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The Loneliness of Singlehood

July 25, AD 2012 14 Comments

“You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have eyes to see” Mother Teresa profoundly remarks in this video (at about 2:20). She explains that, “Material poverty you can always satisfy with material. The unwanted, the unloved, the uncared, the forgotten, the lonely: this is much greater poverty” (at 4:15).

There are many that are unwanted in the US and other First World countries: the handicapped, the elderly, the 123 IVF babies aborted just because they had Down syndrome. However, there is another group of people that are particularly at risk for loneliness and constitute the fastest growing household type in the United States: single people under 65 years.

Lack of community and social interaction is bad for our health, as many studies show. “Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year” — yet trends over the last 25 years have shown a 58% drop in attending club meetings, a 43% drop in family dinners and a 35% drop in having friends over, as Prof. Robert Putnam has written in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

The Stanford News Service’s Kenneth M. Dixon writes, “The world is more connected than ever before, but people spend less time in person with those they care about. With regards to social interactions, quantity has replaced quality.” I wonder, is this disconnectedness also linked to the growing number of single people? Is it not only more difficult to form stable, long-lasting friendships, as it is more difficult to date and get married?

One thing seems clear: singles are at a higher risk for depression and they are one of the groups perhaps most affected by this disconnectedness. Could it be that many singles feel lonely because of not having a primary family unit and, in many cases, a close-knit community? Could it be that many of them feel rejected because they’d like to get married and sometimes fear the problem is theirs? What can we do for this Calcutta in our own country?

Blessed Mother Teresa also said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” The Catholic Church is described as a body, Jesus’ ministry based on meals and an intimate group of friends, and we are explicitly modeled for and called to communion. God is an exchange of love between three Persons and we are called to enter into that communion with Him and with others, starting here on earth and fully in heaven.

How does this look in reality and for singles? I wish some things could be preserved or brought back from the past: more intergenerational mingling, more family and community gatherings, more local and relational and less digital and virtual. Fifty years ago in Portugal, community life revolved around parish events and local dances. Nowadays, your chances of seeing young people are much higher if you go to nightclubs and bars than if you go to a parish event or anything local.

Moreover, “Internet use is replacing face-to-face interactions without replacing the benefits,” writes Dixon. Having a heart-to-heart conversation with another is not the same as an online conversation, and neither is dating, but both are becoming more commonplace in society, especially among teenagers.

With this displacement of affection from person-to-person to persona-to-persona, how can we create a real interpersonal relationships grounded in love? How can we love singles more? How can we as Catholics combat the loneliness that comes with a more disconnected society? I would say singles and non-singles are called to be more connected and to promote “connectivity.”

More local: Jesus’ ministry was a very physical and concrete one, healing through touch and with his family and friends. Catholics should be the first to support local communities, local commerce, local culture and local friendship.

“Do we know who our own poor are? Do we know our neighbor, the poor of our own area? It is so easy for us to talk and talk about the poor of other places. Very often we have the suffering, we have the lonely, we have the people – old, unwanted, feeling miserable – and they are near us and we don’t even know them. We have no time to smile at them.” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light)

More personal and relational: What are we really spending our time on? How much do we value the relationships in our life, creating new ones and maintaining the old ones? It helps me to think if I had a near-death accident, and was confined to a hospital bed, who are the people that would spend time with me there and how am I making time for them now?

“As God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity, so also ‘it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without bond or link between them, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.’ So from the beginning of salvation history He has chosen men not just as individuals but as members of a certain community.” (Pope John Paul II, Gaudium et Spes)

More social: Married people, make an effort to maintain your friendships and family relationships. Don’t close in on your spouse and primary family.

“The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1879)

More openness and depth in friendships: Vulnerability is difficult, but according to this researcher, “In order for connection to happen, we have to let ourselves be seen and really be seen.”

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’ – C.S. Lewis

…Any more ideas for promoting connectivity or related quotes/documents?



Filed in: Single Life • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Julie Machado is a 30-year-old wife, mother and Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal for college and has been there ever since. She has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Lisbon and has special interest in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.
  • The most poignant confrontation of human loneliness and the indifference of humanity was conveyed by Elie Wiesel in 1999, absolutely brilliant. The speech can be viewed at this link:

    I am, however, no fan of Mother Theresa, who has often been described an a woman in love with poverty, not the poor. She was an ally of Charles Keating and Papa Doc Duvalier and hoarded millions in banks which could have brought cures to the poor and marginalized…telling the dying of Calcutta that they should smile because they joined in Christ’s suffering and not using her millions for medications was plain wrong. re: Christopher Hitchens, “The Missionary Position.” Despite the fact that Hitchens was an atheist, his facts are nonetheless corroborated extensively.

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  • Phil,
    Millions? Do you know how large Mother Teresa’s order was? It was all over the world. You can’t run something like that without some resources. I wonder, what gives you such expertise on how to help the poor? Have you spent decades working in the worst slums of the world or did you just go to a few atheist sites and believe anything bad they had to say about Catholics?

  • @ Randy
    Yes, I spent 8 years in a RC religious order working with the poorest of the poor. Yes, there is ample research on the missions that were stashed in bank accounts which could have provided medical treatment for the dying. Yes, I am a pantheist. Yes, for the past 14 years I have cared for my son, now 26, who is non-verbal, non-ambulatory and non-everything else simply because I love him. Being a member of a Catholic religious order for 8 years, I do know the inside quite well…Benedict described it well, as the “filth within….” It is well not to make assumption, but to learn the facts and verify them.
    Here is one documented example that you can research and verify. MT took millions from Charles Keating, the banker who made his millions by defrauding the elderly…now in jail for crimes against the elderly who lost all. When the DA asked MT to return the money that Keating gave her so the defrauded elderly could be made whole….she said NO! This is fact!

  • I checked out you blog. Seems like an interesting story. I have a son with a disability as well so I shall call it interesting and not sad. I shall pray for you. I was surprised to find such an affirmation of human dignity and the value of forgiveness. I didn’t find anything on what moved you from a Catholic religious order to calling yourself a pantheist. I would be interested in that part of your story.

    At far as Mother Teresa goes, I don’t apologize for defending her. Are charities morally obligated to give back donations when the donor behaves badly? Sometimes they give money away as a penance. My guess is if I was running a charity I would tend to only give the money back in the most extreme circumstances. That is when the ill gotten gain clearly makes up almost all of the gift. Don’t know how extreme the circumstances were in the Keating case.

  • Randy–contact me with an e-mail address and I would be happy to explain…mine is

  • Scott W

    Way to hijack the combox by going off topic! And the West is full of former RC religious who have left the vocation and/or faith. Yawn. What is really interesting and profound is that there are young people who actually embrace the teachings and traditions of the Church–talk about swimming against the current. Now pantheists, out here in Portland, OR, they are a dime a dozen–and all sad.

  • Just wanted to chime in and thank you Julie for writing this post! It is a beautiful reflection and call to action.

  • Abigail C. Reimel

    Thanks for this post, Ms. Rodrigues! It is a wonderful to hear someone reminding others that one does not have to leave the country to go on a mission trip, there are so many in need of help right in front of him, in his own community. I particularly loved the ending C.S. Lewis quote. It reminded me of Dr. Cuddeback of Christendom College’s teachings on true friendship. While teaching on this, he asked the class to stop, close their eyes, and picture the people who know them intimately- who know everything about them- and he said that if there is no one coming to their minds, then they have no true friends. Many of the students were somber upon realizing the true state of their relationships, but it also motivated them to work to deepen their budding friendships so that they could one day blossom into beautiful, strong, “true” friendships. God bless!

  • Julie Rodrigues

    Thanks for the interesting comments. I don’t know those “behind the scenes” stories about Mother Teresa, Phil, but I’m not shocked because she wasn’t a doctor and she always said she wasn’t a social worker either. As she said, she was a contemplative among the poor, 24 hours with Jesus. And that’s a really great point about friendship, Abigail. Thanks!

  • MaryCatherine

    We are a couple based society, despite the fact that more and more people are living a large part of their lives as singles. Married people often don’t attempt to include singles. I am a 50+ woman and my married friends have pretty much disappeared 15 years after my marriage break-up. I am a devote Catholic who tried to maintain those friendships but it seems my friends haven’t felt that they were important enough to continue. They continue to invite each other to events, into their homes, call one another, make plans. As a single person, no matter how hard I’ve tried, I just don’t seem to be included anymore, because there isn’t a man around. I’ve come to the realization gradually that I must find people who share my interests and who are willing to be friends. I can say that while my divorce hurt me immensely, the abandonment by my “friends” has been 100 times more painful. These were people I trusted, shared things with, helped, encouraged when they had problems, listened to, but in the end, I can’t help but wonder if we were ever really friends in the first place.

  • Magnificat

    The singles are the new lepers.

  • Sally

    I think the comment of “intergenerational mingling” was a good one. Most groups for single Catholics are geared to “Young Adults” in their 20’s and 30’s. There wasn’t one when I was that age, but one was created when I turned 40 – so much for that. I was “too old”. Most parish activities are for families or couples, and a single person can easily feel like the “odd one out”.
    I’ve pretty much given up. I’m happy to be single, as I really think that is my God-given vocation, but it is really hard to be a sincere, practicing Catholic and not have any (Catholic) friends!

  • Sally

    @Marycatherine: My diocese has a Fellowship for Divorced and Separated Catholics – have you checked your own to see what is available? Heck, if you lived near me, I’d socialize with you! I’m another devout Catholic with exactly 0 Catholic friends.