Loneliness: The other poverty
Friday 20 October 2017
Nathan Rawlins (Photo by charlotte Ljones on Unsplash)
My first job was at McDonalds. To this day I remember the lady who would come to the restaurant every morning and order the same thing: a small, freshly cooked batch of fries and the free seniors’ coffee that came with it. She always came to me, I thought, because I used the stretched milk from the McCafe, rather than just dropping cold milk into the styrofoam cup of drip coffee. She would then proceed to sit at the closest table to my workstation and strike up a conversation over the counter about the same things: the weather, what was going on outside, how she only liked a little salt on the fries because ‘you people’ put on too much. She would periodically ask me for another cup of coffee, before disappearing without a word around lunch time.
To be honest, the crew I worked with simply thought she was ‘nuts’ and just one of the characters who floated in and out on a regular basis.
At one point, the lady didn’t come in for a couple of weeks. When she eventually turned up again to order her small fries, a friend who I was working with said to her, ‘You’re back! We haven’t seen you for a while and we were wondering where you had gone!’
The lady broke down in tears, sobbing loudly in the middle of the restaurant.
Working at McDonalds means you get used to dealing with angry people, screaming kids, impatient office workers, alcholics and drug addicts. But having an elderly lady weeping unexpectedly in the store caught us (and everyone else) completely by surprise. There we were, two teenage fast food chain employees, completely flabbergasted and having no idea what to do.
While we worked out that she was simply lonely, the serious implications of this didn’t hit me for a few years—that this lady had found some sense of connection and community at our store. We knew her by name, what she wanted and how she liked it, and had some conversation each day. At the time, it never occurred to me that she might not have had anyone outside of the store to talk to. I simply presumed that, like the rest of us, she had some sort of connection and community elsewhere.
In a sense, in addition to the material poverty the lady may have experienced, her loneliness was a form of social poverty—she was deprived not just of money but of relationship and connection with others.
Loneliness is one of humanity’s greatest fears. We are deeply afraid of being alone and we draw upon this fear in various aspects of society—from the social isolation experienced during school days that perpetuates into adulthood, to systematised solitary confinement as a form of punishment. There is of course a difference between the experiences of loneliness and solitude. Solitude, where we are with ourselves comfortably and fruitfully, is vital to our wellbeing. We need to be able to step back from our social contexts and reflect upon who we are, so that we can come to better know and love ourselves and give of ourselves to others. I have personally found, time and time again, that unless we are able to be on our own, no number of relationships or kinds of relationships will fill the void we feel. If we cannot stand to be alone with ourselves for an hour, chances are neither will others. Indeed, being in solitude can force us to see parts of ourselves or confront situations that we do not like—necessary for self awareness and growth.
Loneliness, however, is that experience of isolation when we want to be more connected to others but are unable to or are restricted from doing so. Many people pass through our lives— from the unpopular kid who sits alone at school to the migrant who cannot communicate with everyone else or keep up with the rapid conversation, the social outcast who is shunned, the homeless beggar who is tossed coins but not spoken to, and the elderly who go unvisited by family and friends each week.
The anecdotal pain of loneliness is very real. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans show that the experience of rejection and the emotional responses to physical pain activate the same region of the brain. Nor does it help that there seems to be a stigma in our culture about loneliness. As psychologist Dr Karyn Hall explains: ‘Many people will admit to being depressed before they’ll talk about being lonely. They fear being judged as unlikeable, a loser, or weird, so they don’t discuss their sense of aloneness, alienation or exclusion.’
There is an underlying belief in our culture that if you are lonely, you are somehow socially defective—lonely people simply have no friends and they have no friends because no one likes them. Yet studies have shown that those who feel lonely spend no more time isolated or alone than those who report feeling connected. My personal experience supports this: for many of the loneliest experiences of my life, I have been surrounded by close friends and family, yet I still felt utterly isolated and disconnected. Loneliness is often the reason we jump into or stay in toxic relationships that we know are not good for us or others. We don’t want to be alone because we feel nothing can hurt us more than being alone.
A solution for many is to fill up the loneliness with social media. The presumption is that our social media accounts generate connection through a device, which can satisfy this need for communion. Yet we forget that there is a certain quality of connection we crave. Having thousands of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter cannot compare to a single person who you can catch up with over a coffee.
Research conducted by the UK ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’ showed that simply being together with someone is missed most of all (52 per cent), and 46 per cent miss having a hug. Older people experiencing loneliness also miss simple everyday moments, such as sharing a meal (35 per cent), holding hands (30 per cent), taking country walks (32 per cent) or going on holiday (44 per cent).
When we engage with a person, we are not communicating through a machine by texts, GIFs or emojis, but engaging at a multifaceted level—through words, tone, body language, gesture and physical presence. There is a difference between communicating and communing. Rather than communicating in an artificial way through transmissible language, we commune by cor ad cor loquiter: speaking heart to heart. And it is this deeply intimate and personal connection that is truly satisfying. It’s like comparing a home-cooked meal and a bowl of instant noodles.
Don’t get me wrong—social media is not an evil to be eradicated. Rather, we shouldn’t depend on it to somehow satisfy our deepest longings for connection and intimacy with other people in the old fashioned, non-digital way. Social media should facilitate communion, but it cannot be a replacement for it. From binge-watching TV and Netflix or filling up time with hyperactivity, to drowning in alcohol or seeking out other vices that are unhealthy—in the end, all of this is used as a distraction and is not a solution to the problem.
How then can we respond in healthy ways to that feeling of loneliness? It’s important to remember that feeling lonely at times in life is normal, but how we respond to it is up to us. As individuals, we should not judge ourselves for being lonely and play into the image that there is something wrong with
us. Rationalising loneliness with negative self-reflection is ineffective. Even Jesus felt lonely.
In those times when I feel lonely, I pose myself this question: what is this feeling saying to me? Our faith teaches us that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God—a God who is a Trinity of persons engaged in a constant self-giving of love to each other. We are made to be in relationship with God and others. With that in mind, I have found that the best response is to enter into it and not try to run away or distract myself, no matter how tempting that can be! I try to recognise that the loneliness is a call within me that says ‘I want connection and communion with God and others’, and to see it as a motivation to move outside of myself, rather than to continue to isolate myself or fuel the problem. In those times when I want to curl up into myself to distract myself from the loneliness, I instead push myself to go and do something for others or pray. As sentimental as it may sound, the only way a relationship with God grows is, as with with any other relationship, through time and effort.
As a Christian community, can we recognise the loneliness of others and be willing to give of ourselves to them? Do we choose to avoid it because it can be uncomfortable and awkward? Can we see Christ in them, saying to us, ‘Could you not spend with me one hour?’ When the hearts of our brothers and sisters cry out silently to the world, ‘My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?’, are we willing to respond and bring him to them? Many times in life we will find ourselves like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and someone will be the angel who comes to comfort us. Are we also willing to see Christ in others and be that angel for them?
Nathan Rawlins is a seminarian at Corpus Christi College, Carlton. This article was first published in Melbourne Catholic magazine, October 2017.