Sunday, 1 September 2013

All the lonely people

“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”
The Beatles sang of Eleanor Rigby, a lonely woman who died alone, unmourned and presumably unloved, buried by an equally lonely priest, Fr Mckenzie, whose constant efforts to reach out to others remained unheard and fruitless.

Not long ago a woman’s body was discovered in her house, sitting in front of the television where, post-mortem results revealed, she had died three years earlier. In all of that time, nobody had checked why she had not been seen. Her only companion had been the television, which continued to broadcast programmes long after the woman died. That was loneliness.

A recent BBC Radio 4 programme on loneliness showed that everybody, at some time or other in life, experiences its emptiness. Those interviewed included a widow who no longer takes a holiday or day-trip because she cannot enjoy herself as previously, when she and her husband could travel and do things together. Other interviewees included a well-known television personality, a psychiatric nurse and people of many different backgrounds and with many stories to tell. Regardless of our circumstances, loneliness is something that few, if any of us, escape. It can be soul-destroying, removing the joy and energy from life. Even those who, on the surface, might seem to have everything can often harbour an unfathomable depth of unshared pain.

Interestingly, during the half-hour programme, of all those who spoke, I only noticed one person, a Muslim, who appeared to have a religious belief. He still suffered the torment of loneliness but he could find a way out through reading the Koran and going to the mosque where he found the shared belief with other Muslims helped him to shoulder his burden and find hope. It was that which made the difference.

Another intriguing shortcoming of the programme was that it made no attempt to distinguish between solitude, loneliness and being alone. Perhaps that was not part of its remit, but in real life, there is a massive difference: solitude and being alone can be massive powers for good. Anybody can be alone but not lonely in just the same way in which someone can be in the middle of a bustling crowd and discover it to be the loneliest experience on earth.

Each and every one of us has times when we need to be alone. It is incredibly difficult, for instance, to write thoughtfully in an office filled with people, each busy (and sometimes chattering) about their own affairs. There is the longed-for peace and quiet of the garden or a cup of coffee with the newspaper. We value the time and place for praying with others in church, but also those moments when we can be alone with the Lord, quietly together with nobody else around to interrupt the tranquility. Those occasions of aloneness are times of solitude, not of loneliness. If you like, it is the difference between Jesus choosing to climb a mountain to be alone in prayer with his Father and his agony on the Cross when he cried out, “My God” My God” Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus has ‘Been there. Done that’.

Loneliness is not solitude. As the late Dag Hammarskjöld wrote, “What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear.” Loneliness is painful. Solitude is beautiful and like a glass of cold water on a hot day.

Do you remember Dag Hammarskjöld? He was, at one time the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Nobel Peace Prize winner and, quite possibly, a mystic. Then, on 18 September 1961, in what might or might not have been assassination, he was killed in a plane crash over Zambia. In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of his death, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote, “What made Hammarskjöld withstand the enormous pressures of his office and kept him together as a person was his deep spirituality and devotion to God.”

An intriguing aspect of Hammarskjöld’s life is that with his deep relationship with God, the Swedish Lutheran was able to distinguish between loneliness and solitude. He also saw beyond loneliness to something greater, writing, “Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for”.
A similar thing can be said of another Lutheran, Paul Tillich, a German and one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century. Like Hammarskjöld, he reflected on loneliness and solitude, “Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.”
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote, “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. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty. It is not only a poverty of loneliness, but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
Apparently in Britain, statistics show that one in ten people suffer from chronic loneliness – and this is an era of frenetic social networking. Anybody connected to Facebook, Linked-in or similar sites is bombarded with requests to become So-and-so’s ‘friend’. There cannot be any real communication with such ‘friends’ because the websites are not designed for ‘the deep and meaningful’.
Countless devotees of social networking sites collect hundreds of so-called friends, often not realising that real friends are rare and precious jewels which cannot be gathered as if they were pebbles on a beach. Friendship takes time. Friendship means sharing and caring at a deeply personal level, taking the risk of being seen ‘warts and all’ in a mashed-up mess whilst also trusting that the confusion will be cherished, protected and defended even in the midst of sometimes uncomfortably glaring honesty. Real friendship is a unique and irreplaceable treasure.
Socialising and the ‘me’ culture often replace the primary relationship with a loving God and of a lifestyle in which I am not the centre of my own universe. St Francis of Assisi saw the whole of creation as Brother and Sister becoming one vast community marked by leaders who served with love and humility. St Ignatius of Loyola encouraged his followers to become ‘someone for others’.

We all experience loneliness at one time or another, but it need not be fatal. We do not need to become an Eleanor Rigby or a Fr Mckenzie. Sometimes loneliness is simply another way of describing the times when, wallowing in my own misery (occasionally self-created), my eyes and heart are closed to those around me. Perhaps ‘all those lonely people’ are just waiting for my smile – and guess what? In reaching out to others, they reach out to me and strangers become friends.