I woke up one morning to the news that the British had created a ministry of loneliness. I have to admit, I chuckled. It seemed a particularly English thing to do.
With all the problems in the world — global warming nearing a catastrophic tipping point, North Korea threatening the U.S. mainland, the Middle East in another implacable dispute — my first reaction was, “You’re kidding, right?”
But, no, it’s no joke. And it appears that loneliness is a serious problem, even a public health issue.
The New York Times quotes Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general, as saying that loneliness and social isolation “are associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” It’s apparently worse than being obese.
We might jump to the conclusion that the elderly and those living alone are the ones who suffer most, but research shows that social isolation can extend to anyone who feels disconnected. High schoolers often feel that lonely angst, and so can people in an unhappy, noncommunicative marriage. You may be surrounded all day by fellow workers in cubicles, but you can still experience loneliness.
The culprits may be our increasing reliance on social media, scanning our screens rather than getting together for a night of socializing with the neighbors. Increasing urbanization means we may not even know our neighbors. Family doesn’t live down the block anymore; we’re lucky if our kids stay in the same state.
When I first met my husband’s family, I was struck by the social cohesion of their Italian neighborhood. In a large East Coast city, both of his parents were from large recent immigrant families who all still lived in the neighborhood.
Being a Midwesterner, I didn’t really know what a “tenement” was until I saw the large two- or three-story homes with an uncle on the ground floor and grandma in the apartment on the second floor. That pattern was repeated all over the neighborhood.
Everybody knew the baker who sold the crusty Italian bread on the corner. Everybody knew what part of Italy the hairdresser’s family came from.
No doubt people can still feel lonely in an environment where you are within walking or close driving distance of 80 relatives, but it’s hard not to find someone in that crew to connect with emotionally. It’s the kind of environment you might flee when you’re an independent 20-year-old but view with lonely nostalgia when you’re 50. It’s hard to replace.
The Midwestern small town where I grew up had no tenements, but it too had its social cohesion, its Saturday nights downtown, its altar societies, bridge clubs and Knights of Columbus. If you weren’t somebody’s cousin, you were his or her cousin’s cousin.
I wonder what the average age is today of the altar society or the parish Knights. I have a hunch it’s shifted upward.
We need to challenge ourselves to be connected. Invite the neighbors over. Put down the remote and the phone and laugh with someone.
Our parish has a visitation program, and I’ve signed up to visit someone who, despite her youthfulness, has physical challenges that keep her institutionalized.
I also have a very perky 100-year-old friend, formerly from my Midwestern hometown, who encourages me to visit her in her nearby apartment.
I’m not doing these ladies a favor by visiting them. They’re doing me a favor, keeping me in social communion with what Martin Luther King Jr. once described so beautifully as “the beloved community,” a community of justice, love and connection that keeps us happy and healthy.
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