February 27, 2020

Inscribed for Another Year of Loneliness?

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Everywhere I turn, I see it.

It’s on the face of the arthritic, elderly woman who pushes her squeaky shopping cart through a busy intersection. 

It’s in the eyes of the 14-year-old out to dinner with his parents who wishes he could be in his bedroom alone to scroll his phone in peace. His friends understand him so much better than his parents. At least, they understand his posts much better.

It colors the awkward evenings of a married couple who have nothing to say to each other anymore. Thank God for Netflix, they reckon.

I see it everywhere. It’s the emotional and spiritual Black Plague of the 21st century.

I’m referring to loneliness.

The kind that results from having 1,178 Facebook friends, none of whom can gaze into your eyes from across the coffee shop table because they’re virtual.

The kind that is drowned out with the deafening noise of emails, traffic and, if not those, politics — or, as I see it — the bludgeoning of another’s character because he or she disagrees with our righteous views.

The kind, which during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, leaves us shoulder to shoulder with 500 Jews in a synagogue, standing together alone.

It used to be that Jews begged God to inscribe them in the Book of Life because they were faced with existential threats — from pogroms to dictators. Today, what are we asking, exactly, when we plead with our creator to inscribe us for another year of life?

Naturally, we want our bodies to be around for at least another year, but who wants to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year of deep loneliness? For another year of working a bit too hard to find meaning and connection? “Please, God,” we ask, “protect our bodies from cancer and distracted drivers.” Yet we seem to forget that another year of loneliness is its own soft form of death.

“The holidays force us to confront who we are — not our avatars, but our souls,” Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the Journal. “We are not called to be skilled or popular or coiffed or curated. We are called to be holy.”

On Yom Kippur, we’re compared with the holy angels, which is why many Jews wear white.

Do angels ever feel lonely? If they don’t, that’s reason enough to try to emulate them.

Do angels ever feel lonely?

If they don’t, that’s reason enough to try to emulate them.

It’s hard to enter a synagogue looking and acting exactly as we are. All the ridiculously high heels, designer purses and incessant bragging about our latest business deals or vacations means we’re joined by our avatars, as Wolpe calls them, during these holy days. If that’s the case, we should buy two seats for synagogue services — one for our lonely, true selves, and another for our well-coiffed public personas.

I don’t have prescriptive advice for ending loneliness. There are areas where we have control (curtailing screen time, for example), and areas where loss, bad luck and unfulfilled dreams have left us alive, but alone.

That 14-year-old in the restaurant can start connecting with friends and family in person, but what options remain for the elderly woman pushing that shopping cart? I can think of at least one: a weekly phone call from a caring grandchild. And maybe, he’ll be 14 and not even know how much he needs real connection.

“What should young people do with their lives today?” asked Kurt Vonnegut in a 1974 commencement address. “Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

“Inscribe us in the Book of Life,” we all ask at this time of year. Life is indeed a beautiful thing, but in our First World country, shouldn’t we aim a little higher?

We often ask elderly people the secret to longevity but the real question we should ask is, “Given your long life, how did you live?”


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.