Monday, November 14, 2016

No More, Eleanor

I know more than a few lonely people.

There’s no single — or simple — explanation for their loneliness. There are those who, often through no fault of their own, are social misfits, unable to successfully relate to those around them. There are those whose days are solitary as a result of their own life choices, and those who are housebound because of disability or age, and those who have lost a life-partner whose companionship cannot be replaced. Then there are people who, despite being surrounded by caring friends and family, feel a deep-seated and abiding loneliness because they cannot make one particular relationship work, and that absence matters to them so much that every other blessing in their lives pales into insignificance beside it.

Add it all up, and more than a few of us feel very much alone in this world, and those who are not lonely now may well be lonely later.

Self-Imposed and Thoroughly Voluntary

It was amusing to watch five conservative commentators attempt to provide a coherent analysis of last Tuesday’s election results, each man perpetually distracted by the information bombarding him minute by minute via the Mac blinking away in his lap. The desired illusion of a friendly, stimulating social gathering was not easily maintained. I very much doubt this sort of interaction is either emotionally satisfying or memorable.

Some ongoing loneliness is directly related to the information age, urbanization and the environment in which we live. An increasing number of us, Christians included, spend more and more time disconnected from one another, staring at backlit screens. Some of this is necessary and work-related, but much isolation is self-imposed and thoroughly voluntary.

Is yours?

Warier, Busier, Lonelier

Cities can be lonely places: bodies everywhere, but little real engagement. Five days a week between six and seven a.m. I walk my neighbourhood, during which time I pass dozens of my neighbours exercising dogs, dragging themselves to work or merely putting out the garbage. Proverbs warns, “A man of many companions may come to ruin”, so I wouldn’t want to overdo the morning cheer and goodwill. Still, I figure a smile, a “Good morning” and some eye contact can’t hurt.

In the city, I’m lucky if 20% of those I greet respond at all. Most drop their heads and shuffle by awkwardly. That’s urbanization for you: everybody’s a little warier and a lot busier. Last summer, walking the small town in which my parents live, I was startled to notice that without exception everybody I greeted smiled back, and some said more than just hello. One boy of around twelve with his dog actually addressed me first: “Hi sir, how are you today?” He said it like it actually mattered to him, even if it was only a rare courtesy.

Never happens to me in my own neighbourhood, I can assure you.

A Little Too Literal

The King James translation of that proverb I quoted earlier is a little different than the ESV. It reads:
“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly.”
Scholars now tell us it’s a weaker rendering of the original language, based on a too-literal reading of what is probably a Hebrew pun.

No matter. It’s the version my mother quoted to me as an (occasionally) lonely child (we moved around quite a bit). Whether or not it is good translation, it remains good sense: You want friends? Be friendly. Self-inflicted loneliness is a choice, and one that can be un-chosen.

For Christians, I recommend it.

A Face that She Keeps in an Jar by the Door

Paul McCartney’s and John Lennon’s words for Eleanor Rigby — you know, the Beatles tune with the “Look at all the lonely people” chorus — describe two individuals locked into life patterns of utter insignificance. The bleakness of the lyric always bothered me as a child, primarily because the characters so passively accept their respective fates. I thought, “Why didn’t they DO something about it?”

I think some people really try.

Closer Than a Brother

But not all loneliness can be eliminated by taking the initiative and reaching out. Sometimes, as with many of my neighbours, no response to a friendly overture is forthcoming, and we walk on in the dark. In such a case, it is good to remind ourselves that whether we prefer the KJV or the ESV of Proverbs 18:24 (and whether we make our choice for textual or for largely sentimental reasons), the verse ends exactly the same way, with this statement of great consolation:
“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
Make of that what you will. I remind myself of the greatest friendship in my life, one that no human being can surpass or diminish.

There’s an antidote to loneliness for you. No more Eleanor Rigby.


  1. What a nice blog. I would like to contribute some practical aspects to it. Recently our parish club decided to start a program that was intended to help out parishioners (and eventually also non-parishioners) who may have a need for immediate support due to a sudden family crisis. The idea was to help out with providing meals on a short term basis to help deal with that sudden crisis or need. We had a brainstorming session trying to figure out how to best go about organizing it and I, being a bit of a geek suggested to centralize communication among interested volunteers via the use of the cloud (I.e., cloud service available through Microsoft or Google, Apple ICloud, Amazon, etc.). Since most people were geeks to a much lesser extent I was laughed at and it was suggested I should instead come down to earth. Later on my daughter, who had just moved back to NY, came to the rescue by proposing to use a cloud based service called Mealtrain they had implemented for the exact same purpose in her parish in Delaware. She provided the link to the web site (below). We had a volunteer to act as a coordinator using the Mealtrain web program and are now quite successfully up and running with it.

    The idea was (and still is) to have volunteers sign up who would prepare and deliver meals on a schedule established by the coordinator. The interested volunteers provide their information to the coordinator who puts it on the site specifying the date and time slots they have available. This is dynamic and can be modified any time by the volunteer depending on their own circumstances. The coordinator further sets up and enters names, addresses, food preferences and handicaps, delivery time slots, and durations for needy families and persons. The volunteers can access the site at any time and view their own and others' schedule and the details for the person(s) to be serviced. The purpose is not to provide a long term solution as, e.g., Meals on Wheels could but to only provide for an imminent and urgent need. This might also involve helping people to get in touch with other services available here in NY through, eg., the wonderful government Office of the Ageing program who can provide for more extensive care through Meals on Wheels and services other than food.

    This is now working really well and it was indeed found that there was immediate need for this. Food is provided not only by good cooks (like my wife) but can also be just a pizza or picked up prepared at a deli (that would be me :-). Currently two days in a week are scheduled for delivery (Thursdays and Sundays) and often food is sufficient for recipients to refrigerate it and also have enough for the next day.

    The beautiful thing is that you can meet some nice people and some really sweet elderly people who are also interested in a conversation and invite you into their home for a short stay. We also learned that mistakes can also be made since the handicap entered for one couple was that they had difficulty chewing. It turned out when we called them to let them know we were scheduled for the food service and confirmed delivery details we learned that the woman's husband had that problem and not his wife and she told us laughingly that she had mashed potatoes up her ears and was craving baked potatoes. Well, we made sure she got those with the meal ;-).

    One must also be prepared that there are frequently sad circumstances requiring families to make use of the service like death of a partner or serious illness and we always find that this helps them quite a bit and they are always very appreciative. Currently people get on the list through word of mouth from parish members, their friends or officials.

    So, I think this goes well with your blog and the sentiments expressed therein and hopefully this information can help to expand on those sentiments.

  2. Thanks, Q. I applaud this and other initiatives like it that are taken up and acted upon by individuals who care and are willing to invest their own time, etc. The personal touch is so much more appreciated than bought-and-paid-for tax services, much as those serve a practical purpose. It just makes for a warmer world.