Second Sunday of Christmas
03 January 2021
Revd Barry Overend
Beat Sterchi is a Swiss writer best known for his 1983 award winning novel, The Cow. The story begins with Ambrosio who travels from his native Spain to Switzerland looking for a job as a cowman. As he enters a Swiss village we read: ‘Nothing moved. Only the water in the village fountain went on splashing. Ambrosio stood there, rooted to the spot. He looked down at his little battered suitcase, looked up at the people around, looked down again. In that one second he had become acquainted with loneliness.’ Acquainted with loneliness.
Back in 2017, a nationwide survey claimed that nine million people were acquainted with loneliness. Or, at least, that was the number of our fellow citizens who described themselves as being lonely all or
most of the time. This discovery prompted the researchers to dub loneliness, ‘the secret epidemic.’
If, like Donald Trump, we were to demand a recount, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find that the figure of nine million has recently risen beyond all estimates. And some of those who just a few weeks or months ago described themselves as lonely are no longer with us. That point was forcibly made by journalist Emma Hogan in her recent article in the Times under the headline, ‘Covid lockdowns turn loneliness into a killer.’
Years ago the French priest, Michel Quoist, captured the essence of loneliness in one of his celebrated ‘Prayers of Life.’ This particular prayer was called ‘I found Marcel alone.’ ‘It was about noon when I
knocked at his door. I found Marcel alone, still lying on the bed like a man with broken bones. His wife had left him. I missed the bunch of flowers on the mantlepiece, the powder and lipstick on the wash basin, the cloth on the table and the chairs properly arranged. The ash tray was filled to overflowing, shoes scattered on the floor, opened packages here and there, a rag on the armchair and the blinds closed. It was dark, dismal and stuffy. A presence was lacking!’
Michel Quoist wrote that prayer back in 1954, and Google tells me that in the mid fifties the world population stood at 2.7 billion. The latest estimate is 7.9 billion. Now, at the most simplistic level, you might suppose that the more people there are the less chance there is of feeling lonely. But, of course, that’s not the way it
works. Loneliness can’t be cured by simply crowding people together in high rise flats, busy streets and bingo halls. It is precisely in such places, packed with people, that acquaintance with loneliness can be most acutely felt.
It is similarly paradoxical that although world-wide, instant and constant communication is a wonder of the modern age, the sense of individual isolation is still widespread. On the one hand we can talk to the likes of Tim Peake, orbiting the earth in the Space Station, whereas on the other hand we have lonely souls unable to make contact with the people next door. And latterly, of course, there are those who have been forbidden to have meaningful contact even with their nearest and dearest.
As the Covid year progressed we
witnessed the anguish of elderly people trapped in isolation in care homes or their own homes, communicating of sorts with their loved ones through panes of glass. Such images are a perfect fit with the words of the poet R S Thomas who memorably described the lonely as those ‘waiting at life’s window.’ We’ve seen their sad faces peering out, haven’t we?
But it’s not just the elderly who have become acquainted with loneliness over the last nine months. Like the Covid pandemic, the silent epidemic of loneliness is no respecter of persons or age. That’s why the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge undertook research into the impact of the Covid crisis on parents with children under five years old. The results, released just before Christmas, showed that parental
loneliness has dramatically increased during the pandemic as parents have been cut off from friends and family. Predictably, those in the most deprived areas have fared the worst. But Covid is no respecter of place either. You can feel lonely in a posh residential area too. The media daily puts a figure on the rise in Covid infections, but it’s not so easy to measure the impact of loneliness on physical well-being and mental health and even on the will to live.
Of course, under more normal circumstances, there are times when we might actually want to be on our own, in our own space, enjoying our own company, getting away from it all. But solitude is one thing, loneliness is something else. Roy Orbison was right, ‘only the lonely know how it feels.’
When this Covid crisis abates I hope we will all be more aware, and more willing to do what we can to ease the pain of Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people – those for whom Solitaire is the only game in town. The Church will have an important role to play in this, as it always has done. I think we are sometimes so hung up on humility that we don’t give ourselves credit where credit is due. The churches’ record in relieving loneliness is a proud one.
With the roll out of the vaccine, 2021 is looking brighter. But sadly there are those who, in 2020, became so painfully acquainted with loneliness, waiting so long at life’s window, that they now want to depart, exchanging their isolation for angels and archangels and all the company, the company, of Heaven.