The U.S. Surgeon General states that loneliness is now in epidemic proportions. News about high levels of loneliness is found in sources globally, including Harvard Magazine and Al Arabiya. Is loneliness a new thing, since the rise of COVID-19, and is if affecting you?
Loneliness is not a new phenomenon, it arose with the first life forms, since time immemorial. I suspect, in fact, that the even the earliest life forms had sensations of loneliness.
For example broadly, the lone survivors after their primordial soup desiccated under the unfiltered sunlight, or catastrophic flood or volcanic eruption. Or, perhaps the simple lack of contact stimulus set them moving about to find mates in order to procreate or assist with feeding.
Of course, we can only speculate on this, although in an informed way. I was delighted to find a book that allowed me to integrate my personae as both Biologist and Chaplain, Origin of Group Identity by Luis P. Villarreal. This book discusses the importance of group identity for all organisms, even ones that seem inanimate, such as viruses.
Moving forward a few billion years, though, not much has changed for living organisms. We all become alone, from the single-celled organism to the very complex human being. Transforming and then defining this state of singularity into the cognate of ‘loneliness’ shifts what is natural and common into a status requiring action.
As humans, endowed with the ability to manipulate our environment, we can do things, such as gather and live together in communities, share resources, such as hospitals, places of worship, governance, and recreation. This adapting the environment to suit us rather than vice versa, where the environment makes the rules and the organism must adapt, is something that sets us apart from how other life forms address solitude.
Of late, we also have social media. That can be a good thing. For people who are housebound due to illness- or age-related frailties, social media can be a life-line for drawing in necessities, such as companionship, grocery delivery, or a doctor visit.
But, over the past few short decades, relatively healthy cohorts have drifted away from shores of direct personal contact towards the uncharted lands of the solitary individual touching others via their electronic keyboards: much of value has been left behind. The tips of the icebergs on these man-made seas has been of concern for quite some time now: cyber bullying and the emotional impact of social media on adolescents, the ability to post anything and everything with strokes on one’s inert, faceless keyboard. And now, we have AI fabricating ‘facts’ about ourselves and others.
For now, I want to focus on loneliness because that is what the world’s esteemed authorities on human health and welfare are telling us we are suffering from, in pandemic proportions.
I’ve already given hints as to the scientific/biological origins of ‘loneliness’. Now, let’s look at what our wise and compassionate human ancestors gave us through their legacy of wisdom, of Torah, regarding what loneliness is and how to take care of it. This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, in part addresses speaks of loneliness, through the speech of Moses in Deut. 10: 16-19:
“(16) Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.
(17) For your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe,
(18) but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing.—
(19) You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The definition of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim means a place of narrows: the narrow place wherein the Israelites were squeezed, through their enslavement. These words of Moses are so relevant today that they could have been written recently: about living through the COVID pandemic, with their reference to us all having been strangers in the land of Egypt/Narrowness at one time or another.
Indeed, anyone over the age of a few weeks old has lived through some or all of the pandemic, that strange and uncertain time of travelling through some harrowing and narrow bridge or birthing canal into a new land. Think about what you did during that time. We had to isolate, stay home, stay apart from others. We had to make sacrifices and take care of ourselves as individuals, even if we lived with others, because there was no place to go, no distractions such as going to the office or shopping, or to a movie or a vacation. We had to be individuals navigating enforced tight quarters and relationships, or as isolated individuals.
Creating and maintaining personal boundaries is an important skill: however, the lengthy periods of COVID isolation enforcing them, combined with replacing direct personal contact with social media, may have created thick walls of impermeability where once we absorbed the presence of others, and could feel empathy and normal social awareness. This is a thickening about the heart, just as described in verse 16 above.
The stiffening of the neck is what we do when we know what is right but refuse to do it. The child who won’t eat their vegetables or pick up their toys, the adult who acts on impulse to their detriment; or those of us ignoring calls for empathy, contact, or love from others because it’s just easier to send a text or emoji.
Ask yourself, “have I built a great callous around my heart?” are you able to have real and safe interactions with others, away from social media?
Pick up the telephone and call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or who has been away from usual activities due to illness or travel. Send a card, buy a gift, have a coffee.
Loneliness can cause us to assume others have left, moved on, or worse, are never coming back. Let them know you are here, too – that you are no longer strangers in a strange land.