“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love.”
– Saint Teresa of Calcutta
I see it every day as I walk my dog. A mother pushing a stroller and ignoring her child‘s cries for attention in favor or her cell phone. Couples walking side-by-side, not talking but texting. No passing nod of acknowledgement to other walkers. The jogger so consumed with the music streaming through his headphones that he can’t be bothered to return a wave or a smile.
In a survey quoted in Psychology Today, by 2004, 25% of Americans had nobody to talk to, and 20% had only one confidant. That’s up from 10% and 15% respectively in 1985. How much have those numbers grown in the last 13 years along with addictions to Facebook, Instagram and the like, all with their anonymous friends and followers? I found it ironic when I heard a physician at a retirement seminar state that social media could keep retirees from being lonely.
Even those who aren’t wrapped up in the internet tend to remain uninvolved when they see people in need. Case in point:
- A neighbor who works in a busy industry shows signs of Alzheimer’s. Coworkers are relieved when she retires and never think about her again. When she is in an automobile accident, no one knows about it for three days, until a diligent nurse finds a neighbor’s number in the patient’s cell phone and calls so someone can care for the woman’s cat. The woman has worked with the same crew for thirteen years, was part of a music society for over ten years, has lived in the same house for decades, and yet she’s alone.
How did this happen? When I was growing up, neighbors knew each other. They knew each other’s names, and they understood at least something of the challenges faced by the households around them.
The man who lived next door to us was an alcoholic. More than once, as we left home, we would find Jack lying in the snow. He had fallen and couldn’t get up. My dad would get out of the car, haul him to his feet and help him back into his house. He knew the number for Jack’s brother and would alert him. And the old man, Gus, who lived around the corner and walked his dog every day. I would accompany him and listen to his stories about Danny’s latest tricks. I could get to his house by cutting through backyards.
We even knew those who were less friendly, like the elderly lady, Bertha, who lived halfway down the block. When we rode past her house on our bicycles, she would spray us with the hose. She didn’t like children. But Bertha would become almost kindly when she filled the bee holes in her front yard with vinegar. She would even let me watch.
Neighborhoods are still filled with Jacks and Guses and Berthas, but the social networks formed by stay-at-home moms are gone. Mass attendance has dropped, and with it, the sense of belonging to a community.
Jesus told us to love our neighbor. Too often we assume this means the nameless, faceless person represented by our favorite charity. Part with a few bucks and we’ve done our part. Or we leave their care in the hands of government agencies.
The first Christian communities grew by their example of courage, family, and love of the poor. They didn’t delegate. They got their hands dirty. It’s time for Christians to get their hands dirty again. It’s a simple as pausing to ask the parents next door how their child is doing in school, asking an elderly neighbor if he or she needs help with something around the house, or cleaning out the litter box for the lonely woman in the hospital.