The Challenge of Loneliness in a Time of Increased Isolation

It was suggested to me that during this time of increased and prolonged isolation, that words about loneliness and ways to respond to it might be helpful. Certainly nothing can replace physical presence, simply being with someone next to us, for hugs and/or conversation. Yet notes, phone calls, and even text messages or use of the so-called social media can be helpful. At the same time, many people do not have access to these forms, other than phone calls or letters. Sometimes, too, as persons get more and more isolated through sickness or even just the aging process, it can become harder to reach out. It requires someone else to take the initiative and reach in. Kindness, even when met with resistance, can always be helpful.

Many years ago, a young woman in class told of how she took her dog to long term care homes and to prisons. Her dog was always welcoming and friendly to whomever she met. On prisoner remarked how the dog did not know he had a criminal record and was in no way offset by that fact. Another sad case occurred when an elderly woman who obviously wanted to pet the dog refused to do so. The young woman realized that this person had virtually no choice in her institutional situation, no capacity to say no. This occasion was virtually the only one in which she could exercise a right to refuse. The incident highlighted the need for the possibility of decision-making, even in situations of confinement. It also illustrated the need for companionship, for affection, for closeness, that is essential to all of us.

A number of years ago, a colleague and I published an article on spirituality and chronic illness which noted some needs and concerns arising from illness, accident, or disability. One result is increasing isolation and the deep-seated loneliness it can occasion. Continued care for personal hygiene, good grooming, and personal appearance are helpful to maintain a person’s sense of self-respect and dignity. This effort can help people who are confined both to reach out and also to feel more comfortable in allowing others to approach them.

The diminishing of activity caused by physical limitations is also a cause of difficulty. Today it is more and more widespread because of the continuing incidence of Covid 19. Here it is important to provide those who are confined with possible outreach activities. It may be helpful to send notes and cards to others, to make telephone calls, to write emails or messages, or even to work on sudoku or word puzzles. A powerful example is that of the late Stephen Hawking, who continued his scientific work and communication through a voice synthesizer.

More profoundly, a change in mindset is called for. In recent decades there has bee n a growing tendency to regard ourselves as human “havings” and human “doings” rather than human “beings.” there is a tendency to forget that the greatest gift we have to offer one another is our presence. It is not what we have or do but who we are that counts the most. I recall that, some thirty years ago, as I sat with my dying mother, the expression came to mind: :Don’t just stand there, do something.” It struck me that, in this situation, the opposite is true. “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, simply be there with the person. Don’t just flee into busyness.

This last thought brings to mind that we are essentially relational beings. Who we are is very much bound up with who we are with. Our sense of identity is very much bound up with our relationship with others. We discover who we are and our sacred worth especially from those who care about us and about whom we care. As we mentioned in discussing the story of Snow White, while we cannot see ourselves with our own eyes, we are best “mirrored” to ourselves by someone who intelligently and deeply cares for us. And we too can provide such a mirror for someone we care about. As a result, continuing contact and communication that comes from our core rather than our surface is crucial, in whatever forms are possible in this time of isolation.

While addressing this kind of loneliness, and only in connection with doing so, it is also important gradually to realize that there is also an underlying loneliness that comes from our human condition itself. Paradoxically, recognizing and living with this reality can be a source of creativity and meaningful relationships.

The story of Rapunzel provides a wonderful example. She is initially isolated in a nearly inaccessible tower. Yet, we are told, out of her loneliness she sings and the beauty of her voice rings throughout the forest. There it reaches and touches the heart of a young man who then seeks and succeeds in meeting her, only to be cruelly separated. If our loneliness can lead us to be in touch with and to express our inmost self, as Rapunzel does in singing, it can make possible an authentic relationship with others. The story ends with a marvellous insight. Rapunzel rushes to embrace her husband from whom she has been separated and who has wandered blindly through the forest. He hears her singing once again and stumbles into her presence. Two of her tears fall on his eyes and restore their sight. Our own wounds, creatively bo9rne, can be a source of vision and healing for others.

Clark Moustakas wrote an extremely insight ful book, simply entitled, Loneliness. Here are a few of his thoughts.
“Loneliness is a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, extend, and deepen his or her humanity. .. [Yet despite its pain, fear or terror, loneliness] brings into awareness new dimensions of self, new beauty, new power for human compassion, and a reverence for the precious nature of each breathing moment. … I have concluded that loneliness is within life itself, and that all creations in some way spring from solitude, meditation, and isolation. … In loneliness persons commune with themselves and come to grips with their own being. They discover life, who they are, what they really want, the meaning of their existence, the true nature of their relations with others. …Within pain and isolation and loneliness, one can find courage and hope and what is brave and lovely and true in life.”

May you learn evermore to be in touch with and at home to yourself, and to express yourself more and more creatively, and gradually deepen and enhance your relationship with all whose lives intersect with your own.
Norman King, December 21, 2020.