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To be human is to belong

By Rev John Swinton

When we were in one of our numerous lockdowns, I spoke to an elderly woman – Amanda – about the situation regarding social isolation, social distancing and the likes (she was in her doorway and I was walking past doing my I hour of daily exercise).

She just laughed!  “I have been in social isolation for the past ten years! People have become experts at distancing themselves from me. But now with the coming of the virus, suddenly everyone wants to help me. It’s really rather odd.”

I felt a bit bad as I was probably one of the social distancers she was commenting on. She lives but a few hundred yards away from my house and it took a pandemic for me to notice her. It is worrying that people can be amongst us and can be so vulnerable to being lonely, isolated friendless and not being noticed.

The real tragedy was that Amanda had got used to being lonely. She was genuinely surprised when people started to pay attention to her.

Loneliness is one of the most painful experiences for human beings to go through. I read an article the other day saying that one in four Australian adults experiences feelings of loneliness, and that 13% of adults over the age of 65 experienced loneliness. People over 75 are more likely to be lonely than anyone else. Loneliness is a social tragedy. But it is also a deeply personal tragedy that impacts deeply on our self-esteem.

Think of it in this way. How and where do you get your sense of value from? You don’t engender it from within, through your own resources. Value is always a gift given to you by others. The value of a wedding ring is not determined by the cost of the metal. It is valuable because of the meaning that one places on it: you give it value. You can’t make people become your friends. Friendship is a gift.

Those experiencing loneliness risk becoming devalued in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Loneliness leads to devaluing which in turn leads to a drop in self-esteem and further feelings of isolation. It’s a kind of vicious circle.  We are made for community. Being-in-relationship is our natural state. We are created to belong. We belong to the world, we belong to one another and ultimately, for those of us who have a faith, we belong to God.

In order to feel that we belong, people need to affirm us, to notice us and to offer the gifts of time and friendship. Amanda had had very little experience of receiving the fruits of the practices of belonging, but now when things are so radically changed suddenly people want to find out about her. That is potentially a beautiful thing. But only if it continues. There must be nothing worse than finding company in the midst of a crisis, only for it to disappear again when things get back to normal whatever that “new normal” will look like.

The revived sense of community that has emerged during this time of Covid might just be a gift that we should not lose as we move towards healthier times. So the question is: Who and where is the Amanda in your community?


Article by Rev John Swinton,

Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen, UK
and a research consultant with Meaningful Ageing Australia