This piece by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue appeared in the Credo section of The Times on 5 January 2019.
Do you remember that slogan often said in January, “A dog isn’t just for Christmas”? That applies even more strongly to people. We tend to be very good in the run-up to Christmas at giving to charity, sending cards to half-forgotten acquaintances, inviting unloved relatives for an annual get-together and even talking to neighbours for more than the usual time it takes to say, “Hello, how are you?” and not wait for a reply.
Now the season of goodwill is over, so too is our social patience. However, people are not just for Christmas. Amid the many problems in society, one of the most pervasive is loneliness.
It is not because the people concerned are pathetic — on the contrary, many are wonderfully talented or extraordinarily kind — but because of the situations in which they find themselves. These include going to work in a new area, being a single parent, being divorced, bereaved, unemployed, working alone at home, going to university, having mental health issues, suffering from a physical ailment that restricts your social life, being in an unhappy relationship.
There are 7.6 million one-person households in Britain today. There are also five million Britons who say that television is their main source of company.
Despite the vast numbers, the lonely can be invisible. As the Beatles reminded us, Eleanor Rigby died alone, along with her name and nobody came: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from . . . where do they all belong?”
Moreover, it is far from being a modern issue. At the start of the Book of Genesis, we are told that we are social animals and that it is not good for man to be alone (ii.18).
In addition, the Psalms frequently address times when we feel isolated, indicating that it was as much in evidence then as now. There is the powerful cry to God “Turn to me . . . for I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalm 25, 16), or the recognisable lament of the person struggling with the dark hours: “I lie awake. I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.” (Psalm 102, 7).
However, unlike other difficulties that can be hard to remedy, loneliness can be tackled relatively easily, and is an area where faith communities can make a real difference throughout the year.
One way is to encourage those experiencing loneliness to find the energy to break free. Ideally this would be to change the situation that leads to it, but if that is not possible, then to change the lifestyle and mental fences they have built around it.
This would start with small steps, gaining confidence in their ability to interact with others, and to be liked by them. It might entail volunteering in a charity shop, mentoring children, visiting a hospice or joining a walking group.
It can be hard to find the motivation, and easy to be put off by fear of rejection, so faith groups can be proactive in reaching out to people and helping them to feel part of the community.
This can mean visits or phone calls. It can also be lifts to events, either because they do not have transport or because they will not come alone, but will if someone accompanies them. And when they do come, we have to talk to them, not just to our friends.
There can be sports companions. Someone who takes a person living alone to a sports event they both enjoy, from football to bowls.
An intergenerational skills-swap can work wonders, by which, for instance, a teenager or someone in their thirties could use their skills (be it DIY or IT) for someone retired, and in return be taught that person’s skills (such as cooking or playing the piano).
As Jewish tradition holds: you show your love of God by the way you treat God’s creatures, your fellow human beings.
Looking after today’s Eleanor Rigby is within the grasp of all of us. She is waiting right now.