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Loneliness New Year’s Weekend 2024

Did you read where Dr. Ruth Westheimer has a new job?  At the age of 95, she was just appointed as New York’s first “loneliness ambassador.”  I’m not sure exactly what the job entails or how she is going to go about fulfilling her responsibilities, but the governor said that, “As New York works to fight the loneliness epidemic, some help from Honorary Ambassador Ruth Westheimer is just what the doctor ordered.” The loneliness epidemic, indeed.

The US Surgeon General addressed the same concern the very next day right here at ASU, noting that “. . . the vast majority of young Americans. . . often experience feelings of loneliness and isolation, which is a common thread. . . at many different universities.”  A recent ASU survey found that a stunning 80% “of students feel they have been unable to form meaningful relationships.”  It’s not just a problem for young people  A national study found that “one-quarter of adults 65 years and older are considered socially isolated, and one-third of adults 45 and older are experiencing loneliness, meaning, according to the study, that they felt alone regardless of the amount of social contact they had.”  Loneliness is a subjective experience and therefore hard to define or measure.  It might be surprising to learn that many people who look like they have lots of friends, in fact feel quite lonely.  

Researcher Jeremy Nobel invites us to expand our definition of loneliness- “When most people think of the feeling, they think of what Nobel calls psychological or interpersonal loneliness. “Like, ‘Do I have a friend? Do I have someone I can tell my troubles to?’” he says. But there’s also existential loneliness: “Do I fit into the universe? Does my life have any meaning, purpose, weight, valence, mission?” He finds such questions particularly troublesome for 18- to 24-year-olds, who are, studies have shown, the loneliest group in the country. The third type of loneliness is societal: “If I enter a room, is my arrival both anticipated and welcomed?”” Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, right?  

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-expanding intrusion of social media, it’s no wonder that we need a Loneliness Ambassador!  Social media was supposed to be a force to connect us, yet too often it has had the opposite effect.  Loneliness is exacerbated by changes in our lives, from losing a job to loss of transportation, to changes in our physical and mental health.

When people ask (psychiatrist)  Robert Waldinger how to improve social relationships, he emphasizes the need to be active. “It’s being the one to reach out,” he says, even when that’s hard to do. “If you’re feeling worse about yourself or about your life, it can be hard to say, ‘I’m going to call up that friend I haven’t seen in a while.’”

Not so easy to do, yet being a joiner is one of the best ways to overcome loneliness.  And the great news is that being part of a religious community- like Temple Chai, for example, can help us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves and provide a connection to meaningful values.  And- it reinforces an important part of cultivating relationships- being willing to remain friends with folks who are less than perfect and who may even have opinions that differ from our own!

I recently read a column by Paul Wesslund entitled, “In Search of Something Like Church, Americans Are Lonelier than Ever.”  He wonders why we still frequent a favorite restaurant after a less than perfect experience and stay loyal to teams “despite a series of boneheaded plays,” yet we are ready to end relationships over differences in perspective.  

He describes his experience at church- “Each week I get to listen to choral (and organ) music I don’t hear anywhere else. I see a group of friends who gather on a moment’s notice for family celebrations or tragedies, to bring food and just be there.  I get to know that I’m part of a community that regularly helps. . . So I choose to stay because no person-or institution- is perfect.”  What a great attitude and what rich rewards he reaps.”  Having a sense of meaning and purpose, it turns out, is an antidote to loneliness and a foundation of spiritual life.

The holiday season can impact our feelings of loneliness in both positive and negative ways.  While it can be great to spend time with family and friends, the increased stress on time and money, the disruption to our routines, and our sense of exclusion while we perceive that others have full social calendars, mean that this is a time of the year when we need to renew our commitment to maintaining and building our sense of support and connection. As we approach the secular new year, what a great time to reflect on how we can expand our relationships and counter any feelings of loneliness.

Friendship, it has been said, makes our spirits soar.  A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.  How blessed we are to sing together.

As the Torah begins, in the book of Genesis, we get less than 50 verses into the text before God figures out that it is not good for humans to be alone.  (Gn. 2:18)  We are designed to be in community, to be with people. 

How blessed we are to be a part of the amazing community here at Temple Chai. 

We are not alone, we have each other.  

 1) AZ Republic, Nov. 12, 2023, p. 14A

 2) AZ Republic, Nov. 15, 2023, p 4A

 3) AZ Republic, op. cit.

 5) Current Psychiatry, “Loneliness:  How Psychiatry Can Help,” Vol. 21, No. 5, p. 51

 6) Harvard Magazine, op. cit.

 7) AZ Republic, October 11, 2023, p. 5B

New Year's Eve 2024

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