucracy. I don’t know what impact, if any, this change in the life of the village has had on the health of the inhabitants, but in light of the research on loneliness, maybe the National Health Service ought to lend its voice to those who are fighting the post office closures. It might save money in the long run.
- MT. KILIMANJARO OR BUST
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