The poverty of loneliness

Mother Teresa devoted her life to serving the poor and destitute around the world. She spent many years in Calcutta, India where she founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation devoted to helping those in great need.

Mother Teresa observed that the greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is the poverty of loneliness.

          “Loneliness and the feeling of being unloved is the most terrible poverty.”

A national survey by Lifeline this month revealed 60 per cent of Australians often feel lonely and more than 82 percent believe loneliness is increasing.

Tim Costello was CEO of World Vision Australia for 13 years. He says,

“We’re “connected” via social media, yet anxiety, fear, depression, suicide rates and loneliness – all symptoms of disconnection – are at an all-time high. Not even in our churches are we immune from the terrible poverty of loneliness.”

Loneliness is a feeling of sadness or distress about being by yourself or feeling disconnected from the world around you. It may be felt more over a long period of time. Feeling lonely doesn’t have to mean that you’re just physically alone. Some people feel lonely even when they’re in a crowded room of people or at a party.

Loneliness is ‘the absence of a needed relationship.’ It means that…

When we are anxious we need someone who is re-assuring.

When we are feeling agitated we need someone who is calming.

When we are fearful we need someone who is courageous.

When we are depressed we need someone who can inspire.

When we are feeling discouraged we need someone who can affirm.

When we are lonely we need someone who is present.

Loneliness is ‘the absence of presence.’ It is when someone we care about is missing. It is living in a world full of empty chairs. It is the perception you are not understood by others. It is the lack of meaningful relationships.

There is growing scientific evidence highlighting the negative consequences of loneliness for physical and mental health.

People who are living with mental illness are particularly prone to feeling lonely. This can be a symptom of the illness itself or particular things that make it hard to make friends or get out and about. Anxiety, in particular, can make it difficult to make friends and meet new people.

But is loneliness akin to being alone? Dr Bill Webster suggests that even though ‘loneliness’ and ‘aloneness’ have the same linguistic root, they are ‘psychologically’ different. It is possible to be alone without being lonely.

Paul Tillich says, “Loneliness can only be overcome by those who can bear solitude.”

When we have a significant loss our confidence is shaken. Our sense of equilibrium is disturbed.  We feel alienated from ourselves. We feel uncertain about our ability to pull through.

Aloneness involves a relationship with oneself. It is having the assurance that you have the resources to survive. It is being comfortable in your own company. It is being confident in who you are.

When we experience a significant loss, like a suicide, people leave us alone, they avoid us. We feel abandoned. We feel as though no-one understands. We feel adrift, disconnected, with no clear sense of where life is taking us. There is loneliness. Someone we care deeply about is no longer a part of our daily experience. Life doesn’t look the same. The way forward appears daunting.

Mother Teresa reminds us,

“We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love.”

Loneliness is far more than a social misfortune. It is a significant problem that leads to a vast amount of human suffering and unfulfilled human potential. We are all part of the solution.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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