“You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have eyes to see” Mother Teresa profoundly remarks in this video (at about 2:20). She explains that, “Material poverty you can always satisfy with material. The unwanted, the unloved, the uncared, the forgotten, the lonely: this is much greater poverty” (at 4:15).
There are many that are unwanted in the US and other First World countries: the handicapped, the elderly, the 123 IVF babies aborted just because they had Down syndrome. However, there is another group of people that are particularly at risk for loneliness and constitute the fastest growing household type in the United States: single people under 65 years.
Lack of community and social interaction is bad for our health, as many studies show. “Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year” — yet trends over the last 25 years have shown a 58% drop in attending club meetings, a 43% drop in family dinners and a 35% drop in having friends over, as Prof. Robert Putnam has written in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
The Stanford News Service’s Kenneth M. Dixon writes, “The world is more connected than ever before, but people spend less time in person with those they care about. With regards to social interactions, quantity has replaced quality.” I wonder, is this disconnectedness also linked to the growing number of single people? Is it not only more difficult to form stable, long-lasting friendships, as it is more difficult to date and get married?
One thing seems clear: singles are at a higher risk for depression and they are one of the groups perhaps most affected by this disconnectedness. Could it be that many singles feel lonely because of not having a primary family unit and, in many cases, a close-knit community? Could it be that many of them feel rejected because they’d like to get married and sometimes fear the problem is theirs? What can we do for this Calcutta in our own country?
Blessed Mother Teresa also said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” The Catholic Church is described as a body, Jesus’ ministry based on meals and an intimate group of friends, and we are explicitly modeled for and called to communion. God is an exchange of love between three Persons and we are called to enter into that communion with Him and with others, starting here on earth and fully in heaven.
How does this look in reality and for singles? I wish some things could be preserved or brought back from the past: more intergenerational mingling, more family and community gatherings, more local and relational and less digital and virtual. Fifty years ago in Portugal, community life revolved around parish events and local dances. Nowadays, your chances of seeing young people are much higher if you go to nightclubs and bars than if you go to a parish event or anything local.
Moreover, “Internet use is replacing face-to-face interactions without replacing the benefits,” writes Dixon. Having a heart-to-heart conversation with another is not the same as an online conversation, and neither is dating, but both are becoming more commonplace in society, especially among teenagers.
With this displacement of affection from person-to-person to persona-to-persona, how can we create a real interpersonal relationships grounded in love? How can we love singles more? How can we as Catholics combat the loneliness that comes with a more disconnected society? I would say singles and non-singles are called to be more connected and to promote “connectivity.”
More local: Jesus’ ministry was a very physical and concrete one, healing through touch and with his family and friends. Catholics should be the first to support local communities, local commerce, local culture and local friendship.
“Do we know who our own poor are? Do we know our neighbor, the poor of our own area? It is so easy for us to talk and talk about the poor of other places. Very often we have the suffering, we have the lonely, we have the people – old, unwanted, feeling miserable – and they are near us and we don’t even know them. We have no time to smile at them.” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light)
More personal and relational: What are we really spending our time on? How much do we value the relationships in our life, creating new ones and maintaining the old ones? It helps me to think if I had a near-death accident, and was confined to a hospital bed, who are the people that would spend time with me there and how am I making time for them now?
“As God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity, so also ‘it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without bond or link between them, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.’ So from the beginning of salvation history He has chosen men not just as individuals but as members of a certain community.” (Pope John Paul II, Gaudium et Spes)
More social: Married people, make an effort to maintain your friendships and family relationships. Don’t close in on your spouse and primary family.
“The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1879)
More openness and depth in friendships: Vulnerability is difficult, but according to this researcher, “In order for connection to happen, we have to let ourselves be seen and really be seen.”
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’ – C.S. Lewis
This article originally appeared at Ignitum Today and is reprinted with permission.