A perfect storm of three related coincidences this week has unnerved my until-now comfortable persona as a single, widowed man.
First was The New York Times story this week about Britain’s growing awareness of loneliness as a serious public health issue. Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. Loneliness now eclipses obesity as a predictor of early death.
This is a situation of significance because roughly one in three people older than 65 lives alone. Fully half of Americans older than 85 live alone.
John T. Cacioppo, a professor at the University of Chicago who’s been studying loneliness since the 1990s, compares loneliness to thirst, hunger or pain. “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” he says.
The second coincidence was the publication of a new book titled The Oxford Pictures, demonstrating that loneliness is not the province of only the elderly.
Between 1968 and 1978, photographer Paddy Summerfield captured images of Oxford students in various states of isolation and uncertainty—as in his photo above. What he sensed on the university campus was an atmosphere that mirrored how he, as a young man, felt about his own life when he took the photographs:
I was always outside everything. Often, I sensed a loneliness in the students I photographed. We were all lonely together.
The third component of my perfect storm was a conversation during which I suddenly realized that I have no friends to call on the spur of the moment and ask, “How about dinner tonight?” or “Feel like a movie?”
We’re socialized at an early age about the critical importance of having friends. Consider this childhood ditty:
There are big ships,
There are small ships,
There are gold ships,
There are silver ships.
But there is no ship like friendship.
Even before we’ve grown too big for the sandbox, we taste the devastation of being told by an irate playmate, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore!” We accept that “there is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures,” as Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre.
But it may take a lifetime of experience to differentiate a playmate from a friend.
I now feel in my bones, for example, my friendship with Vic. We were altar servers together in grade school, attended secondary school together, worked at The New York Daily News together, enjoyed simply driving around the New Jersey shore together on summer nights with hardly a word needed. He lives some 1,500 miles away these days, but all we have to do is pick up the phone and again be back together, with the summer breeze blowing into the open car windows and ruffling our hair.
I have been counseled that to elude loneliness at this point in my life I need to get involved in an activity or group where I can “make new friends” because almost all my familiars live far away—New York, Puerto Rico, California, Florida, Oregon.
So I’m exploring local church groups, library programs, the senior center, Hospice, The Manhood Project, Audubon, the Center for Coastal Studies.
But will doing this yield friends—or just playmates? Can I really expect to find at a senior center social a friendship like the deep, decades-long relationship I had with my wife? One that met Aristotle’s definition of friendship as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies?”
She expressed our bond in the birthday card she gave me just weeks before she died:
It’s the best feeling knowing there’s a strong, gentle hand that fits mine perfectly, and all I have to do is reach out and take it to feel safe, warm and loved.
All my love,
Gaining future playmates for social company may be my “reward for finding one another out,” as C. S. Lewis noted. But only in friendship do we possess “the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”