Monday, September 12, 2016

Loneliness in the Community

I am working on an article that will deal with many aspects of loneliness in the community.  The material below should be considered a draft of a work in progress.  It is the first part of the study.  I will still need to do a lot more research.  Please give me ideas, comments and stories. 


Loneliness and The Jewish Community

By Daniel D. Stuhlman (MS LS, MHL, DHL)  

אלקים ברא אתו זכר ונקבה ברא אתם. ויברך אתם אלקים ... פרו ורבו מלאו את הארץ

God created people both male and together. God blessed them and said be fruitful and multiply.
Genesis 1:27-28
לא טוב היות האדם לבדו אעשה לו עזר כנגדו
It is not good that the man (Adam) should be alone.  I will create a helpmate (a partner) for him.
Genesis 2:18

The book of Genesis in the two stories of creation recognizes the need for companionship and partnership to make this world work.  A man by himself is not complete.  Together men and women are partners in first commandment to be fruitful and multiply.  The people are created to continue the Divine creation of the world.

It is no small wonder that we have a society based on community. In order to have a society people have to learn to give up part of the self to gain the greater benefits of partnerships and community.  No one person can do everything.  The Torah starts us thinking about society, but reality hits us saying that people have a hard time peacefully working together.  In Devarim 48:18, Moshe appoints judges and officers to administer and adjudicate civil laws and resolve disagreements. God’s plan is for a society, not loneliness.  Mankind is made to be social, but finding partnerships is hard work.  Why then are people lonely?  Why do some people feel left out?

This article will attempt to explain what loneliness is, describe the types of loneliness in the community and attempt to present ideas on how to help people less lonely and more connected to partners and communities.  

Here’s a list of events that I attended in the past couple of weeks, a wedding, brit milah celebrations, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, shevah brachot,  and Shabbat meals.  All of these have family orientation in common. Our community is great for sharing happy and family events.  We also share sad events such as funerals and remembering those we have lost.  That is the situation.  Not everyone has a happy family to share time with.  Not everyone has a partner or family support system. The synagogue and community events are often family events or perceived by singles as family events.  Singles (never married), divorced, widowed, newcomers to the community, empty nesters are all subject to loneliness. Even married people can feel lonely.  People who have active families and are involved with the community have a hard time understanding what it means to be lonely.  The community may see an active shul member with a high powered profession and wonder how such a person can be lonely. The community is totally not tuned or sensitized to the need for companionship and partnership.  The community has a hard time comprehending the concept of a lonely person. 

This is not just a sheduch (matchmaking) problem.  Not all lonely people want a spouse. A spouse may help some people not feel lonely, but not everyone. Some married people are lonely.  By tuning out singles and other lonely people we are not achieving the goals to make this a community.

A shul dinner or luncheon whether it is on Shabbat or a gala fund raiser is very often a coupled or a family event.  A few months ago the local yeshiva had a Shabbat luncheon.  No one made any efforts to make sure people were not alone. Perhaps many singles did not attend because they thought they would be uncomfortable?  No one made an effort to introduce people to new people. How much extra effect would it take to add a line to the publicity encouraging singles and people new to the community to join the event?  Some people, who are “sticks in the mud,” need encouragement.  Some people probably eat alone because of a real or imagined feeling that they would not be welcome.

Academic studies of loneliness.

What is loneliness?  Loneliness is not the same as being alone.  Everyone needs alone time as well as time to interact with others.  Some tasks are best done alone; some are best in a group. Loneliness is the pain experienced because of the inability to have a relation with another human being. The feeling is subjective.  A person could have a feeling of loneliness and be surrounded by lots of people and feel lonely. Part of the reason people like to go to events as a couple is so that they have at least one other person they are relate to and socialize with.  If the people at the event are boring or hard to talk to, at least one has a date or partner to support them. Being with people (or socializing) is a basic need of everyone.  The symptoms of loneliness cannot be described in precise clinical terms.  One person in solitary confinement could be lonely and another not.  An elderly person confined to his/her home may find social interaction via electronic connections such as phone, social media, or email or via print and recorded media and never feel lonely.  You cannot say, “He is lonely” without the person’s confirmation.  Loneliness is a kind of detachment when you want to have meaningful connections.[1]

Loneliness has been linked to many kinds of social and health problems (Russel p. 472) such alcoholism, suicide, and overuse of the health care system. J. Alspach in "Loneliness and Social Isolation” on page 9 summarizes all the health problems that researchers have associated with loneliness[2].   It is to the community’s advantage to help its members be less lonely.  Loneliness is hard to study from an experimental perspective because the experimenters can not create situations that have controls are variables.  The moment someone know it is a study, s/he is not alone.  If the experimenters are present, the subjects are no longer alone.  Studies are based on self-reporting, interviews, stories, and informal observations.  Even with the UCLA loneliness scale (Russel p. 475), getting a precise measure of loneliness is difficult.

Perhaps another way to explain loneliness to explain what a meaningful relationship is and define loneliness as the desire to have a meaningful relationship?  These characteristics fit a spousal or other committed relationship and also fit a friendship.  We seek someone who can actively listen and share their thoughts, someone to share a smile, someone to appreciate us and our effort to help them, someone who will be there in a time of need, and someone who will hold our hand when it needs a human touch.  Sometimes the relationship can be a handshake and the exchange of a few pleasantries at a social event like a kiddish.  The sincere greeting and handshake may be what the person needs at the moment. Sometimes people need to share inner feelings and thoughts for many minutes or hours.

When someone has a long workday and comes home to an empty home, they could feel lonely.  They have no one to share the events of the day and make them feel better. There is no one to share their day with. They have no one “on their team” at home no matter what happened in the day. This may be perfectly fine if the person is getting some of what they need in meaningful relationships in their work.  However, there are some feelings that just can’t be expressed to co-workers[3]. 

---to be continued --

[1] This definition is based on page 75  of
Hobson, Robert F. "Loneliness." Journal of Analytical Psychology  1974 19.1: pages 71-89. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection.

[2] Alspach, JoAnn Grif. Loneliness and Social Isolation: Risk Factors Long Overdue for Surveillance. Critical Care Nurse Dec. 2013: pages 8-13. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition 
 Here is her list.  In the article all the sources are listed.   1. Diminished physical activity; 2. Diminished motor function; 3. Symptoms of depression; 4. Disrupted sleep and daytime dysfunction; 5. Impaired mental and cognitive function; 6. Increased systolic blood pressure; 7. Increased sympathetic tone and vascular resistance; 8. Increased hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical activity; 9. Altered gene expression related to anti-inflammatory responses; 10. Altered immunity.

[3] Such as when the co-workers are the problem.

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