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The Poverty of Loneliness

One of the greatest tragedies which face us on a global proportion is poverty. No, not economic poverty but the poverty of human connection which gives rise to economic poverty. This poverty can be as equally destructive to the fabric of society as economic poverty. This is the poverty of isolation and loneliness.

It is a kind of poverty which is extremely insidious and continues to increase and underscore our family life and social order. The symptoms of this social sickness are many - broken relationships and divorce, crime, emotional and physical violence, war between communities, mental illness, and addictions; it is a poverty which strips millions of self-esteem and empowerment. A person is left dry of any value or worth and is rendered powerless.

The tragedy is that although we live in densely populated cities and chat over countless cups of tea and coffee, the sense of isolation is ever increasing within our communities, within our work places, within our schools and even within our centres of faith.

Although technology through the forms of social media were meant to connect us, there is increasing evidence that meaningful connection is proportionally deteriorating. (Hertz, Noreena, The Lonely Century). Our love affair with technology has enhanced our need for instant self-gratification. The Internet enables us to connect instantly with others at the opposite end of the globe. We can have cyber-relationships, even cyber-sex. Here is the real danger. We are drawn into the illusion of being part of a 'global community'. This is nothing more than a fraud. Hugh Mackay in his book Why Don't People Listen? :"When the emphasis is on information transfer rather than relationships, the life of the (global) village becomes meaningless: shared data is no substitute for the sense of shared identity and mutual obligation which come from shared experience." People are beginning now to isolate themselves from real community. The result will be an ever-increasing sense of isolation.

Listening is a communication experience which has within it the power to break the grip of isolation and to plant and nurture a new community. Listening shared from the level of the human heart. No other communication technology is able to do this.

Several years ago, I began to remark how deep listening can affect individuals and be the catalyst for positive change both personally and as a community. As a society we have forgotten how to listen. This has been gravely injurious to our corporate journey as a society as well as to our personal growth and well-being. We have lost our prophetic foundations, as when we don't listen, we miss vital information. Listening and vision go hand in hand. When we don't listen, we don't see the problem ahead - we fail to see the big picture. We move blindly into the future.

The onset of COVID-19 has underscored the poverty of isolation even more. People throughout the world have been placed into lockdown, separating us further from our usual means of social interaction. Social distancing has meant we have never been more distant from each other psychologically. The absence of connection and a sense of belonging have devastating effects on people both physically and emotionally (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003)1.

In our work at #Shikodo we have come to observe how healing conversation can make a huge difference in people’s lives not only from the perspective of empowerment but in enabling each other to have a sense of our value and contribution to society as a whole. Healing conversation is more than information exchange. It is a pathway to enabling each other to grow.

About one year ago I had sat on a seat outside of Fairfield railway station here in Sydney. As I was early for a meeting I had decided to catch up on some messages and emails. A man came and sat beside me. I acknowledged him with a greeting and he replied back and began to chat. He was very shabbily dressed and I deduced her may have been living rough. At first it was small talk as I asked him how his day had been. He began to tell me it hadn’t been good as he had just moved into a hostel for men who had been doing it tough. He told me he was very lonely and began to unfold his life story. We arranged to meet back the following day in the same spot and over the ensuing weeks we engaged in deeper conversation. Max (not his real name) didn’t need psychotherapy or counselling. Max needed healing conversation in real connection. Max had the answers to his own journey. He just needed someone to ask the right questions to which he owned the answers. A year later Max is doing well and has even picked up a part time job. It started with a simple conversation. In fact, it started with some simple words of connection. “Good morning, how are you? Nice day isn’t it?”

We don’t need professionals, politicians and policies alone to deal with the poverty of isolation and loneliness. The eradication of this poverty starts with you and me. I spend a lot of time in the streets and on public transport. I like to strike up a quiet conversation and add some words or encouragement as well. I am amazed at the number of people who respond with a smile and a sense of relief that for that short moment in time their isolation had been broken and that they had a small salve applied often with the words, “thanks for taking the time to listen.” It’s a potent moment and it’s empowering.

At #Shikodo our work is about empowering people, most often in very ‘left field’ ways. One project which we have begun to develop is the training of young persons as Peer Coaches Mentors and Connectors. Already we are beginning to see the healing results of a younger person breaking down the walls of isolation and loneliness of another. This young woman from a refugee background helping a woman with a physical disability attain a vocational qualification so that she can become employed thus breaking the barrier of poverty. The words still resound for me: “She really listens to me and believes in me. I can do it. I know I can become who I want to become.”

1. Eisenberger, N.I., Lieberman, M. D., Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection Hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292

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