At the beginning of the recent lockdown in March, elderly people over 70 were urged to cocoon while people with symptoms of the virus were ordered to self-isolate. This inevitably meant less human contact with people and a huge increase in people spending time on their own. Restrictions also meant that nursing home facilities and hospitals were not open for visitors, leaving the sick and vulnerable feeling more alone. To soften the blow, politicians and Church leaders insisted that ‘self-isolation’ did not mean ‘social-isolation’. This was a nice slogan, but it failed to mask the acute rise in people suffering from loneliness. However, while the pandemic has brought to our attention the problem of human loneliness and isolation, the issue has been steadily getting worse over recent decades.
In January 2018, Ms. Tracy Crouch, the British Minister for sport and civil society, received a new brief from her government – to tackle the growing problem of human loneliness in her country. Her appointment followed a report that found nine million residents of the United Kingdom feel lonely always or often.
This report confirms what we already suspected to be true not just in Britain but in much of Western society - namely that people are living their lives in greater isolation but to such a degree that it is impacting negatively on their happiness, mental health and spiritual health. The fact that a government would appoint a cabinet minister to organise a response to the epidemic of loneliness is hugely significant for it opens up a dialogue of what are the root causes of the problem.
A good place to begin this debate is to recognize that loneliness has always been part of human experience. Perfect intimacy with God and each other is hard to come by which means that loneliness is an inevitable part of our story. We see this at the beginning of Scripture with Adam and Eve after the Fall. Before their sin there was harmony and unity. Woman was created for ‘it is not good that man should be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). But after their sin there is shame and separation. They blame each other and become estranged.
After murdering his brother, Cain is condemned to be ‘a restless wanderer on earth’ (Gen. 4:12). But all was not lost thanks to God’s saving plan. The descendants of Adam and Eve afflicted by loneliness because of original sin would be offered a path back to intimacy by God’s mercy. Already in the book of Genesis, God promises that the offspring of the woman would crush sin and destroy its effects including its power to alienate human beings from one another and from God himself (cf. Gen. 3:15).
Yet Scripture also describes a type of human loneliness that is not directly related to the effects of sin. The Bible suggests that we have been made in such a way as to always thirst for perfect intimacy with God and with others. There is something in our DNA that keeps us searching for God and longing for union with him. The Psalmist prays: ‘O God you are my God for you I long. For you my soul is thirsting like a dry weary land without water’ (Ps. 63:1). Jesus also recognises our loneliness and declares that this longing for intimacy will be uniquely satisfied by faith in him: ‘I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever hunger’ (John 5:35); ‘let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink! (John 7: 37-38). Here is the human restlessness St Augustine described as being satisfied only by union with God (Confessions 1, 1, 1) where loneliness is recognized as a built-in mechanism in our nature to draw us continually to intimacy, first with God and then with others.
In this light, loneliness can be a means by which God is calling us to himself when we have wandered away from him. When we feel lonely, it can be an indicator that God is not at the centre. It can also be a sign that our need for intimacy is leading us to pursue lifestyles and choices that only make our loneliness worse. Here is a warning of what St John of the Cross called ‘inordinate affectivity’ where we try to substitute God for something other than God (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I). We need only think of a host of addictions to which we are vulnerable.
By becoming human, Jesus also experienced times of loneliness, most notably in the Garden of Gethsemane where he endured agony in his mind as he faced his impending death and as his closest friends slept nearby. On the cross, Jesus cried out words that were not indicative of his terrible physical pain but of a worse mental pain of feeling abandoned, even by his Father: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). With his torment of loneliness, Jesus made holy our experience of loneliness and has absorbed it into the very life of God. Through his passion, Jesus suffered the ultimate loneliness to fill our loneliness with his presence and love.
From God’s Word we also discover that our whole existence here on earth is something of an exile from our true home and destiny in heaven. In this life we are pilgrims on a journey towards our permanent home, the New Jerusalem. This is the loneliness St Paul speaks of when he explains his dilemma of wanting to be gone to be with Christ in heaven but feeling obliged to stay with the Philippian Christians out of love for them (see Phil. 1: 18-26). As pilgrims in this world we have no lasting city and the experience of loneliness can be a wake up to that truth. In the words of C.S. Lewis: ‘If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world’. And when we realize this, he says: ‘I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same’ (Mere Christianity).
When this rich body of teaching on human loneliness encounters modern culture, both negative and positive elements are revealed. First the negative and the loneliness epidemic that reaps the whirlwind after decades of extreme individualism. In 1987 the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said that ‘there is no society, only individuals’. Here was a philosophy of the age consistent with a growing movement that began with Descartes and continued with Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre where the freedom of the individual trumps everything. But when the relational dimensions of humanity get forgotten in this culture of the self, we slowly cut off our own oxygen supply in ways that stifle the spirit and suffocate the soul. We become turned in on our buffered selves and become lonely. Our culture prizes independence as one of the greatest goods while the Gospel treasures the gift of inter-dependence that keeps us united.
Our Church communities are meant to be places where we come to know the intimacy of deep friendship with Christ that counters loneliness. In the Church, we learn how to be intimate with the Lord through prayer and to realize the truth of the paradox pithily described by St Ambrose: ‘I am never less alone than when alone’ (Letter 49). So for the Christian who really believes in Jesus’ request and promise that we ‘remain in me as I remain in you’, it means that we are never truly alone but that the Lord is with us always as he promised. This is why Pope Francis, in the opening paragraph of The Joy of the Gospel says about Christ: ‘Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness’. In our Church communities we celebrate this friendship and learn to share in ways that counter the problem of loneliness and isolation. Here in the family of the Church is a chance to make new friends, find our future wives and husbands and to become a contrast society that offers us an antidote to the loneliness so prevalent in our society.
Another aspect of life where we are reaping the whirlwind is the area of human sexuality. Our culture can try to convince us that the only way to intimacy is through sexual relations. Therefore, unless you have a sexual partner, you are doomed to loneliness. While sexual intimacy within marriage is the highest form of union between people, it does not mean that authentic intimacy is denied to those of us who have been called by God to follow other paths.
Yet, there are positive developments in our culture that make intimacy and human relations more accessible. One general example of this is the area of social communications. Because of how communication systems have improved, we can now connect effectively and rapidly with people all over the world. Through the various digital platfortms, thousands of people across the globe can now interact, dialogue, ask questions and discuss life issues through the lens of faith. Through the internet, the whole of humanity has become connected in ways that ought to lead us to a greater awareness that we are part of a global village and part of a human fellowship. In thousands of parishes, Church services are live-streamed online which allows the sick and house-bound to feel connected to communities when they are no longer able to come in person. We hope that new technologies may serve the cause of human solidarity, counteract loneliness and help people connect and belong.
We pray for the new British minister for loneliness and the success of her work. Perhaps we need to appoint her equivalent in the Irish government as well? Her appointment is a sign of hope that finally governments are beginning to acknowledge the problems arising from a culture of individualism gone awry and where loneliness is becoming the pathology of our age. May we Christians actively join this debate and lovingly model through the Church an existence where we belong to each other, care for each other but ultimately belong to Christ who satisfies our hungers and promised that we would never be alone for ‘I will be with you always, yes, until the end of time’ (Matt. 28:20).