“Loneliness has become a silent epidemic; it is, as one doctor wrote, ‘the most unrecognized health crisis of this generation.’ ”
Several years ago, an elderly woman was found dead in her apartment. Stuck on the screen of her television was a note: “Goodbye my friend! You are the only one who talked to me. Goodbye!” It was her final gesture before she committed suicide.
How many people die of loneliness? How many walk through their days with little or no human interaction? Despite living in the most interconnected era ever in history with modern communication technology enabling us in seconds to be in touch with hundreds of people, a gnawing feeling of isolation is the reality of many people’s experience.
Last year in the United Kingdom, over 50,000 people contacted the BBC in response to their programs on loneliness. Old people, adolescents, primary school children told of the pain they felt every day. It is the tip of the iceberg. The British Government recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness, an indication of the severity of the problem.
In Ireland too, loneliness has become a silent epidemic; it is, as one doctor wrote, “the most unrecognized health crisis of this generation.” It is more pervasive in our time than in former generations. We see the breakdown of community, the loss of neighborhoods, and our increasing individualism militating against a caring outreach that keeps an eye out to help others.
Despite living in the most interconnected era ever in history with modern communication technology enabling us in seconds to be in touch with hundreds of people, a gnawing feeling of isolation is the reality of many people’s experience.
No one has ever walked our earth and been free from the pain of loneliness. To be lonely seems to be part of our human condition. At one time or another we have all experienced that awful ache of being all alone even though we may be at a party or with friends at a crowded concert. “I am surrounded by the love of family and friends,” a woman wrote after the death of her husband, “so how can I feel so alone? Why do I have this small but solid core of loneliness that sits inside me? It seems to expand and seep into every last core of my mind and body.”
To escape the pain there are innumerable distractions at hand. Millions of dollars are spent on anything that will divert us, absorb our lives, and numb us to our inner restlessness. We are in danger of amusing ourselves to death with entertainments, travel, shopping, following the dazzling lives of celebrities, envying their lifestyle, their fashion, and their success. For a few brief hours we try to escape our restless heart.
“Are you lonely? Have you ever been lonely?” are not questions that come easily but they may be a way to help others. People are more willing to tell you they are depressed than to admit to loneliness, but sensing that you really care will help them. A readiness to listen is the gift we must offer; it is a first significant step.
St. Augustine was right: “You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Only God can fill that space in us, assuage our loneliness, and answer the deep longing in our heart. Could it be that our deepest loneliness is loneliness for God?
Columban Sr. Redempta Twomey lives and works in Ireland.