Higher Living Reflections

All the Lonely People

I have no statistics to support my thesis, but I posit loneliness runs a close second to love when it comes to song lyric topics. Often they are entwined. In her 1950s hit, Patsy Cline sang about being lonely and blue because someone left her. For me, “Have You Ever Been Lonely?” is a sentimental, maudlin tune, but I suppose for the lovelorn it tugs at heartstrings.

“Eleanor Rigby” by Paul McCartney and the Beatles strikes an entirely different chord. The song is more than a haunting, mournful melody. It’s a story about a real woman who lived and died alone. When a lad, Paul did chores for her for “a bob.” Soon, he ran errands and picked up her groceries. And they chatted. Stunning. A teenage boy befriending a lonely, old lady listening to her stories. I’m trying to imagine that happening in 21st-century America. Try as I might, it boggles the imagination.  

According to McCartney, Allen Ginsberg dubbed “Eleanor Rigby” a poem. Literalists might argue all song lyrics are poetry, but I hold a stuffier view of what allows certain lines to rise to the level of poetry. For me, they need to be considerably more thoughtful and evocative than “Roses Are Red.” Or “Have You Ever Been Lonely?”

Once heard, “Eleanor Rigby” becomes etched in one’s psyche. The powerful strings opening in tandem with the Beatles’ harmony imploring us to look at the lonely people overwhelms the senses. As they sing, they wonder where the lonely come from. It’s as if they’re surprised not just by their presence but even by their existence. Who would’ve thought there were such people?

“Eleanor Rigby” is a relatively short song—2:11 minutes—that cuts right to the chase of two lonely people: Eleanor, who picks up rice after a wedding, and Father McKenzie, who writes and delivers sermons no one hears and buries Eleanor along with her name. Why does Eleanor pick up the rice? Is it her job, perhaps as a charwoman for the church? Or might she be forlorn, having never felt the joy of her own wedding? Maybe she was one of the ones Patsy sang about. And why does Father McKenzie persist in his task when no one hears nor cares?

Does it matter? The fact is they were lonely, and loneliness is, as Hawkeye on M*A*S*H averred, “everything it’s cracked up to be.”

Studies into the concept of friends, friendships, and social connections seem to be in vogue of late. They look at the condition of our social landscape in this 21st-century fast-paced, on-the-go, money-focused, hyper-tech culture that is increasingly becoming more impersonal despite the blather about building a more personal, inclusive society.

In response to their findings, an industry of how-to, self-help books offering practicums on making and keeping friends hit best-seller lists. Talk shows and podcasts address the subject. Though well-intentioned, I wonder about the irony of approaching a problem that developed in an analytical, data-driven, detached cultural environment from an analytical, data-driven, detached perspective through an analytical, data-driven, detached process. And I wonder about the irony of some, if not many, digesting the problem in isolation, secluded in the comfort of their homes and offices nodding their heads as they sip a Starbuck’s cappuccino or latte and talk to no one. Except maybe their Facebook page.

A better way to consider the problem is from a humanistic, evolutionary perspective. We evolved as a social, interdependent species, a hard truth that flies in the face of the American rugged individual ethos. Despite our cultural denialism, another hard truth is that we are fragile creatures, quite dependent on our fellow humans not only for acquiring the essentials of life but also for companionship. And a corollary to the second hard truth is you might’ve done it your way as you coursed through life, as Frank Sinatra crooned, but you didn’t do it by yourself.

Yet many stumble through arguably the most challenging period of their lives living and doing it alone. Why? A misanthropic personal choice? Due to being ostracized, ignored, unappreciated, undervalued, or taken for granted? Or a combo of the two, being siloed leading to self-isolation, one compounding the other?

The problem is that isolation can lead to self-destruction, whether through an act of volition—suicide—or a slow ebbing away. Like the autumn leaves in Paul Simon’s song that crumble in hand and wither away.

Think of social isolation as a reenactment of a childhood experience: adults in time-out. The primary difference being that for kiddos, there’s a time limit. For the isolated, lonely, and friendless, time-out might be a life sentence.

“Eleanor Rigby” wraps by challenging us with a second query about lonely people: Where do they belong? We ponder that as we visualize Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hand as he walks from Eleanor’s grave. And we learn no one was saved.

Being saved, the fundamental hope of Christians

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  • catherine scott
    January 19, 2023 at 9:09 am

    Thoughts that stick to my ribs, Brother Jerry. Thanks! Love; Cat

  • Angela Skiffen
    January 22, 2023 at 5:57 pm

    Excellent read but Isolation has nothing to do with feeling alone. You can be in a room full of people or living with someone and be very alone.