One of the modern plagues that, amid the glittering of our technological age, we did not manage to eradicate at all, is surely loneliness.
There may be hundred thousand reasons why we feel lonely. It can be because we feel controlled and rejected by others or having that scary feeling of not being unable to fit in somewhere. It can be because we are feeling heartbroken simply because we have lost someone who is so dear to us. Thus, the more time passes the more we are missing him and her. It also can be that the reason why we are feeling lonely is that, due to the wrong decisions we made in the past, we found ourselves on the other side of the life’s track. As I said already, the reasons for loneliness can multiply ad infinitum.
However, one thing stands clear: we all feel the need to reconnect, to feel that we belong to the family or community we were called to live in. Yet, something stands in the way and is impeding us from familiarizing ourselves with that environment which was so friendly to us and we to it. Let us be honest by affirming that life changes, people change and we are not an exception either. We change too.
Here I am reminded of what Sue Bourne, the Mental health correspondent for The Guardian, wrote about what we have been reflecting on:
“Why are we so lonely? Society has changed – our communities, villages, towns and cities are different. We move away from our support networks – for work, for training, for college, for university. If we have children we are usually no longer surrounded by our relatives. The company of babies and young children may be magical, but it can also make us feel lonely. Then vast numbers of us get divorced so we don’t have the companionship of a partner to go through life with. Losing your job or constantly having to move for work makes your rootless.”
All these life changes certainly leave their mark on us. It is so awful to feel being isolated, lacking social support, feeling invisible, or feeling that no one around would understand or dare to understand what you are going through! To add insult to injury, feeling humiliated by such nasty comments like you are no good or we don’t want you around is surely a big blow. Unfortunately, some people give you the sour glimpse of these destructive comments by treating you badly, obviously in a tacit and psychologically manipulative way. How sad when these controlling comportments happen! Why then we lament that people are getting more and more inward looking when we permit these kinds of appalling behaviours occurring both in society as well as in the Church and communities?
Life is continually showing us that we cannot let ourselves and people around us, feel unwanted or else get the impression that they are a misfit. Every person is unique and has his and her ways of going about life. Thus, simply imposing the “normal” standard of seeing things without any docility at all to an individual’s innovative way of living is simply enforcing exclusion all the more.
All in all, these reflections are gently leading me to conclude, with Fr. Roland Rolheiser OMI who in his famous and sold out book, The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of loneliness, states at the beginning of his insightful reflections on loneliness: “No person has ever walked our earth and been free from the pains of loneliness….To be human is to be lonely” (p. 3).
On Thursday September 5 in the liturgical calendar, we celebrated the feast of St. Teresa of Calcutta. This contemporary saint gave some very interesting clues of what loneliness is all about.
For Mother Teresa, “loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty”. In her view, the great poverty of loneliness is found in our families and communities. She says: “There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives – the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family”. Mother Teresa, who knew the Western World from cover to cover, said that “the greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for… There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” Most of all, thanks to her close contact with the sick, the lonely and the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa came up with a revolutionary existential hermeneutic of a particular passage from God’s Word. Thus, when commenting on the phrase found in Matthew 25: I was hungry and you gave me food (Matt 25:35), Mother says: “When Christ said: ‘I was hungry and you fed me,’ he didn’t mean only the hunger for bread and for food; he also meant the hunger to be loved. Jesus himself experienced this loneliness.”
In the final sections of Ronald Rolheiser’s book, The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of loneliness, the author tries to discover the potential value of loneliness as a catalyst in our lives as well as a journey towards a spirituality of loneliness. He writes: “What is needed is a spirituality of loneliness: a spirituality that differentiates among the various types of loneliness and offers certain directions within which we can move in order to turn it into a creative rather than destructive force in our lives” (p. 151).
In all her evangelical simplicity, Mother Teresa offers some very down-to-earth suggestions for combating the loneliness that envelopes us all nowadays. She suggests to us that when we encounter lonely people we are to “find them [and] love them”. She even tells us to shun away from judging them since, as she rightly advises, “if you judge people you do not have time to love them”. Furthermore, Mother encourages us to be close to the lonely by doing for them simple things with great love. As she says: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Finally, Mother spurs you and me to smile at these people and never give them a cold shoulder, throw at them a sarcastic comment or dart at them that deadly frown which strikes them in millions of pieces. She tells us: “Peace begins with a smile”. In a word, Mother Teresa’s approach can be encapsulated in her synoptic phrase: “We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love”.
These reflections lead me to conclude that in St. Teresa’s life and teachings there is the completion of what we find in the prophet Isaiah as foretold for the Messiah: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted (Ps 61:1). In practice, Mother Teresa is a valid coach in our times of loneliness we all live.
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap