A friend I hadn’t seen for almost a year dropped by for tea the other day. As the leaves steeped in the pot, she folded her hands in front of her. “I’ve decided to get a dog.” The quizzical look in her eyes made the statement seem more like a question. “Should I?”
I was surprised by her announcement. She’d never revealed a longing for a pet before. At 79 years-of-age, she travels often, and in-between, her calendar is chock full of social engagements. When I think of her, especially during Oregon’s dreary winters, I imagine she’s somewhere in Mexico or Florida, living the life of fiesta. Since I’d last seen her, I failed to take note of the many changes in her life. Two of her closest friends had left the state. The grandchildren she adores were grown up and headed for college. Of course she felt the need for a companion. I nodded at her decision, if my approval was required.
News article report loneliness is epidemic across the globe. The internet has done little to resolve this. No one could expect electronic messaging to replace the comfort of sharing a cup of tea with a close friend.
Between 1985 and 2009, the network of friends and family in the United States has “shrank by more than a third.” (“An epidemic of loneliness,” The Week, Jan. 11, 2019, pg. 11) The elderly are affected, of course. But curiously enough, the loneliest demographic falls to the young. “In a Cigna study, Generation Z members ages 18 to 22 and Millennials ages 23 to 37 scored the highest for loneliness.” (Ibid pg. 11.)
Isolation can have devastating effects. It weakens the immune system. It fosters dementia and can shorten life expectancy by 15 years. (Ibid pg. 1.) Surprisingly, when people are lonely, they are less empathetic and more likely to “view the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’” (Ibid pg. 11)
Some researchers blame the burgeoning freelance economy for the malaise. Without a workplace, individuals have fewer opportunities to build social networks. A person can’t share a glass of wine after work when the sole link is a URL.
Americans are proud of their individual freedoms and take them as an inalienable right. Well and good. But freedom does little to instill a sense of community. We may be a nation of immigrants, but above all, as human beings, we are social animals. We require a sense of belonging. The glue that holds a society together is about more than ensuring a good economy. We have that. It isn’t about universal health care. We are moving toward that. What we require is a common dream. In the next election, I’ll be listening, not to candidates who make budgetary promises, but to the one with a mission that will bring us together.