The Covid-19 pandemic spawned isolation and fear. Relationships waned as a result. But loneliness became a new and dangerous health hazard.
It still is, due to modern communication devices that shield us from face-to-face contact. Sit in a doctor’s waiting area, and nearly everyone is connected to an IPhone. People look at each other as if they want to start a conversation, but opt for the digital comfort of an IPhone or IPad.
I too am guilty. I am addressing boredom, not loneliness. So, I believe.
Some months ago, I was ensconced in a medical waiting room when I saw a friend, retired Episcopal Bishop Bud Shand, a personable spiritual leader. I put aside my digital crutch and spoke with him. Our conversation was easy and comfortable—and unusual these days.
What mattered was our friendship. Others in the spartan waiting space seemed surprised by our lively discourse. They also seemed a bit perturbed that we were interfering with their IPhone fixation. Ironic, isn’t it?
Loneliness is curable. Even when exacerbated by medical ailments that isolate a person. Family support and friends can mitigate he loneliness. Work ad activities are constructive aids. I do not recommend medical appointments as time fillers, though often unavoidable.
An enlightening article written a month ago by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times states,” Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more lethal than consuming six alcoholic drinks a day, according to the surgeon general of the United States. Dr. Vivek Murthy. Loneliness is more dangerous for health than obesity, he says—and, alas, we have been growing more lonely.”
Medical maladies tied to loneliness include depression and substance abuse, as well as heart disease, strokes, cancer, hypertension, dementia and suicide. Loneliness is stressful; biological effects follow. Inherently messy but necessary relationships provide a healthy antidote.
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved,” Mother Teresa said. She understood the human condition.
I am intrigued by Great Britain’s innovation approach to loneliness, illustrated by the appointment in 2018 of a government Minister of Loneliness. Mental wellness is a national priority, as it should be. During the past five years, the ministry has spent $100 million to support community meals as well as activities such as book clubs and poetry workshops to address the plague of loneliness.
Spread throughout the United Kingdom as “chatty benches” provided to anyone who wishes to speak with a stranger.
I applaud the concept, however simple it seems. Benches take on a new meaning, a “soft landing” that leads to more non-tech conversations and actual dialogue unfiltered by digital intervention. Neither wealth nor social class shut down conversations, since loneliness spares no one.
Imagine, if you will, chatty benches not only in park-like venues but on a busy sidewalk or parking lot or museum grounds. Further visualize persuading yourself to take dive into the unknown and beginning a conversation with “hello,” a simple but welcoming word.
If the British, known for their reserve, are willing to alleviate loneliness by talking with a stranger, then surely, we normally talkative
Americans can do the same. “Hello” is easy, leading to the weather, pets, family, sports and health.
I would suggest avoiding politics. It promotes discard. And more loneliness.
While I am not suggesting a federal department of loneliness—he surgeon general suffices—I do believe that we all should seek daily opportunities to chat. Just a few minutes help the heart and mind. It prevents severe illness.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.