So here I am in Vieques, a widower living alone with my daughters in the States, facing a birthday by my lonesome this week.
We are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness.
A recent Cigna survey of 20,000 adults found that nearly half of Americans suffer from loneliness, with young people aged 18 to 22 claiming to be the loneliest generation.
Being active on social media doesn’t help. Heavy users have a loneliness score close to people who never use it.
The United Kingdom, where nine million people say they are lonely, determined that loneliness is more dangerous than obesity. On the other hand, being socially well-connected is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death.
In response, the U. K. has instituted a “Campaign to End Loneliness.”
Loneliness is a big issue in Japan, too, which has the oldest population in the world. More than eighteen million adults—twice as many as thirty years ago—live alone.
The consequence of this has been a rise in kodokushi―dying alone and not being discovered for a long time. One estimate is that there are 30,000 of these lonely deaths a year. But companies that clean apartments when kodokushi are discovered say the number could be two or three times higher.
Psychologist Junko Okamoto dubs Japan the “loneliness superpower,” where people “don’t want to admit how unhappy they are.”
For Japan, part of the answer to loneliness is technology.
Sony’s Aibo robot dogs, for example, inspire such an emotional bond with their owners that some hold funerals when their robotic pet stops working.
A 2013 study found that thirty percent of Japanese men in their twenties and thirties had never dated. Gatebox developed an anime-inspired virtual reality companion, tailored toward younger men willing to settle for the company of a cute pseudo partner.
But government programs and virtual reality companions miss the point about loneliness.
In his book, Back To Sanity, Leeds University psychologist Steve Taylor says we mistake ourselves for individual, isolated beings who are trapped within our heads. To dwell on what's inside often underlines the loneliness of our existence.
The Cigna survey reinforces the social nature of humans and the importance of having communities. People who engage in frequent, meaningful, personal interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.
Rev. Mike Schmitz, who directs the Neumann Center at the University of Minnesota, takes us a step further. He echoes what philosopher Blaise Pascal famously wrote in his Penses, that all of humanity's problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room by ourselves.
“Unless you learn to be comfortable with being alone, no relationship will fill the void,” Schmitz says in his video blog.
Catholics view God as an exchange of love between father, son, and spirit—a community of love.
If it’s true that we are made in the image of God, then it follows that we are made for loving relationships.
Too often, when we feel the pain of loneliness, we distract ourselves. We self-medicate with diversions like alcohol, drugs, food, work—you name it.
Instead, Schmitz explains, we shouldn’t flee loneliness. It should be a motivator to move out of ourselves, to move our heart toward loving others.
He calls it learning to be lonely well.
So on Wednesday I’m taking six friends out to dinner. For my birthday this year, I’ll be the one giving gifts.
Evil exists only if you let it. If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my new novel, Billy of the Tulips, a sensitive boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity, now available in both print and Kindle from Amazon.