The pandemic has left many people lonelier and even more isolated than before
On the first warm day of spring, some vagrants came out of their nooks and hideaways to congregate in the local park for fellowship. Several men, old and young, sat together at a stone picnic table, chatting, eating, and drinking beer or cheap wine early in the day.
During the frigid winter, shivering alone under cardboards or cheap tents, some guys used cheap government-supplied cell phones to keep them company. They’d watch a movie trailer, call a relative or friend, scroll a news media outlet for news that isn’t new anymore: same old story with different names, dates, and locations.
News reports can get macabre and threatening with millions of people dying from COVID and senseless mass shootings in schools and malls. That is why social media actually can make us all feel lonelier and even more isolated, with ten times worsening mental health, anger, and anxiety issues, according to recent reports.
During the year-long pandemic, the county library has been closed, so they can’t watch movies on computers. The senior center across the street, also closed, had free lunches and a soft sofa to sit on, sometimes a game of pool or ping pong. Its lounge library had puzzles and books to read. It used to have an evening men’s chorus singing barbershop tunes. AA meetings next door haven’t gathered for over a year. There’s nothing for these homeless men to do but sink into a deepening depression from the loneliness.
This morning I happened to be walking past when Luis, a 45-year-old man whom I hadn’t seen for a while, hailed me over. He roughs it in a nearby wooded area alongside a polluted running stream. He introduced me as a blogger to the others sitting there, then asked if I’d do a story about him, as I had done for others. I agreed and we moved to a nearby bench, sitting six feet apart to talk.
He began to tell me of his wretched childhood: of a drunken father who beat him, then died early; of his first job as a shipping clerk. He skipped over embarrassing details of why he couldn’t hold down a good job. “It was a good paying job, but I had to leave.” Others I’ve spoken with have said the same.
He was about to continue with his bio when along came a tall young man with a military physique. He had a full beard and bushy unkempt hair over his ears, and he pushed a shopping cart filled with plastic bags stuffed with his belongings. He seemed in a daze and looked like a wannabe terrorist, definitely not someone to come across alone on a dark night. He boldly sat down between us, uninvited.
I sensed that Luis didn’t like the intrusion to our privacy. He stood, gestured that our interview was over for now, and abruptly departed. The newcomer as well as Luis desperately needed face-to-face communication, not a virtual substitute on phone video. Continuing my walk, I pondered the grand illusion of fake intimate connectedness offered by modern technology. It offers no easy fix for the homeless who are poised at the edge of insanity and suicide for lack of intimacy.
I was reminded of a conversation from a few months back with a fidgety former football star, another victim of loneliness. He clung to a bottle of Corona beer to numb his pain, though his estranged wife and daughter lived just around the corner. I said that I’d lived alone for 50 years. In a slurred voice, he asked me if I’d ever gotten lonely. I told him, sometimes lonesome but not the desperate loneliness of past years. That all changed for me during my ten-year pilgrimage, searching for God in all the wrong places except here in my heart.
He seemed to perk up for a while, as if he saw some hope, then sank back into a stupor. It was getting dark with a cold drizzle, so I had to leave him talking to himself, or to some pal he imagined was sitting beside him. In the morning he was found dead of an apparent heart attack, laying stiff on the grass, hugging that beer bottle as his comforter and companion. Next day, I grieved with his family.
From that experience it dawned on me that humankind has a profound horror of aloneness. Since Adam’s first yearning for Eve, we have sought God in the realm of our five carnal senses. We seek Him in social gatherings of all kinds, in fun parties with food and drink, in games and sports, in novels and movies. But only God can satisfy that deep restlessness, that God-shaped hole in the heart. St. Augustine states it well: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
The nineteenth century novelist Balzac wrote, “And of all kinds of aloneness, moral aloneness is the most terrible.… The first thought of man, be he a leper or a prisoner, a sinner or an invalid, is to have a companion of his fate. In order to satisfy this drive which is life itself, he applies all his strength and all his power and energy to achieve this during his whole life” (from The Inventor’s Suffering).
I recall the tragic despondency I felt before my ten-year pilgrimage. Was it because I had resorted to all the illusive pursuits and transient comforts of this world? I slipped into a dark suicidal desperation. My last-hope solution was to cling to Christ for dear life. Because I acted on His word in Scripture, Christ took pity on me and sent the Holy Spirit that He promised as a comforter and companion, to dwell with me evermore (cf. John 14:16).
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