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The Beatles’ insights into loneliness are still relevant 55 years on


“Paul McCartney sang about loneliness in The Beatles’ 1966 hit song, ‘Eleanor Rigby’…The lyrics of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ ask still troubling questions,” says Cathedral community member Ken Willett

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Hospital chaplain The Rev’d Kendall Palladino, who is based in Connecticut in the US, often speaks about his experience meeting Mother Teresa. He describes a life-changing conversation that he had with her while volunteering in Calcutta in 1994:

“After a day working together, Mother Teresa spoke with our team. I told Mother Teresa that I planned to enter medical school after seminary to work with people with leprosy overseas. Mother Teresa surprised me when she said, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ She continued, ‘There is a poverty in your country that is just as severe as our poorest of the poor.’ I wondered what she could mean by that, since I had seen poverty that would make even our poorest in the United States look wealthy. Mother Teresa went on to say, ‘In the West there is a loneliness, which I call the leprosy of the West. In many ways, it is worse than our poor in Calcutta.’”

Mother Teresa frequently described loneliness as a form of poverty – relational, rather than material, poverty. She said that, “the greatest suffering is to feel alone, unwanted, unloved.”

Loneliness is Australia’s next public health crisis, according to clinical psychologist Dr Michelle Lim, chairperson of Ending Loneliness Together. She said this is because loneliness is widespread, frequently severe and highly detrimental to the mental and physical health and wellbeing of people who experience it.

The good news is that everyone can contribute to alleviate loneliness.

The Australian Psychological Society defines loneliness as “a feeling of distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like.” It results from a person feeling that no one cares sufficiently about their circumstances and wellbeing. Social isolation is one source of loneliness. However, a socially isolated person may not feel lonely, and some feel lonely without being alone.

Surveys sponsored by the Australian Psychological Society, Ending Loneliness Together and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare have indicated that loneliness is pervasive in Australia. About 25 per cent of Australians aged 12-89 feel persistently lonely. Around 51 per cent feel lonely at least one day a week. Feelings of loneliness are most common among those aged over 75, but these feelings are strongest in the 18-25 and 56-65 age groups.

Loneliness researchers report that health experts have found that loneliness is an important cause of adverse wellbeing issues in all age groups. Australians experiencing high levels of loneliness have a 26-32 per cent higher risk of physical and mental health issues than “connected” Australians.

A recent Australian survey showed that a high proportion of people are reluctant to admit to feeling lonely. This reluctance is particularly strong among people in their late teens and early 20s. Reasons for this reluctance include concern that others will think there is something wrong with them, not wanting to be a burden on others, and embarrassment. Dr Lim observed that many lonely people also socially withdraw, do not appear to need social connections, and indicate only subtly or indirectly that they want to interact.

The distress, embarrassment, stigma and social withdrawal associated with loneliness tie in with Mother Teresa’s characterisation of loneliness as “the leprosy of the West”, because the terrible disease of leprosy historically induced similar responses.

Paul McCartney sang about loneliness in The Beatles’ 1966 hit song, ‘Eleanor Rigby’. In The New Yorker, McCartney writes about the inspiration of the song:

“Growing up, I knew a lot of old ladies—partly through what was called Bob-a-Job Week, when Scouts did chores for a shilling. You’d get a shilling for cleaning out a shed or mowing a lawn. I wanted to write a song that would sum them up. Eleanor Rigby is based on an old lady that I got on with very well. I don’t even know how I first met ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but I would go around to her house, and not just once or twice. I found out that she lived on her own, so I would go around there and just chat, which is sort of crazy if you think about me being some young Liverpool guy. Later, I would offer to go and get her shopping. She’d give me a list and I’d bring the stuff back, and we’d sit in her kitchen…So I would visit, and just hearing her stories enriched my soul and influenced the songs I would later write.”


“The song itself was consciously written to evoke the subject of loneliness, with the hope that we could get listeners to empathize.”

The lyrics of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ ask still troubling questions:

“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

These questions remain, along with the problem of loneliness.

What can we do as individuals to effectively address this issue?

First, we can be observant, while being friendly – looking and listening around our neighbourhoods, workplaces, and other places that we frequent to identify those who feel lonely. This would help to answer Paul McCartney’s first question.

Second, we can do kind things for lonely people, gently encourage them to talk, and listen to their stories. Little acts of kindness facilitate interaction. Then, taking time to listen and show we care might be the kindest things we can do. This would show lonely people that they belong, helping to answer Paul McCartney’s second question.

Anne, my caring wife, who is astutely discerning in relation to others’ feelings, has trialled this approach on a small scale. After identifying lonely and potentially lonely people in our neighbourhood, from time to time she makes scones or other goodies and visits them for a chat and a cuppa. She listens well.

What can a local church community do to effectively address this issue?

First, community members could be encouraged to do the simple things suggested above.

Second, a church community can be an intentionally welcoming place for lonely people – somewhere they can belong. They could be referred by individuals, local GPs, community groups and charity organisations, as part of a “social prescription” programme, a concept discussed in a recent Queensland Parliamentary inquiry report on loneliness. Social prescribers ask, “what matters to you?” rather than “what’s the matter with you?”

Third, a church could refer lonely people to other places where they can additionally belong.

Why should we seek to help lonely people? We should do so because they are our neighbours and because we would appreciate help if we were in distress.

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