I’ve always thought “Prime Minister” is an elegant name for a politician. Prime suggests first-in-charge, while Prime Minister implies several others in the political hierarchy one or more levels down. In the United Kingdom, Theresa May is the PM; the head of “Her Majesty’s Government”, with a cabinet of other Ministers at her disposal on par with Secretaries in the United States. Minister of Agriculture, Minister of the Interior, Minister of the Defence (love the British spelling), and so on. In all, Ms. May commands twenty-one unique ministers. As of January, make that twenty-two. Who’s the latest to join the tea party? The Minister of Loneliness.
When I think “lonely”, a country of 60 million people doesn’t come to mind. No country comes to mind. Instead, I think about individuals in far-away, desolate places. A scientist conducting an experiment near the Arctic Circle. A criminal in solitary confinement in the bowels of an isolated prison. Tom Hanks in “Castaway”. So it’s no wonder the New York Times article about the newest U.K. minister, Tracey Crouch, caught my eye. Even more eye-opening was to read about the loneliness “epidemic” responsible for her appointment.
Britain’s research indicates nine million or more of its citizens “often or always feel lonely”. That’s 15% of their population. I find it remarkable all those people would own up to feeling that way, but perhaps the survey was their opportunity to say, “please help”. Consider this: 200,000 senior citizens in the U.K. hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. Makes me wonder if vocal cords stop working if they’re not used long enough.
Loneliness is not a trademark of the U.K. alone, of course. It’s unavoidable in any country or culture. “Lonely” brings to mind several songs over the past fifty years: Bobby Vinton’s Mr. Lonely (1962) to Adam Lambert’s Another Lonely Night (2015). Elvis had a hit with Are You Lonesome Tonight?, as did Roy Orbison with Only The Lonely and Yes with Owner of a Lonely Heart. Eric Carmen’s two biggest hits in the 1970’s were about loneliness: All By Myself and Never Gonna Fall In Love Again. And if you want the best example of loneliness in music, look no further than Charles Ives’ short classical piece The Unanswered Question. The haunting conversation between solo trumpet and woodwind quartet makes you realize even a brass instrument wishes it had a few friends.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists over 75 movies about loneliness. A few familiar examples: Carrie, Silence of the Lambs, and Brokeback Mountain. The History Channel hosted several years of a reality television series called “Alone”, which shared the daily struggles of individuals as they survived in the wilderness for as long as possible. The participants were isolated from each other and all other humans, and the one who remained the longest won a grand prize of $500,000. This is entertainment?
I don’t want to be lonely just to be able to write a best-selling song or win a half-million dollars, but that doesn’t mean I mind being alone. Lonely and alone are decidedly different creatures. If one is lonely, the dictionary says he is “destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship” (sounds miserable, doesn’t it?). If one is alone, he is “separate, apart, or isolated from others”. And that is not such a bad thing. In fact, we introverts (persons concerned primarily with their own thoughts and feelings) handle “alone” much better than you extroverts (persons concerned primarily with the physical and social environment). We introverts prefer our gatherings in smaller numbers.
I’ll never forget an encounter I had with a neighbor years ago, at Halloween. As my kids knocked on her door for treats, I realized we’d lived right next door for several months but never formally introduced ourselves. I apologized as I shook her hand, yet her response was, “oh no problem at all; that’s why we moved to this neighborhood. People stay to themselves here.”
Is this the world we live in now, with electronics and social media and work-from-home promoting more alone time? At least the Brits are acting, before too much “alone” becomes too much “lonely”. They’ve started a Facebook group for those affected by loneliness. They’ve set up a fund to study the detrimental effects. And they’ve appointed a new minister to lead the way.
Perhaps the U.S. should appoint a Secretary of Loneliness too, ministering to those who can’t seem to find companionship among 323 million others. The Surgeon General claims loneliness can be associated with “greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety”. On that note, what first appeared to be an LOL headline is no laughing matter at all. Get out there and mingle.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.