Confronting today’s plague: the epidemic of loneliness

Confronting today’s plague: the epidemic of loneliness

Rabbi Paul Kerbel
Rabbi Paul Kerbel

I love life and I love the life I have led. There are things I wish I had done differently; they are decisions I didn’t make or opportunities I have missed — we all have seen that in our lives. But there is one thing that deeply concerns me about our world today: I believe that one of the greatest problems we face is the plague of loneliness.

Hardly a day goes by without a new study that shows that along with our ever-growing connectedness through social media, there is actually an increase in people’s feelings of loneliness and a decrease in social interaction in our lives.

All of us have experienced loneliness. As a child and teenager, my family moved five times before my 18th birthday. I never started and finished the same school until I went to college. That repeated experience, starting in a new school and a new community, having to make all new friends, and other life changes — the death of a dear friend or family member, losing friends and acquaintances due to moves and time and distance — all can cause individuals to feel lonely.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a famous passage that says we are:

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak to each other in passing.

Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;

So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak to one another,

Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

From “The Lonely Crowd,” a path-breaking 1950 study by David Reisman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney; to Robert Putnam’s classic work, “Bowling Alone” (2000); to “The Jew Within” (1998), a study by Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Arnold M. Eisen and sociologist Steven M. Cohen, we see a startling pattern: With each year and each generation, people are becoming more and more disconnected. People belong to fewer communal and civic organizations and feel more alone in our lives than ever before.

A recent cartoon read:

LONELINESS: The State of Feeling Sad or Deserted Due to Isolation

Loneliness is:

No emails in the inbox …

No friends on Facebook …

No retweets by anyone …

No comments on the blog …

I would like to suggest three strategies to dispel loneliness. The first two are somewhat contradictory.

  • One way of overcoming loneliness is to be capable of being alone more. We are too dependent on others and social media to allow ourselves to read a book, write a letter, just sit and think. Each of us needs to know our true selves and be comfortable spending time alone.
  • The second strategy is found in five words in the “Pirkei Avot,” “Ethics of the Fathers”: “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh.” “All Jews are responsible for one another.” Judaism was designed to be practiced not in isolation, but as part of a community. By belonging to a congregation, by participating as a volunteer with the Jewish federation, Jewish Family Service, JCC, or any of the worthy Jewish nonprofit organizations, we show our concern for others and help to make our world a better place.
  • For the third strategy, we can turn to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who in 1976 wrote the book “Man Is Not Alone.” Man is not alone because we have God. One of my favorite songs, “Esa Einai,” is by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, its lyrics taken from Psalm 121. “From where does my help come?” he sings. “My help comes from the Lord/who made heaven and earth.” We are not alone. God is with us. Our relationship with God can touch us, enrich us, and help us transcend to a new level of spirituality.
  • Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote a beautiful prayer adapted from “Likrat Shabbat,” in which he says, “We cannot merely pray to You, O God,” to dispel all manner of evil and sin from the world, and concludes, “Therefore we pray to You instead, O God/ For strength, determination, and willpower/ To do instead of just to pray/ To become instead of merely to wish.”

Dear friends, the destiny of our world is in your hands. With God’s blessings and our own hard work, we can create stronger and more caring communities and eliminate loneliness. Action, giving, involvement, volunteerism, and — faith in God. These provide the strategies we need to confront the loneliness we feel in our lives.

Shanah tovah; may we all be privileged to have a year of the health, happiness, and blessings we deserve.

Rabbi Paul David Kerbel is the religious leader of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford.

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