Loneliness: “The Most Terrible Poverty”.


Loneliness has been in the news in an interesting way. The United Kingdom recently named a Minister of Loneliness, and other countries are considering the idea. Tracey Crouch is the Minister. She reminds us that, “there is no prejudice to loneliness in terms of who it effects … It can impact on anybody at anytime in their lives.” It respects no titles or boundaries such as age, gender, or professional background.

In naming Crouch to this position, Prime Minister Theresa May had this to say: “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

We can be cynical about such a political appointment. Yet, the reality is that all of us know loneliness. Loneliness can be temporary and short-lived. For instance, the young person in love may feel lonely when missing the beloved. Perhaps a person’s first time away from home and family can cause feelings of loneliness to surface. I remember my own experiences as a young person. Those experiences of being away for a short time served to strengthen me for the permanent move away.

But even now, often when I look at Facebook posts from friends and family, that kind of loneliness can raise itself. And despite my life experience, it’s always stressful to leave a known environment and start a new assignment in some place. Any reflective person knows transient loneliness and the feelings that accompany it. We all have our own techniques for dealing with it, both healthy and unhealthy.

But there is a much deeper and lasting kind of loneliness. Chronic loneliness can hit anyone, but it especially hits the elderly. Some of the factors contributing to it are the loss of a spouse, children moving on, retirement (or being let go) from meaningful labour, the death of friends and colleagues, bodily or cognitive diminishment, isolation, or being separated from loved ones by war or violence or social crises.

That’s the kind of loneliness that Mother Teresa describes: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

Pope Francis describes loneliness in terms of poverty. Here’s a sadly beautiful quote from him on the Feast of Ascension over two years ago.

 “At times like these, more than ever do we need the reasons of the heart, which alone can help us understand the mystery which embraces our loneliness. How much sadness we see in so many faces all around us! How many tears are shed every second in our world; each is different but together they form, as it were, an ocean of desolation that cries out for mercy, compassion and consolation. The bitterest tears are those caused by human evil: the tears of those who have seen a loved one violently torn from them; the tears of grandparents, mothers and fathers, children; eyes that keep staring at the sunset and find it hard to see the dawn of a new day … This is our poverty but also our grandeur: to plead for the consolation of God, who in his tenderness comes to wipe the tears from our eyes.”

Beautiful words! But it’s a strange beauty. Let’s remember to pray for and act for those in our midst who know loneliness.

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • John Montague
    Posted at 07:41h, 23 November Reply

    The most lonely time of my life was during high school. Neil Mc Neil High School had a toxic masculinity and my not being athletic left me without friends. Added to this was my family’s poverty which left me no time for extra curricular activities because I had to do part time work after school. I remember it was during this time that I started to pray in a conversation with Jesus, asking why I was so lonely. I think this was the beginning of a relationship with the Lord. Without faith I don’t know what I would have done.

    As I have aged, almost every year I feel less lonely. Probably its because I’ve learned how to reach out and make friends. Having a partner in life is the most important reason I don’t feel alone. Sometimes I feel lonely at Church when there is nobody there who talks to me, but when I look at the crucifix and express gratitude that its not as painful now as it was in childhood, I don’t feel lonely. I find gratitude helps, and also knowing that Jesus cares about me, even though I sometimes fail. I appreciate Doug McCarthy reminding me at every mass that we are loved sinners.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 09:38h, 23 November Reply

    Thank you Philip!

  • Jim Radde
    Posted at 11:27h, 23 November Reply

    Hello Philip,
    For many years I’ve belonged to a priest support group meeting monthly. Over the years
    I had never heard anyone claim the experience of loneliness. Then a young Mexican
    priest joined our group. The first time he met with us he spoke of his own loneliness.
    In so doing he gave the rest of us permission to speak of it as well.

    An important topic. Thank you.

    Jim Radde

  • Frances Cheung
    Posted at 17:34h, 23 November Reply

    Philip, thank you! Loneliness is like an ulcer in the heart. It bleeds and spreads without acknowledging or even worst by pretending.

  • Philip Shano
    Posted at 12:00h, 24 November Reply

    John and Jim, thanks so much for your reflections. John, I’ve been thinking about the students at St Mike’s these days. Let’s hope that good things emerge from the whole matter.

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