Bishop’s Letter: I don’t want to be alone
Unlike the actress Greta Garbo who in the 1932 film ‘The Grand Hotel’ uttered her famous line ‘I want to be alone’, most of us don’t want to be alone. Yet many of us are. The evidence collated by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness suggests that over nine million adults are ‘often or always lonely’. Among them 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day and 3.6 million people over 65 say that television is their main form of company. More surprisingly, perhaps, many young people despite the prevalence of social media report that they are lonely. The Beatles song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ echoes in my mind:
‘All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?’
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can be surrounded by people and yet feel alone (equally you can be alone and not lonely). Loneliness is a mismatch between the ‘quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want’. Of course, and very sadly, some people are not just lonely but alone. Longer lives in which we out-live our friends, weaker and more dispersed family ties, less neighbourhood interaction, and so much more diminishes the bonds between us.
This week, as I write, the Prime Minister appointed Tracey Crouch MP as the ministerial lead on loneliness whose task is to keep the challenge of tackling loneliness firmly on the agenda across Whitehall. There will also be a new fund to support local activities. However, important as these actions are, the response must lie in our hands. Ultimately loneliness is not a matter for government but rather about each of us being good neighbours.
In the last few days I visited the ‘Seasonal Lunch’ that is held once a quarter in Heath and Reach near Leighton Buzzard. Two years ago the two Churchwardens and others at St Leonard’s Church got together to provide, four times a year, a free of charge lunch and companionship for the elderly and people living alone. Fourteen people came to the first meal. Last week there were fifty. Supported by local organisations and businesses this simple action was making a wonderful difference to people’s lives.
Last year I attended the 10th Anniversary celebrations of ‘Friends for Life’, the Befriending Service established by the churches in Bedford to provide volunteer visitors to those in Care Homes, especially those who normally receive no or few external visitors. Once again it is a positive response to social isolation.
And I could go on, and on! Around our Diocese congregations, thankfully, are doing similar things to reach out to those who are lonely; responding to that loneliness expressed in the cry of the Psalmist:
‘Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted’ (Psalm 25:16)
Yet, as the statistics provided by the Jo Cox Commission remind us, there is, so much more to do!
Bishop Richard, Bedford