Loneliness is on the rise in our society. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, reports of loneliness have skyrocketed, with 1 in 3 Americans, and over 60% of young adults, having felt “seriously lonely” over the past year. According to one study, 3 in 5 people report feeling left out, poorly understood, or lacking companionship since the start of the pandemic.
But the problem of widespread loneliness did not start with the coronavirus. Rates of loneliness have been steadily increasing for years, leading some to claim that we are living through an epidemic of isolation. Studies show that loneliness is having a significant impact on our mental and physical health in a host of ways, including contributing to higher rates of anxiety, depression, heart disease, substance abuse, and domestic abuse.
The truth is that we sense the rising rates of loneliness even without the numbers. So many people seem to be struggling with a deep feeling of disconnectedness, despite the myriad of avenues at our fingertips for staying in touch. We are in contact with each other all day long – texting, voicenoting, chatting, facetiming, watching clips, posting and responding to posts – yet an incredibly high number of people report feeling like no one really sees or knows them. The abundance of channels for digital contact does not seem to be solving, and perhaps is even exacerbating, a pervasive sense of social isolation in our community, even among those closest to us.
The Need to Share
This widespread sense of alienation comes at a time when we seem to have more to say than ever. We no longer live in an era when children are meant to be seen but not heard, nor are adults expected to endure hardship in silence as did many of our parents and grandparents. We have a better understanding of the need to talk with people when processing things or coping with challenges. We know about the benefits of involving people in the happenings of our lives and sharing with them our feelings and thoughts.
We also have an expanded language for articulating our experience compared to a generation or two ago. Terms such as self-awareness, personal exploration, reflection, and mindfulness are now part of the mainstream parlance. The number of self-help books, online talks, podcasts, and articles aimed at helping us understand and express ourselves is staggering. I often marvel at how many people come to therapy nowadays equipped with a detailed description of their emotional struggles, professional jargon and all.
In sum, it seems that we have a greater need to share without feeling like we have anyone to talk to. So where is everybody?
To find a remedy for loneliness, we must first define what it is. For starters, loneliness is not the same as being alone. The ability to spend time with ourselves, often referred to as the art of solitude, is actually associated with many positive qualities, including thoughtfulness, enhanced concentration, independent thinking, improved decision-making, and greater wisdom (we’ll explore the practice of solitude in a future post). Learning to occasionally be by ourselves in a healthy and productive way is an important component of character development for many.
The pain of loneliness, by contrast, is quite a different animal. At its core, loneliness is the feeling that I have a lot going on and no one but me really knows about it. It is an agonizing awareness that my life is overflowing with events, thoughts, feelings, questions, observations, doubts – and yet I’m the only one around to hold it all. This kind of loneliness is akin to what psychiatrist Irvin Yalom (1980) describes as Interpersonal and Existential Isolation, whereby we feel cut off from others and all alone in the world. We look around at everyone going about their business, but there seems to be an invisible barrier between us and them. They may physically see us, but we don’t feel seen at all. It’s like we are living in our own little world where we are the only inhabitant. We long to be understood but worry that even if we share our thoughts and feelings with others, no one will ever really “get it.”
We all need to have someone in our lives who cares and is interested in understanding what is happening with us. We need to know that while we are traveling through the maze of life, there is someone to whom we can express our joys, fears, triumphs, and insecurities. We need a place to turn where we feel safe and seen, where we can be open and vulnerable in a real way. This is the remedy for loneliness.
4 Ingredients for Solving Loneliness
Climbing out of the hole of loneliness is possible, but it requires a certain type of relationship, one that contains the following 4 ingredients:
- The willingness to open up and share what you are going through
- Another individual who can listen and give you their undivided attention
- A place to sit and be together
- Uninterrupted time
In today’s rushed society, it can be difficult to carve out the time and space necessary for these kinds of connective conversations. And, let’s face it, we are not always great at giving each other our undivided attention. We’re more used to sound bites and quick one-liners, not the kind of back and forth dialogue that is needed to bring a person out of the pit of isolation.
Fortunately, we Jews have been blessed with Pesach, a holiday that presents us with two essential pathways for breaking out of loneliness. Let’s take a look.
Pesach: The World of Storytelling
Every Erev Pesach, we are commanded to bring a unique offering, the Korban Pesach. This sacrificial lamb, which is eaten on seder night along with matzah and marror, stands out because it is the only example in our tradition of an offering that must be consumed b’chabura, as a group. The Rambam (Hilchot Korban Pesach 9:1) codifies that while eating the Korban Pesach one may not leave the place of gathering or even take the meat outside his or her group. The laws surrounding the consumption of the Korban Pesach make it clear that the environment is meant to be one of people sitting together for an extended period of time, where everyone is present and no one has anywhere else to go.
Precisely at this time is when the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim is told. As everyone sits together, we begin to explain what we went through as a people, bringing the story of our nation’s exodus to life through the details and anecdotes we share with each other. We give our children a vivid mental picture of what it was like to be in Egypt during the plagues, and how we were saved in dramatic fashion while our enemies met their demise. We bring back the collective memories that have been passed down for generations, the dark times and miraculous salvation our forefathers experienced. We explain all this not with dry facts alone, but with the flare of storytelling and imagination.
Telling Your Story
Telling the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim sets the tone for the rest of the night, and for the rest of Pesach. Our nation’s exodus is a prototype for each of our personal journeys from crisis to redemption. No one travels through life without facing challenges that seem insurmountable at times; we all have a tale to tell. For some the salvation has already occured and for others the affliction still endures, but all of us are stationed somewhere along the line of personal hardship and deliverance.
The atmosphere of storytelling on Pesach may be the reason for the accounts we hear of elderly family members, including Holocaust survivors, who choose to share their personal story of redemption over the course of the Pesach holiday. Having been primed for storytelling, they sense an opportunity to relay their own story as well. It is often on Pesach that we discover another layer of the people closest to use – the incredible stories of struggle and triumph that even “regular” people have endured.
But sharing our narrative need not be reserved for those above a certain age. Each of us has a story, regardless of how mundane or uneventful it may seem, and it is the telling of this story that can stave off the pangs of loneliness. The truth is that when you get into the details, no one’s story is boring. We all have something to share if we allow ourselves to open up and share our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives with others. This is how we can bring ourselves out of our own closed world and into a deeper, more intimate bond with those around us. This is the first avenue for healing loneliness that Pesach brings.
The second Pesach pathway for combating loneliness is not social, but spiritual. Pesach is the holiday on which we focus on deepening our emunah. Emunah is commonly translated as “belief in Hashem,” but according to Rabbi Leuchter, it is actually much more than that. Emunah is best translated as the belief that Hashem is interested in my life. It means truly believing that what I do matters to Him, that He cares about all the details of my journey, and that He is invested in me living out my story to its fullest.
On Pesach, Hashem inserted Himself into our national story in an obvious way. He made it clear that He is interested in what happens to us and that we play a critical role in how history unfolds. But He also showed up in each of our individual lives as well. There is a well-known Midrash that after the crossing of the Red Sea, Hashem made sure that each Jew saw the body of his or her Egyptian taskmaster washed up on the shore. The message was that Hashem had been keeping track of where we’d each been – shackled for years by this particular slave driver. He wanted us to know that He was paying attention and cared about our unfolding story.
This event was deeply personal in nature. While we had just become a nation, we had also each been given back our own identity. At that moment, we knew with absolute clarity that Hashem was tuned in to our individual journey, that He cared deeply about what would happen to us, and that He wanted us to continue moving forward.
The knowledge that we are never truly alone and that Hashem cares about the details of our story is a powerful tool in the fight against loneliness. As the Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Ahavas Hashem 3:5) beautifully describes, Hashem can “be your friend when you are alone and sit with you when you are in the desert… When a place is empty of people, it will feel as if it is full in your eyes. You will not be bored even when people are not with you.” Hashem is always tuned in to what is happening in our lives. We need only turn to Him with the firm belief that He is listening and deeply cares about us.
Becoming a Part of Each Other’s Stories
This is the two-pronged Pesach approach to battling loneliness: telling our story to others and trusting that Hashem is interested in every detail. This is the gift we are given on Pesach, and one that we can give others as well. Each of us will have the chance at some point over the coming holiday to be a person with whom someone else shares their story. Let’s tune in to this opportunity and make ourselves available to help someone else climb out of isolation. In this way we can be part of each other’s healing process, extending a hand to a friend or family member who may be feeling cutoff from others.
In closing, the Talmud in Shabbat 105b relates that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is referred to as an “el zar,” a “god of alienation” within a person. Being alienated is a function of forces in the world, many of them internal, that wish to estrange us from one another. We must not allow that to happen, but rather to work towards bringing the invisible gap between us. On Pesach, we have an opportunity to come together socially and spiritually by choosing to experience the holiday to its fullest and become a part of each other’s stories.