Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play – Leonard Cohen, Tower of Song
Ecclesiastes had the answer to loneliness. It was not wealth or power, nor even pleasure, nor wisdom. It was simple: Eat your bread and drink your wine with someone you love. Clearly, meaning and fulfillment trump wealth, power, and pleasure. Life is simple but beautiful, and no, death does not make a mockery of life. Quite the opposite: Life makes a mockery of death.
Now, I know the world has a lot of problems. I mean, the sky is falling under the weight of pollution. Democracies are devolving into oligarchies and dictatorships. Wars, famines, and diseases fill our news cycles but, in my view, insufficiently motivate our hearts to translate our feelings into the actions of our hands. There is racism, sexism, homophobia, and intolerance. But these great and terrible issues are not the direct subjects of this column.
If all goes reasonably well, a few days after you read this (non-political) column, I’m turning 79. Doesn’t seem possible since it was only yesterday when I was young. My ability to deny the sands flowing rapidly through the hourglass becomes difficult when I try to stand up from a couch or consider the hair that is voluntarily migrating from the top of my head to the insides of my ears, even as my chest is slipping towards my feet. The one advantage to this is that when I attempt a push-up with my arms fully extended, my stomach is already touching the floor. Thus, very little, if any, actual bending of elbows is needed. I can save bending an elbow for a nightcap later to assuage any anxieties concerning my various aches and pains.
As with many other aging folks, I have clear memories of my first real kiss in 1957, meals I enjoyed in 1965, a 1945 Laffite drunk in 1981, and every moment of Alec Guinness in Habeas Corpus in London. What I don’t remember is where I put my keys or what the hell I did last Tuesday. “What was that movie, Honey, starring, uh, you know, the one who was in that other movie.”
I’m actually in pretty good physical shape because of my faulty, or at least selective, memory. I live in a two-story house and never make it to the car without having forgotten my keys upstairs. So up I go. Halfway down, I remember the check I meant to mail and remount the stairs. Getting to the door, I remember my wallet on the nightstand. Up once (possibly twice) more.
Ecclesiastes said that life was “chasing the wind.” My stair climbing has not left me chasing wind but building my wind for my mile-long walks in the hills near home.
Yes, I still teach four or five 90-minute lectures per week. I still read and write and spend time with family and friends. I cook for my wife, The Fair Helenkela, and for the kids and grandchildren who live nearby and for friends.
Covid has, in some ways, given a gift of closeness. Calls and checking in have become more important. Friends whom we’ve included in each other’s bubbles have, by dint of daily telephonic or FaceTime contacts, become even closer. I feel truly blessed and do not suffer from isolation and the epidemic of loneliness afflicting so many.
Studies have shown that despite being electronically connected, many Americans feel inconsolably lonely. This effects their physical health, mental health, quality of their lives, and their longevity. Loneliness is not the same as aloneness. You can be lonely in a crowd and connected alone in a room. Objective circumstances are not the key, but behavior is.
The good news is that the treatment for loneliness doesn’t take a lot of expensive drugs or controversial vaccines. It does take effort. Call someone to find out how they are. Join a group where you can work together for a common goal. Join a church or a synagogue, a mosque, or an ashram. Join an interest group. Volunteer at a food pantry or library. Try the Sierra Club, or a Democratic club, or a Republican club. Try a march. I took a friend to her first march when she turned 80. March with me or against, but care enough about something to bestir yourself to participate with and for others.
During these Jewish High Holidays, the first sermon I heard was Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben on loneliness. He talked about the deleterious effects of loneliness and said, “It is better for your health to eat Twinkies with people you love than to eat broccoli alone.” Finally, I thought, a sermon I can completely take to heart. Yet it’s not so very different from Ecclesiastes telling us to eat our bread and drink our wine with people we love.