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Empty parks and empty seats during the pandemic; sunrise alone.

After nearly two years of life in a pandemic, feelings of despair are particularly acute for the elderly.

As a social psychologist who is in that vulnerable demographic, Jane Adams reflects on what a post-pandemic world will be like, whether she’ll be here to see it and how her descendants will live in it. She writes,

“I sometimes feel despair wash over me like a tsunami after an earthquake. I don’t believe despair has the same resonance or presence in the lives of younger adults. The young might be restless and unrooted, especially since the pandemic severely curtailed the ability to move on with their academic, career and social lives – but despair is not their natural state. In midlife too, many adults might be outraged and angry, not just about COVID-19 but also other social problems from racism to environmental degradation. But most are still hopeful that a better future awaits, and it’s hope that’s both the remedy for and the antithesis of despair.

The pandemic’s rhythm over the past two years has played havoc with our sense of the passage of time. Especially for older people in the last decades or years of life, when despair overtakes us, it’s because we’ve lost the hope that things will get better in a timeframe that’s relevant.

Not just a problem for the Aging

Surely this condition is not unique to the elderly. Adams observes a key insight from the work of social psychologist Erik Erikson who noted that,

“…Our experience of each stage of life is shaped partly by how we fared in the previous stage – and this offers clues for coping better in our final years.

Despair was described by Erikson as a condition in which sadness, bitterness and regret dominate our personal and social existence. We all know people in whose presence those feelings seem to emanate like a dark cloud; we sense it, their aura of helplessness in the face of the forces arrayed against them: a friend who’s certain that if she’d only married a different man she would have been happy, successful in her career, and not the estranged mother of two adult children. Another, who never married at all, who complains that if she had, she wouldn’t be living on her meagre savings, isolated from others even before the pandemic, wondering who will find her body when she dies, and who will care.”

You’re not Alone in Being Lonely

In James K.A. Smith’s book that came out in time for the pandemic, “On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts“, he writes

You’re not alone in being lonely – not that that makes you less lonely.

The repercussions of loneliness are felt in our bodies and minds, in our social trends and communities, and is being exposed as a major health hazard of our age. Smith states:

“But we have no one to blame but ourselves. We made this world. As Charles Taylor puts it, in modernity we remade the human person into a “buffered self,” protected and autonomous and independent, free to determine our own good and pursue our own “authentic” path. We shut out incursions of the divine and demonic to carve out a privatized space to be free on our own terms. We didn’t realize the extent to which we are shutting ourselves in. In liberating ourselves by locking out transcendence, the price we paid was sealing ourselves in a cell. We thought we were our own liberators; it turns out we might be our own jailers.”

The Opposite of Loneliness:

Marina Keegan writes in her famous posthumous essay by the above noted title:

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found… It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.

This prompts Smith to ask,

What if ‘authenticity’ is the source of our loneliness? What if it’s precisely the unquestioned, unrecognized construal of others as threats to my freedom and autonomy that has sequestered us? Is authenticity worth it? Or could we imagine authenticity otherwise?”

He points to the “fundamental hunger of human nature as some ineffaceable impulse to communion.”

What if the opposite of loneliness is finding ourselves together?

In this age, what passes for the eager performance toward authenticity is actually a privatized project of individuation. The opposite of loneliness is true friendship – friends who we let know us, and on whom we can depend, know and trust.

In my work with men I often ask:

Are you a known person?

Who knows you?

Who do you have the courage to get close enough to know you?

The corollary to this is:

And who do you know?

Who trusts you with their joys and griefs, their secrets and the ordinary of everyday?

Being known, truly known allows us to know ourselves in the safety of a strong friendship that buffets and encourages us. It isn’t all about loneliness as those who live individually – it is about friendships that enrich us, that draw out of us resources to be generously given, and that give us a foretaste of a timeless spiritual friendship.

Though you’re not alone in being lonely, you are just one friendship away from being known, and knowing something of the communion for which we are made.

This is more enigma than dogma.