I Am Lonely: Mental Health and Covid

Rereading the opening of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik‘s The Lonely Man of Faith is haunting. There we read:

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as a stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence, feel frustrated.

The Lonely Man of Faith

In the rest of his book the Rav goes on to explore the problem of sustaining faith in a predominately secular world. The Rav interprets this disparity as a purposeful paradox essential to human nature. We are perennially torn between powerful secular concerns and the need, no less real, for spiritual fulfillment. True faith, therefore, is not easy, nor was it ever meant to be. All the philosophy not withstanding, his opening words seem prescient to our current experiences.

What does it mean today to say, “I am lonely”? His writing, ” It takes on new meaning in the context of the mental health crises that have come to the surface during Covid 19. We need to mediate on those three words.

According to an New York Times article a few years ago it appears that loneliness is more deadly that smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  We are living during a pandemic of loneliness. It is worth reading that article. While the Rav might have been thinking about philosophy, we need to deal with stark reality that we are lonely and it is hurting us. What can we do?

I was thinking about this this week when reading Vayishlach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yaakov’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Yaakov.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Israel, for you have striven with divine and human beings and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32: 24-30

There is much for us to learn in this story. For one, we have to see the experience of being alone and loneliness are real. This story shows that this experience which could easily be dismissed as a psychological state of being is not only real, but that it can easily manifest in physical damage. Only when we realize the gravity of the state of feeling alone can we wrestle with that fact. And finally, for now, even if we prevail in this struggle it does not mean that we are done being alone. There is a problem in our society and there is no quick fix. We all just need to continue to wrestle with it.

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