Piercing the Silence
More than a decade ago I was speaking in Washington DC to a gala gathering of parents and families of (mostly) gay youth. “Human beings cannot live without community,” I said that evening. “We are social creatures, we human beings. When we are, or when we feel, cut off from those with whom we first crawled around the nest, we grow sick and die. Study after study shows that longevity and wellbeing are immediately and intimately tied to our sense of being in community: valued, love, and needed.”
I thought back to that evening earlier this week when I read that the COVID pandemic has accelerated a parallel pandemic of lonesomeness. According to one paper, “a 2021 study found that over 60 percent of young American adults report that they are either frequently lonely or lonely nearly all the time.”
Then came a Surgeon General’s report warning that young people in America are facing “devastating” mental health consequences as a result of various factors, including the COVID pandemic. I was shaken by this: Emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51 percent for adolescent girls from 2020 to 2021.
In 2017, lonesomeness especially among elders led the UK to name a “Minister of Loneliness.” The results have been mixed, in part because what’s needed is community and there’s no government strategy to mandate community. Still, I applaud them for recognizing loneliness as a genuine, existential, right-now crisis.
My claim in Washington that “human beings cannot live without community” was not hyperbole. It was, and still is, the truth. If our divisions and hostilities erode the core of our communities, we lose what most we need: the human exchange, the common touch, the interest in each other by which we live. Our youth disappear. Our elders fade. Our neighbors grow silent.
It’s holiday time, a glorious opportunity to reach out to someone who’s grown silent in my life or my neighborhood. It’s one of those rare occasions when a single word, a caring gesture, a “you matter to me” could, literally, save a life — a holiday gift beyond any we can buy.