Strange as it may seem amid the frenetic shopping, the seasonal music and the rounds of holiday parties, there are some who are deeply lonely. They may or may not seem so, they may be among the elderly or adolescents, they may appear depressed or not, but they are indeed lonely. And lonely can be bad for one’s health.
Loneliness has lots of causes. For a widow or widower, the approach of the holidays makes more grievous the loss of a spouse. Holidays are typically family time, and one member is gone. Or perhaps a close friend has died and is sorely missed. For those who have outlived their contemporaries, the gaiety and excitement of the holidays are a sad contrast with their lives. Or with children and grandchildren scattered over three continents, it may not be possible to be together for the celebrations. Perhaps worst of all are those in unsatisfying relationships who are perceived to be coupled but are in reality painfully lonely.
Loneliness, health studies have shown, can cause increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, depression, accelerated cognitive decline and even trigger suicide. And in this world of electronic devices operating on the internet, even a phone call with the sound of a warm voice is now often replaced by a tidy and sanitized email or text message.
How are we to respond to such feelings of loneliness?
First is to be aware that those around us may not be so caught up in the spirit of the season. For those who have plenty, whether in worldly goods or in simple joy, this is the time for sharing. Sometimes it is not so obvious when others are hurting. If a neighbor is a shut-in, it is easy to guess that the person would like a visit, even a short one, or an errand run on their behalf. These are immediate solutions. But social isolation and loneliness are not necessarily the same. That neighbor may have few social connections but enjoy an existence rich with books, music or hobbies. On the other hand, loneliness is a subjective condition in which a person feels isolated, even if surrounded by people most of the time. That person is just as needy, or more so, for human interaction but that need may be harder to discern. Research at the University of California, San Francisco, reveals that “most lonely people are married, live with others and are not clinically depressed,” according to a recent article by Jane Brody in The New York Times.
Some more obvious remedies for those who are lonely or socially isolated to help themselves might be volunteering at a hospital or assisted living center, a soup kitchen or a nursery school. Giving to others in need brings its own rewards. Joining a group with shared interests — anything from quilting to trivial pursuit — can help. A book club or a class is a way to keep the mind engaged while perhaps finding others with whom to socialize. And the fail-safe solution for those who desire interaction with others is to get a dog. It is not possible to take a dog for its walk three times a day, day after day, and not get into conversation with someone along the way unless the walk is in the woods.
But back to how we can help others who cannot help themselves. It seems to me that one of the greatest compliments one human can give to another is the willingness to listen. This may sound easier than it really is. Many people practice mindfulness, being in the moment, meditation and so forth for their own enrichment. In order to listen to another person, to really hear them, one has to practice that skill too, until it becomes almost an art. We who live in our small villages, where people have more opportunity to connect with neighbors in the supermarket or at concerts or school baseball games, we are lucky enough, if we are so interested, to be available to listen to each other.
We can learn when we listen. And for the lonely, genuinely being heard is a balm.