You’ve heard me recall this more than once. As a conference closed in Chicago, Mother Theresa prepared to return to Calcutta. The new friends she had made spoke out with concern for the grand and fragile lady, pulling the dying out of the gutters in one of the poorest places on this earth. “How can you go back there?” they queried. “How can you survive the bleakness of facing into such poverty?”
“First of all, it’s my home,” Mother Theresa eyeballed them. “But also, don’t you realize you have your own epidemic here? Loneliness is the leprosy of the west.”
This is worth remembering on a couple counts. One, even rich places are poor in significant ways; even poor places can be rich in other unnoticed ways. Two, simple friendship and companionship get invisibly undervalued here in the USA.
How many people wake up feeling desperately lonely? How many only sleep fitfully few hours? How many arrive at midlife tired, disconnected and immensely sad? How many young families face into a difficult commute and extreme over-work numbed by a sterile routine and being left with the feeling they don’t matter?
And then we look at Facebook. That doesn’t exactly cheer us, does it? Friends seeming like they are having a remarkable time enjoying stunning birthdays, wild adventures to remote places, and making the most of the life that passes us by.
A recent Cigna study puts loneliness at the root of an emerging US health crisis. Some 27% of Americans rarely or never feel understood. Some 40% always feel their relationships are not meaningful. According to one meta-analysis, loneliness increases our odds of dying early by 45%. Why aren’t we talking about all of this?
No few still ask me how I am doing, knowing this hasn’t been an easy year for Cecile and me. My step-father, Cecile’s mother, then my own mother died within weeks of each other. FCC endured a sudden departure bringing me back from my sabbatical, increasing the work burden my time away was meant to address.
True and deep friendships which involve both trust in vulnerability (as opposed to Facebook friendships) are the best cure for loneliness. You all have been true and deep friends to Cecile and me this past year. We need to thank you for that.
In the wisdom literature of the apocryphal Old Testament, we hear of friendship:
“Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
Whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
No amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are a life-saving medicine.
And those who fear the Lord will find them. “
I think of Jesus a lot this time of year, returning to Jerusalem for his hollow, brief parade of acclaim before all abandoned him. I picture his loneliness in all of that. When I feel lonely or empty, I spend less time on how I feel about the world, and more time on how God feels about the world. That picks me up and carries me in the shelter of the arms of our loving God. You are those arms to us. Thank you.
As push becomes shove in this holy season, find someone alone, and say hello.