In recent days, I’ve been at a conference at The Catholic University of America on the anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, a prophetic document that could have saved us from a lot of the misery of recent decades on the home front. Admist the current confusions about men, women, family, and identity, gatherings that aim to help heal can be great gifts to churches, schools, families, and communities looking to be part of a solution. During some of these discussions, conversations come back again and again to loneliness and how it affects the human soul and culture, as well as how it can sometimes be a matter of life and death. Kevin Vost is author of The Catholic Guide to Loneliness and we talk a bit about the subject.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is loneliness a cultural epidemic?
Kevin Vost: Yes. Research from around the world shows that loneliness has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades. In 2013, the Journal of Psychology devoted two issues to the topic of loneliness, looking at it from a great many angles, from children and teens who are left home alone, to elderly Appalachians with health-care issues, to elderly Israelis cared for by foreign caretakers who could not communicate with them in their own language. In 2015, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences included a special section of articles on topics such as possible genetic factors in loneliness, its clinical importance and effect on mortality, and the most effective ways to help the lonely. Just this January, Prime Minister Teresa May appointed a minister for loneliness in the U.K.
As for a few facts and figures particular to the U.S., in 2010, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) published an extensive report showing that 35 percent of 3,000 respondents reported significant loneliness. Other recent studies have estimated that up to 32 percent of adults experience loneliness, up to 7 percent intensely so. To get some sense of the magnitude of those percentages, with the current U.S. population approaching 327 million people, around 142 million might be lonely and around 23 million might be lonely to an intense degree — truly a vast number of suffering souls.
Researchers usually define loneliness as a perceived discrepancy between relationships a person desires and those he or she really has. It is often subdivided into categories of “emotional isolation,” when a person lacks one or more close confidants, and “social isolation,” when a person might have a few people they feel really close to, such as a spouse or close friend, but feel disconnected from other broader social groups, a classic example being a person who has moved across country with a spouse in pursuit of a new job. A person might remain emotionally close to the spouse but feel disconnected from a broader network of friends, co-workers, or perhaps fellow parishioners in the new location, at least for a time. Research in recent decades has shown significant increases in both of these realms.
Also, it is important to bear in mind that loneliness can affect virtually anyone at any time, from the young child without adequate parental attention, to the teen without friends or subjected to regular bullying, to the young adult away from home for the first time for college or a job, to the middle-aged victim of divorce, to an elderly person bereaved of their spouse and perhaps placed in a nursing home. It is worth keeping in mind that if you are lonely, you are clearly not alone!
Lopez: You make use of the lyrics “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” during the course of the book. In that context, do you think churches are doing something wrong here?
Vost: In the most literal sense, I argue that all people, lonely or not, ultimately come from God. Perhaps part of the reason there are so many lonely people today is that so many people have forgotten or outright deny this, adhering to the modern secular belief that we are all here simply by chance. If we don’t believe that we live and move and have our being through God, that he knew us even within the womb, we cannot experience the comfort that we are never truly alone, since God is always with us, nor will we fully grasp that importance of every person and heed Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Saul Bellow noted some years ago that a common belief among Christians in America is that faith is all about a personal relationship with Jesus, so we don’t really need the church. This kind of over-emphasis on individualism can render us less likely to spend time and empathize with lonely fellow believers. I think the common attitude today of people who talk about being “spiritual, but not religious” falls right along these lines, too.
I think our churches probably could do more to reach out to the lonely, though some parishes and congregations already do a good job of making people feel welcome and of inviting them to participate in various activities.
As for ourselves as individuals, I’ve always been impressed with the message in Saint Catherine of Siena’s Dialogues that we show our love of God through our love of neighbor, that he could have made us sufficient with everything we need in body and soul, but he wanted us to need each other so we could administer to each other all the graces and gifts he has given us. Such thinking would move us from “just me and Jesus” to “Jesus, neighbor, and self” and render us much more attentive to the needs of others, such as the needs of recognition and meaningful social connection.
Lopez: What’s different about a “Catholic” guide to Loneliness?
Vost: The book draws on the wisdom of Christianity in recognizing and helping us bear with or conquer the experience of loneliness. Even in the first book of the Bible, in the story of Adam and Eve, we read that it was not good for human beings to be alone, and God took action. In the history of the Catholic Church, countless theologians and saints have experienced and written about loneliness, how we can cope through virtue, cultivate an acceptance of times when we are alone through chosen periods of solitude, and how to offer up loneliness in joining it with the loneliness of Christ on the cross.
Lopez: One of your chapter titles is “The Virtues of Loneliness.” How is there any virtue in loneliness?
Vost: My main point in that chapter was that cultivation of the natural cardinal virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence, along with the God-given theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity can help us cope with and in some cases overcome loneliness. Along those lines, I borrowed most heavily from the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the virtues. Come to think of it, that chapter also included some modern psychological findings on the benefits of a deep interior faith in remaining undefeated by loneliness.
As for the question of whether there is actually in virtue in loneliness itself, here I borrowed mostly from the insights of Saint Catherine of Siena who wrote that virtues are best cultivated in us when they are tested through various trials. By experiencing and enduring the sufferings of loneliness, we may gain spiritual strength we had not possessed before our periods of suffering, if we hope and trust in God and bear in mind that he will not allow us to face struggles beyond our capacities to endure. I ask readers to think back on a time of their lives where they really suffered badly, but as they look back in time, would not give up that experience for the world, because of the lessons they learned. Loneliness can provide us opportunities to grow in a variety of virtues, from perseverance to compassion.
Lopez: How can one lighten the burden of another’s loneliness?
Vost: Well, a person need not be alone to feel lonely. We can feel lonely in the midst of the largest crowds if we do not feel connected with those around us. Not to single out the city, but Mark Twain once wrote of New York City as place “where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million people of his race.” We can come to feel like lonely strangers virtually anywhere, in a small town, in a parish, even in our own home, if we do not engage in reciprocal meaningful interaction with others.
We can all take steps to lighten the burden of even a complete stranger’s loneliness in all kinds of simple ways, from a smile in an elevator, to a greeting or a comment on the weather — a general recognition of another person’s presence and importance as a person. If we keep in mind that up to one-third of the people we come across in a given day might be battling loneliness, we become more attuned to the importance that simple gestures of courtesy and acknowledgement might mean to other people.
Such simple acts of reaching out to others can be an excellent therapy for people who are lonely themselves, if they can train themselves to do them.
Lopez: There seems to be a push in some circles for silence. I’ve noticed the numbers of people recently commenting on books such as Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence, somewhat longingly. How is this related to loneliness?
Vost: I recently read and enjoyed the cardinal’s book myself. I believe the silence he is talking about is a kind of focused solitude that trains us to turn off the endless chatter and distractions around us so we can more clearly hear the voice of God. Of course, God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we can withdraw at times from the noise around us we might become more attuned to our own need for God, as well as our neighbor’s needs, perhaps including our neighbor’s loneliness. If we can train ourselves to tolerate and embrace silence, stillness, and solitude, we can become more reflective on the issues that matter the most, such as acts of love toward those around us.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.