The Department of Loneliness

It was snowing heavily. The van skidded a few feet every time I pushed the brakes. We passed a slight figure, but I caught only the briefest glimpse – pale face, bathrobe, bedroom slippers? – before my eyes locked onto the road again.

“Mom!” Ben cried. “Stop! She might want a Blessing Bag!”

He had seen the same young woman. She was walking on the road, and definitely underdressed for late December. I slowed down and looked for a place to pull over.

To six-year-old eyes, this person was in trouble. She was out of place – on foot but not on the sidewalk, outside without a coat. But I wasn’t sure. Had she been wearing make-up? Was she crying? Was there perhaps a fairly regular reason for the situation that didn’t involve homelessness or hunger?

We turned around and drove back to the spot we’d seen her, but the girl was gone.

“Maybe she was just running from one house to another,” I told Ben. This was suburbia, not the inner city. “We’ll keep looking.”

It was Ben’s Christmas homework. On the last day of school, the Grade One class had assembled small bags of food – granola bar, juice box, applesauce, fruit snack and a note in each one. “You were made by God,” the note said, “and you are loved.” Their assignment was to find someone in need over the holidays and bless them with the bag. It was a terrific idea! Simple. Meaningful.

And way harder than I thought.

Two obstacles were apparent immediately. We live in a pretty small town. In fact, it’s officially a village. Poverty in general, and certainly homelessness, is not as obvious here. It was also really, really cold in Ontario after Christmas. Nobody was outside, at least not for very long; extra shelters were opened in bigger cities as the temperature plummeted.

Then one Sunday afternoon, we spotted a person outside the skating rink. She was pushing a small shopping cart, the square kind, full to overflowing, and she was well bundled against the cold. We parked and Ben and my husband got out, bracing against the wind, to head in her direction.

After about 20 minutes they came back, Ben still clutching the Blessing Bag in his mittens.

“She didn’t want it,” he said matter-of-factly.

They described the woman as elderly, of Asian descent. Ben began the conversation with the two words of Chinese he knows: “Hello” and “baby.” (I hope this made her smile.) She introduced herself as Coco, and said she wasn’t interested in the Blessing Bag. But she was hungry. So they walked to Burger King for a meal. Something hot must have been more appealing, and no wonder. It was minus twenty. Both the juice box and the applesauce were frozen solid.

We weren’t making much progress on this homework assignment, but conversations in the van were lively. Who could we help? What kind of help is best? What happens when someone doesn’t want our help? We were working through the same questions that aid organizations face on a much bigger scale. Our older kids wondered if we might offend someone by trying to help. I was worried about the drive-by nature of our task – drop something off and then zoom away, problem solved. But I tend to overthink stuff, so I tried to let this play out. It wasn’t my homework anyway.

After a few weeks, the kids were experts at finding people in the snowy landscape. Look! A man trudging along the highway with a garbage bag shielding his enormous backpack. Blessing Bag candidate? Whoops, no shoulder on the highway and too dangerous to stop. A group of teenagers huddled at the bus stop? Nah, they are pretty well dressed.

The package of snack food with its handwritten note stayed in our van for a month.

A daunting task
On January 17, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new federal government position: the Minister of Loneliness. It sounds like a joke – straight from a sci-fi novel or country western song. But loneliness is a serious problem, a “growing health epidemic,” according to the U.S. Surgeon General, because of its negative health consequences.

“We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization,” he said, “yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” The problem needs attention and dollars and policies, as much, apparently, as Foreign Affairs or Finance.

The new Minister of Loneliness has several tasks. Find ways of measuring social isolation. Develop strategies to address it. Direct money toward innovative solutions, and fund more community projects. Maybe she could also talk to a few Grade One teachers. They notice when kids are left out, and know what to do about it.

Loneliness affects people of all ages – teens, new parents, workaholics, seniors. We feel lonely for two reasons: when social interactions decrease – in our physical bodies; online friendship does not replace it – and when we feel less responsible for other people. Both physical and mental well-being decline as a result.

Maybe the Minister of Loneliness should order a million Blessing Bags. Give a million people the homework of finding someone they don’t know and starting a conversation. (In person.) This sounds exactly like the ongoing task of Christians, no matter our age. To deliver this message: You were made by God. You are loved.

Just having the Blessing Bag along gave us new eyes. We started looking for people who are often overlooked. There’s no need to wait for specific government funding. Canada needs more than one Minister of Loneliness.

I know some six-year-olds who are doing the work already.  

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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