Americans are lonely … and getting lonelier.
Several years ago, the “General Social Survey” found that adults in the United States have three times fewer friends than they did in 1985. Likewise, AARP found that 42.6 million Americans over age 45 now struggle with “chronic loneliness.”
The causes of this problem aren’t difficult to diagnose. Fewer Americans get married, fewer Americans have children, and more Americans live alone — almost half of all adults, according to the most recent data. Then, there’s divorce, which fractures social groups; our mobile culture, which encourages people to chase opportunities far from family and friends; and the pressure for both spouses to work (and involve their children in a litany of time-consuming activities), which keeps everyone moving at a frenetic pace.
Lastly, there’s the ever-present internet, which keeps us engaged in the virtual world, while distracting us from the real world.
All this adds up to fewer lifelong connections, less time spent with others and less practice cultivating deep, emotional attachments. This isn’t good news on any front, with studies showing that chronic loneliness causes a smorgasbord of problems, from high blood pressure and depression to lower levels of empathy.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Men and women are made in the image of God, who is a Communion of Persons, which means each of us was made for communion (Catechism, 2331). We were made to give ourselves, in love, to others, and to receive the gift of others, also in love.
This giving and receiving is meant to take place in a special, embodied way in marriage, but it’s also meant to take place in friendship and family life. The whole of our life is supposed to be one never-ending exchange of love with those around us.
Increasingly, in this culture, however, that’s not the case, and this prevents us from living the life God made us to live.
So, what do we do about it?
The obvious answer is to get off the internet or out of the house, channel our inner extrovert, and start trying to build community with people from work, school, church or the neighborhood. We need to make time for people, invite others over for dinner or fellowship, and seek to serve those who are worse off than we are.
But even when we do that, building community takes time. Friendships don’t blossom overnight. So what do we do in the meantime? What do we do when we’re waiting for someone to say “Yes” to our invitation or when we’re waiting for a casual friendship to deepen and grow?
Befriend the saints.
One of the best things the Catholic Church has to teach us is that we are never alone. From the first moment of our lives to the last, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who not only show us what it means to give ourselves away in love, but who, in heaven, continue to give themselves away in love — first to Jesus, and, through him, to us.
That’s what makes a person a saint. On earth, these holy people gave themselves completely to God. They cooperated with the grace offered to them and let their hearts, minds and wills be conformed to his.
As that happened, their whole lives became a gift of love. They thought less about themselves and more about others. They prayed for others, listened to others and served others, demonstrating their love for God by loving those made in his image.
In heaven, this love doesn’t end. God has granted the saints the great privilege of being our special advocates, and so they continue to pray for us, listen to us and serve us through their intercession.
Also, because sainthood isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, there are as many different kinds of saints as there are actual saints. This means, in the almost-countless cloud of witnesses enjoying the Beatific Vision, there is sure to be one with whom we can identify, who can understand our particular cross and be our spiritual friend.
For example, if you are a stressed-out working mom, trying to juggle the pressures of paying the mortgage and keeping the peace between your children, St. Zélie Martin is there for you. She gave birth to nine children — including St. Thérèse — and buried four, all while running one of the most successful lace-making businesses in Lisieux, France. This wasn’t easy for her. Her personal holiness didn’t make the stress any less real. You can read about her struggles in the letters she left behind, and, in prayer, you can ask her to help you deal with your struggles here on earth.
Likewise, if you’re a struggling convert, still feeling the pull of past sins, working through guilt and trying to understand your newfound faith, get to know St. Augustine — the former Manichean philosopher-turned-Catholic bishop who left behind a passionate mistress when he gave his life to Christ. You also could befriend St. Margaret of Cortona — a 13th-century Italian wild child who fought with her stepmother, rebelled against her father and ran off with a handsome nobleman. She lived with him as his mistress for 10 years, until his murder shocked her into conversion … and a life of prayer and penance.
For those battling mental illness or caring for someone with a mental illness, call upon the sweet St. Benedict Joseph Labre, who himself showed signs of the disease. For the infertile, St. Anne, mother of Mary, and the Venerable Mother Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Heart can offer both empathy and help.
If it’s work that has you down, seek out a saint who shared your profession. St. Thomas More was a lawyer and statesman. St. Genesius was an actor. St. Isidore was a farmer. Blessed Solanus Casey did almost every manual labor job you can imagine, from driving a streetcar to working as a hospital orderly, prison guard and lumberjack. And an endless array of nurses (St. Marianne Cope), doctors (St. Gianna Beretta Molla), scholars (St. Bonaventure) and teachers (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton) abound on the Roman calendar.
In short, when it comes to the Communion of Saints, someone is there for you — someone who knows what you’re suffering, has walked in your shoes, and has all the time in the world for you. Take advantage of that. Learn about his or her story, and share your story with this saint or that saint. Look at images of them when you need inspiration. Above all, ask repeatedly for their help. The saints, like God, don’t get tired of our prayers. This is how they want to spend their eternity. Give them what they want.
If you do, in time, they will help God give you what you need: grace, comfort, strength, peace, wisdom and people on earth with whom you can share your life. Each of us needs companions for the journey, both heavenly companions and earthly ones. Finding the latter might take time. But the former are there for us today.
Emily Stimpson Chapman writes from Pittsburgh.