Loneliness…the greatest tragedy of all

Posted: 21 December 2013

man-on-benchEach year, as so many of us wrap gifts, baste the Christmas turkey and look forward to the holiday fun, there is a growing proportion who will neither receive a gift, enjoy a festive meal or have the opportunity to celebrate with loved ones. These people are not only the homeless, the physically and mentally disabled, the widowed and the elderly, but in the Western World they are increasingly people in our own circles, the work colleague, the friendly neighbour, or the migrant family.

A recent survey conducted by Relationships Australia, discovered that up to 15% of the country reported frequently feeling lonely. New research commissioned by Age UK revealed that 450,000 British pensioners aged 65 and over face Christmas alone; 26% did not look forward to the Christmas season and 17% reported that Christmas brought back too many memories of those who had passed away.

Asked many years ago by an American reporter about the poorest country she had ever been too, the renowned nun Mother Teresa of Calcutta responded that while she had indeed been to many poor places the poorest one she encountered was America. Somewhat surprised the reporter reinforced that America was one of the wealthiest nations, but Mother went on to say that the poverty suffered was that of loneliness. Captured more fully in her later writings Mother Teresa explained, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.”

In the 21st century we have developed the ability to continuously immerse ourselves in entertainment, music and technology…it appears that we are always doing something. We can join 100,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch Australia v England and enter into the spirit of solidarity but at the end of the match we can get back into our cars and go home to a lonely house with Facebook our only friend. I sometimes wonder if the great enthusiasm for so many sporting events masks for some that inner desire for companionship, interaction and most of all love.

Some years ago I moved interstate to study and initially it was a very lonely experience. I remember each week attending a prayer gathering with a hundred or so young people which I did enjoy but the most difficult part for me was at the end. Once the formalities of the event were over the people would casually form into their established social groups for catch ups and conversation. How I longed to enter into these groups – and they no doubt would have welcomed me if I had made the effort to approach them – but instead I walked through the laughs and familiarity each week towards my car and back to my little apartment sometimes shedding tears on the way home.

Loneliness is a terrible curse because it goes against our most basic human need and that is the need for socialisation, the need to be known and to know others, the need to have someone understand who we are. Sometimes it is the need just to hear someone say our name aloud.

In the well-known Genesis creation story humanity is initially just one human being, Ha’adam, and this being, realising it is alone, is given the task of naming all the animals in order to find itself a helpmate. In this naming process though Ha’adam realises that even though all the animals share with him similar aspects of biology there is none that is a human being. Only in the creation of a second human being are those excited words heard, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. The true purpose of the story, far from fuelling debate about the practical beginnings of the world, emphasises the innate human desire for communion and friendship.

If loneliness has an upside it is that it can be easily cured. There is no need for costly and risky treatments. What is needed is for each of us to step out of our own world towards just one other person who we may be aware of is struggling or alone for whatever reason. It is as simple as a conversation or in invitation to a meal. Fundamentally it is a genuine interest in the inner life of a fellow human being.