“Hello! May I please borrow a copy of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Stay Sharp?”
Our lovely pandemic front-line librarian beamed at me through her mask and 10 feet of distance and a layer of protective plexiglass. “Would that be… Keep Sharp?”
“Oh. Okay. Maybe after reading the book, I’ll be sharp enough to remember the title.”
The title is Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. It’s a nice positive book of upbeat common sense, drawing on lots of research studies. Eat right, exercise. Sleep well. All fine.
Then here was Chapter 8, “Connection for Protection.”
Here, Dr. Gupta delivers a strong argument citing data and research about us lonely people. It hammers home the crucial medical and cognitive protection of having a spouse, a family, a close nourishing social circle — and how the lack of intimate connection carries “dire physical, mental, and emotional consequences” for longevity, happiness — and memory. The chapter quotes a TED talk by researcher Robert Waldinger that married couples who “bicker with each other day in and day out” were still better protected from dementia than someone with no spouse at all. (I thought back then at guys who had really enjoyed bickering at me. So I’d have been medically better off marrying one instead of sitting here alone reading this book?) That chimes right in with the media headlines every day in this Covid year. National Public Radio presented solutions to loneliness, interviewing U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. In the NPR transcript, Dr. Murthy urged us outlanders to 1. Make close relationships a priority; and 2. Project a confident self-image so that other people will find us interesting and worth getting to know. In a recent Forbes interview he added, 3. Serve by volunteering in an area of our professional expertise.
Concluding Chapter 8, Dr. Gupta urges us to “spend more time with loved ones”; “make new friends”; find connection by making good use of social media; adopt a pet; and if we still feel lonely, to reach out to a therapist, religious organization, or telephone hotline.
And here’s the conclusion:
“Finally, don’t underestimate the power of appropriate touch. Hand holding has been found to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A friendly touch can also be calming. In other words, the simple act of touching another human is a way of connecting with others to protect ourselves — and them.”
Here I was, just starting to ease back on that native New Yorker habit of bursting into Anglo Saxon at moments like this. But for a moment, this !@#$%^ book nearly bounced off the opposite wall. This is not to criticize the loneliness experts and all their hard work and expertise, if it’s their job to hand down this terrible news. But once again, it felt as if the world was handing down a familiar message, now upgraded for age bracket: “Your failing at the life game of Musical Chairs has not only meant decades of sadness and regret; just watch: your consequences are about to get a lot worse.” What if feeling extra lonely means extra vulnerability to falling apart? What if wanting to throw books at the wall is detrimental to our brain health?
It all upset me so much that on impulse I put the book down and seized upon My Life in Christ by Father John of Kronstadt. Flipping it open at random led to page 162:
Everything that constitutes me (the soul) lives solely by God, and only in union with Him, whilst when the soul separates itself from God, then it experiences extreme distress. But the life of my soul consists in the peace of my spiritual powers, and this peace proceeds exclusively from God…. The absence of peace in the soul is spiritual death and the sign of the action of the enemy of our salvation in our hearts.
That helped me to get a grip, and also raised an interesting thought. What if ANY part of the whole equation of loneliness = doom on the way was really a spiritual attack? The enemy of salvation doesn’t even have to bother arranging the usual temptations for me. He can just sprinkle on this specific condiment of pain, and then sit back and watch the fun fair. It’s probably pretty entertaining.
Well, doom on the way or not, there was no time to fret. It was time to hurry out for volunteer shift at church, greeting folks at the door and checking them in on the pre-registration list. Then after evening Mass, I set out on the three mile walk home as the light started to fade and a mist of rain began to fall.
Near church, a young man came along looking wan and worn out, dragging his feet. In one hand he held a thick hand-rolled cigarette and a jumbo sized can of some beverage. Maybe beer. Maybe caffeinated energy drink. Is there a caffeinated beer?
As when meeting anyone on a sidewalk I stepped aside and gave him a bow and nod. Most people don’t notice and don’t care. But this one did.
“Ayadoin,’” he murmured, heading one way.
“Evening,” I replied, heading the other.
He snapped to attention, whipping around to look me over. Then he held out the cigarette. “Smoke?”
“Thank you. But no, I’m all set.”
“Why — You don’t smoke at all do you? And you never did,” he concluded. “And, you ain’t never been married. You are some kinda nun, sorta.”
Yes, that’s how it works: Any guy on the street can feel like it’s fine to size up a woman and assess what he thinks. The nun comment comes up a lot.
“Do you go to church?” he asked.
“Yup. Just cleaned some pews too.”
“Cleaning?! Oh then that is different. Then you are more like… like angels or something.” He lunged over and briefly grabbed my hand, touching the back of it to his forehead. “Now I will have some good luck. You got to pray for me!”
My own inner angel nudged me to step lively and mind my own business and hurry home before dark. The stranger and I said good night and went our separate ways. But as the wind rose and clouds rushed in, from down the street and then the street after that he hollered back three more times.
“Praaay! Don’t forget!”
“Okaaay! I won’t!”
At the library, I dropped Keep Sharp in the book return slot just as the downpour set in.