Loneliness they say is the new epidemic in society. Do you think that’s true?
At one time being truly housebound was a reality. If you had become infirm through age or ill health it was very likely that you would have had no means of getting out and about, not just to go and get your shopping but simply to have contact with other people, to socialise. Nowadays because of social care services,Blue Badge Schemes, shop mobility, and a host of other services those who at one time would have been confined to the home are no longer restricted in that way. And I recognise that for some, even the services mentioned above don’t answer all of their needs. Some are still housebound. When I began in Parish Ministry 30 years ago I was given lists of those church members who were housebound to go and visit. And many of them really were confined to their homes and some confined to their beds. Nowadays, those same people would find a place in nursing care or supported accommodation. Where at one time loneliness and isolation was a reality because of increasing years and declining health, it isn’t quite so bad now.
But we are not only talking about the elderly and infirm when we talk about people being lonely. Loneliness seems to touch all sections of society. It seems to have no respect for age, gender, race or class. Loneliness is certainly not the same as simply being alone. Sometimes we like to be alone, to be an individual in our own quiet space can be a very happy state. Loneliness however, is universally understood to be an unhappy place where there is a lack of caring relationships, a lack of friendship, a lack of community, no one to share smiles or laughter with, no one to listen to us or share our burdens.
The factors which create loneliness are many and I’m no expert on them. We might consider the fluidity of society as being a factor – people having to move home for work and never establishing good friendship before moving again, anti-social working shift patterns that deny the opportunity to get out amongst people, financial constraints that make socialising at the local pub a less frequent or less attractive option. Maybe the internet and social media… we shop at night and from home without the human interaction of going shopping with friends or family. Maybe social media that makes us think we have “friends” but will any of them actually come to our rescue when life is hard? I’m sorry but a Face Snap-a-Gram post isn’t quite the same as someone actually giving you a hug and making you a coffee as they help dry your tears.
Community is something illusive these days. Charities and inner city initiatives work at creating community because it no longer exists or is challenged or fractured in some way. Perhaps a fractured community is better than none at all. In some places I know it is hard to see any kind of community. People live in isolation from each other not knowing or speaking to their immediate neighbour. Is that where loneliness comes from? A total absence of community? Have we pursued the goal of the individual to its nth degree to discover that there is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow?
Now I’m going say that I’m sitting here with my Minister “hat” or should that be “dog collar” on and say that churches are not perfect communities but if you’ve never tried one for size then you’ll not know if it fits or not. I’ve met some wonderful (and not so wonderful) people in church communities but we have all found something good in just being together, working together and as church communities do – supporting one another in prayer and in practical ways too. And there is always room for one more.
The hardest thing you’ll have to do is find the courage to step through the door for the first time but it might still be a whole lot easier than enduring the soul crushing pain of loneliness.