I WAS LONELY AND YOU SPOKE TO ME
Loneliness is the stigma which dare not say its name in a connected society. We should open our eyes to the clues others offer up if we are to carry one another through life.
The plaintive words of Beatles’ hit Eleanor Rigby pose a question which is sunken in collective memory after four decades of play: All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
A song written in the swinging sixties, when communities were still rooted and few would be expected to re-locate for work, has taken on a deeper dimension today. According to a recent Relate poll, 27% of us feel lonely a lot of the time. Let that sink in. Over one in four of us feels isolated in a world of digital communications and easy mobility.
There are some noticeable factors involved in this depressing statistic. The percentage of households occupied by one person has doubled from 6% in 1972 to 12% in 2008. It is home life which largely guarantees social well-being. At those vulnerable moments of the day, first thing and last thing, the presence of other people shapes our mood and imparts a natural sense of significance: I talk to others, therefore I am.
This is not to say either that people living alone are ipso facto lonely or indeed that those living with others have their social needs met. A report by the London School of Economics, entitled Changing Media, Changing Families has shown how our lifestyles are more intensely mediated than ever before. While positive in its conclusion that families shape their media more than the reverse, it nevertheless identifies a contradiction: ‘the power of the modern media to connect people, but also to create personalised retreats from each other and everyday life’. In other words, we may be spending more time online relating to people far away than we do to those who live under the same roof. According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost one in five people say they spend too much time communicating with family and friends through the internet when they should see them in person.
Living with others has a socialising effect, enabling us to interpret people through their faces. This skill cannot be learned on Facebook.
Loneliness is common among people facing expected major life changes, like a parent watching their last child escape the nest. However, it can be felt most acutely when those changes are not anticipated: a spouse who is bereaved or divorced, an employee who suddenly has to re-locate, a child who has to move school. In such cases, a large swathe of friends is lost to routine contact.
All of us have gone through periods of loneliness in our lives, but it is hard for some to sustain their empathy or awareness of others when they are resourced daily by those around them. The local church has a valuable function to play in the way it offers friendship to lonely people and it often attracts people with such needs. I suspect that, on balance, many members of our churches up and down Britain are well supplied with friends at church, home and work and there is a risk that in socialising with similar people before, during and after church meetings, they miss the clues that others offer up.
Little debate is had over this topic and people are more reluctant to admit to being lonely than almost any other condition because of the social stigma attached to it, including the ghastly pseudo-Darwinist suggestion that such people are ‘losers’. It is an issue lying at the heart of the Gospel, with its promise of restored relationships. God is indeed a friend to the friendless, but more often than not he chooses to express this friendship through the kindness of others. The parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, with the delicious suggestion that we are Christ to others when we serve them, though not speaking directly of lonely people, offers a strong inference that they are actors in this story: strangers, the sick and the imprisoned by definition struggle with isolation and ache for belonging and inclusion into the community.
As we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, caring for those who feel lonely is one of its most practical and undemonstrative features.
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