I found the announcement the other day by British Prime Minister Theresa May that, starting almost immediately, the U.K. is going to have among its leaders someone invited to serve as the nation’s official Minister of Loneliness more than slightly depressing. But maybe that was the wrong way to respond. The thought, after all, that the loneliness that plagues so many in our society is going to be addressed formally by someone specifically charged with finding ways to alleviate the alienation and sense of disconnectedness that makes people, even in the most densely populated urban areas, feel alone and untethered to society—and that that person is not going to be a solitary gadfly tilting at windmills but an actual government official with a staff, a budget, and (presumably) at least occasionally the ear of the Prime Minister herself—why should that be depressing? Just the opposite seems far more reasonable now that I think it through: here, for once, is a serious problem being addressed in a forthright manner. And, who knows? Maybe the Minister of Loneliness, nothing at all like the Minister for Silly Walks in the Monty Python skit, will end up doing some good in the world. Odder things have happened!Once, this was—both abroad and here at home—a different kind of problem, one with roots in the individual psyches of specific lonely individuals but not with society at large.
In an earlier age, people lived their whole lives in the same village, or at least in the same community in a larger town or city. People’s lives were intertwined in a way that now seems, depending on where you’re standing, either quaint or vaguely oppressive. Neighbors were often each other’s relatives. But even non-related neighbors felt a sense of responsibility for each other and a deep sense of interconnectedness with each other. That old African saying Mrs. Clinton made such good use of over the years, the one that observes that it takes a village to raise a child, once reflected reality not solely in African villages, but all over the world. Certainly, that’s how life was in the shtetl my grandparents left when they emigrated and came here. And it was what life in these United States was like for most of our nation’s history.Sociologists use the adjective “thick” to describe this kind of society in which people are not merely neighbors by virtue of physical contiguity, but individuals integrated into each other’s lives in dozens of ways, some obvious to all and others invisible to outside observers, but all palpable and meaningful. In such “thick” societies, people have their own possessions…but there is also a deep sense of obligation towards others that includes the responsibility to share with those others. And this concept of the “thick” community endures even today: the definition of a successful Jewish community (and I’m sure other kinds of communities too, particularly faith-based ones, but I speak whereof I know) is precisely one in which its members’ lives are intertwined, in which you can’t count how many meals you’ve eaten in your friends’ homes or how many naps you’ve had on their couches, in which people take each other’s tragedies personally and seriously, and which no one needs to explain the paradox of feeling more truly who you are by virtue of being tied in countless ways to a whole community of others whose sense of personal identity is also stronger and better because of their communal affiliation and involvement.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. There was a very interesting essay last month in Wired magazine in which the author, Jean M. Twenge, reflected on the unexpected fact that teenagers today report spending less than a third of the time attending out-of-school parties than teenagers reported doing thirty years ago in 1987. (To read the essay, click here.) For young people, the explanation clearly has to do with the advent of the internet and, particularly, social media websites: why bother leaving home when you can party with a thousand friends at once on Facebook or Instagram? One young man sounded, I thought, particularly pathetic when he explained the decline in socializing from his personal perspective: “People party,” Kevin explained, “because they’re bored—they want something to do. Now we have Netflix—you can watch…nonstop.” I sense that Kevin is not alone. The other day I noticed four teenagers, three boys and a girl, on the train going into Manhattan. They were clearly together, but they spent the entire trip on their phones—each of them presumably interacting with someone out there, but clearly not with each other. At all. I was reading, so I didn’t mind the quiet…but there was also something both peculiar and disturbing about the experience of watching young people so completely tuned in and tuned out at the same time.Loneliness, which Emily Dickinson once described as “the Horror not to be surveyed,” is not to be confused with aloneness. People who like being alone are not morally flawed individuals. I myself like being alone—to read, to snooze, to study, to contemplate the universe. But perhaps I can afford to like time spent by myself precisely because I am part of such a complicated, involving community the rest of the time. And that really is the solution to the problem. (I should write to Mrs. May and tell her!) Loneliness—that wretched sense of being untied to the world, of specifically not feeling connected to the people around you, of turning to the world for support or sympathy and finding no one at all to be listening—that all falls away when people come together to foster a sense of interinvolved responsibility for each other’s welfare…and to form communities in which being woven into the warp and woof of the group is treated as a great good and as a blessing, and not as an oppressive, regrettable side effect of friendship.
In this country, fully half of those older than 85 live on their own, as do a third of people 65 or older. Now living on your own is not necessarily a bad thing—it can be sign of independence, well-earned autonomy, and resourcefulness. But it can also be the first step in losing touch with the world…and that is what happens to all too many of us as we get into our older years. Nor is this just an emotional problem; a University of California study I read about just a few weeks ago reported that individuals who reported suffering from serious feelings of loneliness “had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death.” And this too, from that same study: “The association of loneliness with mortality remained significant even after adjusting for age, economic status, depression and other common health problems.” (To read that article, click here.) Nor is it helpful to wave loneliness away as a mere mood: in a study published last year in the journal Cell, scientists at M.I.T. wrote to say that they had actually managed successfully to identify the region of the brain that generates feelings of loneliness, and could see that a mere twenty-four hours of isolation was enough to set the hormonal triggers for deep loneliness and its unwanted offspring: alienation, disconnection, and estrangement. Not surprisingly, the loneliness center is the next-door neighbor the “dorsal raphe nucleus,” the section of the brain linked to feelings of depression.It sounds obvious enough that communal involvement is the antidote to loneliness. But the forces drawing people away from that simple solution are very strong. I myself am a good example. I personally do not feel at all lonely, but, even so…I used to go to stores to buy things, but now I almost exclusively shop online. I used to go to bookstores and record stores to browse around and see what might be of interest, but now I download almost everything I read or listen to. Joan and I do go to the movies…but it’s always an uphill battle when it’s cold outside, Netflix is only a few clicks away, and the selection is a trillion times greater than even the biggest multiplex can offer. And it’s free, or at least free-ish.
With respect to all of the above, I was struck by a passage I read the other day in an essay published in the New York Times by Dhruv Khullar, a physician associated with the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. (To read the essay, click here.) In it, Dr. Khullar writes that “Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.” So we’re not just talking here about an unpleasant sensation that has no ultimate importance for the trajectory of an individual’s life, but just the opposite: something to be considered in the category of smoking cigarettes or carrying around enough extra weight to qualify as obese as a factor in longevity itself (or the lack of it).
When I was a teenager, I read and was very taken with Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1938 book, Alone, in which he detailed his experiences when things went terribly wrong in the course of his second expedition to Antarctica in 1934 and he ended up living totally on his own for six months in an endless polar night while beings slowly poisoned by carbon monoxide escaping from a faulty steam pipe. For almost all of tenth grade, it was my favorite book! When I think back and wonder what exactly it was about the book that so captivated me, I suppose it must have been the courage Admiral Byrd displayed in handling both the situation and himself as he lived—as he barely lived—through a frigid six-month-long night. (It really is an exceptional book, one I still feel entirely good about recommending to readers all these years later.) But it was more than that, I think: there was something in Admiral Byrd’s account that the adolescent me—an only child with no siblings or grandparents and whose closest cousin was almost twenty years his senior—responded to easily and emotionally. (I was also a big fan back then of Thoreau’s Walden, and for the same reason.) But for all it was satisfying to know that people could live with loneliness, those books—and I should mention Clark Moustakas’ once-semi-famous book, Loneliness in this context as well—these books made it clear to me how important it was going to be for the post-adolescent me to find a real community of friends and like-minded souls.Was that what propelled me so vigorously into seeking out the kind of Jewish community that JTS provided for me as a young man, and which I have devoted my entire professional life to trying to create for others? It might have been! But the basic principle—that loneliness is a barren, arid landscape to live out life in and that the only cure lies in belonging to a sturdy, well-structured community of neighbors and caring friends—insinuated itself into my consciousness as a young man and has resided there ever since.
Mrs. May is doing the right thing to appoint a minister to seek a solution for the problem of loneliness in society. But she could also just ask any member of a thick and traditional Jewish community and any of us could explain the whole thing to her easily.