BLESSED ARE THE LONLEY, FOR THEY SHALL KNOW THE LOVE OF GOD
It’s proving a long struggle, but we are finding a new openness about our mental health. There is something generational about this, with younger people finding strength to be more confessional and expecting to be taken seriously – unlike older people, whose workplaces have been less forgiving and wrapped in elliptical terms like ‘mental breakdown’.
But what about loneliness? Its experience is acute, considered to be like smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, creating greater risk of heart disease, cancer and dementia later in life. Part of the problem in dealing effectively with Covid is our inability – perhaps even willingness – to compute the longer term effects on health of long periods of lockdown. Its enforcement has slowed the rate of transmission but increased a range of social and economic problems that will eventually find their way into epidemiological calculations.
Put simply, loneliness kills too. And it’s a killer to experience day by day.
Like with mental illness, with which it can, inevitably, overlap, loneliness carries with it a misplaced stigma. People are reluctant to admit to it because it is assumed to be some kind of failure – an indication that friends can’t be made and that this might be because we are unworthy or unpleasant. This radical focus on the individual ignores the context in which loneliness emerges. Bereavement and illness are especially common factors in older people. Economic systems that value flexible labour supplies uproot people from their communities, planting them where they know no-one, but depriving them of the time needed to invest in new friendships. Housing markets that price out first time buyers and legal systems that privilege landlords over tenants mean younger people are on the move from one house to another in short order, unable to put down roots and involve themselves in local life. The Office for National Statistics has shown the loneliest age group to be 18-24 in the UK.
A UCLA Loneliness Scale is the best known way of determining the scale of the problem, but in her invaluable book The Lonely Century (Sceptre, 2020), Noreena Hertz defines loneliness ‘as both an internal state and an existential one – personal, societal, economic and political’. For her, conventional understandings of loneliness need to be expanded:
It also incorporates how disconnected we feel from politicians and politics, how cut off we feel from our work and our workplace, how excluded many of us feel from society’s gains, and how powerless, invisible and voiceless so many of us believe ourselves to be.
If she is right, then not only the problem but the risks entailed multiply.
Hannah Arendt, the acutest observer of totalitarianism, was first to write about the link between loneliness and political intolerance. Since then, research has been done to show how loneliness is a driver of populism. Those who get involved in local bodies and associations are less likely to vote for populist or extreme parties, while those who tell pollsters they rely on themselves and not on other people or community groups are more likely to. Extremists, as well as populists, are attuned to these effects and offer spurious, excluding forms of community to vulnerable people.
Of course, most people who are lonely deeply resist these forms of politics, but the effects of the pandemic, coupled with rapid urbanisation across the world, poses several public policy challenges.
One of the smartest and kindest responses those who follow Jesus can make coming out of the pandemic is to give undivided attention to those whose loneliness has deepened in lockdown and those living alone who have been deprived of their usual community. The Church can offer its buildings, often among the most prominent locally, to build new forms of community; and in its worship and teaching, should give attention to those who voice has not been heard. And maybe, just maybe, in recovery, should ensure that when we share refreshments after the service, we all properly look out for those on the fringes whom no-one is listening to.
Blessed are the lonely, for they shall know the love of God.
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