“One day at lunch last month, some Depaul House residents began teasing another guy who off-handedly admitted that he had cried about something.  In response to their ribbing, he refused to backtrack.  “I cry every night,” he declared.

“Why?” someone asked.

“Because I am alone,” he answered.

Excerpt from a newsletter written by the Executive Director of a national homelessness organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Loneliness does not traditionally top our lists of the most pressing social problems (especially in an economic crisis), but maybe it should.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century British philosopher whose ideas about individual liberty, social contracts, and state sovereignty undergird modern political thought, called for a civil society for the explicit purpose of making life less, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Of course, we’ve long known that isolation is deeply damaging to the human being. For centuries, parents have disciplined deviant children with time-outs, and judges have condemned criminals to solitary confinement. But, neuroscientists are learning new things about the effect loneliness can have on human health and well-being.

For example, John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, finds that sustained loneliness increases our risks of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, sleep dysfunction, and depression. (By 2020, depression will be the 2nd most common health problem in the world. Global suicide rates have also risen steadily since 1950, especially for men.) In the centuries since Hobbes wrote, human beings have certainly grown more connected. Ironically, though, we still often feel alone.

Loneliness cannot, like some other matters of public concern, be addressed by legislative fiat. No law can guarantee every person the opportunity to be indiscrete with close friends. Surely, providing law and order and basic rights and capabilities can help expand human dignity and increase the odds of human connection. But the public servant cannot also be the social engineer.

Somehow, we must also take on increased responsibility for visiting each other when we find ourselves imprisoned behind bars, behind closed doors, or in the light of day. Since loneliness, in my experience, is an indiscriminate and universal attacker, it stands to reason that such visits would yield a high rate of return. The more we invest, it would seem, the more likely it will be that when our tree falls in the woods, as surely it will, someone will be around to confirm that our cries do indeed make a sound.

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