This is a column about the most rampant and deadliest human affliction.
I'm not talking about starvation or homelessness or cancer or drug addiction.
I'm talking about loneliness.
Loneliness is not about being alone. Loneliness is about facing life's challenges and feeling like no one in the whole world gives a damn.
It's a feeling of sadness and despair that your difficulties are ones that you suffer in a stifling vacuum, with no human compassion available to serve as an ointment for your painful wounds.
Mother Theresa tells the story of an old man crumbled up against the curb in an alley in Calcutta. He had been left for dead, his body covered with pustulating abscesses, fecal matter, and maggots.
This poor dying soul was too weak to do anything other than lie there in the street waiting to die.
Tiny Mother Theresa took the man up into her arms, showing no revulsion at his disgusting condition and the putrid stench that emanated from his body. Instead, she looked at him with the very deepest love and took him back to her home for the dying.
She and an assistant gently bathed him, treated his wounds, and dressed him in a fresh linen robe.
He died after just a few hours. However, Mother Theresa noted the look of complete joy in this man's faded blue eyes as she held him in her arms, his last breath about to fade away.
He was happy because somebody loved and cared for him as he faced his final torture.
Mother Theresa told audiences hundreds of times that the real suffering in the world came in the form of loneliness defined as contemplating your harshest reality and knowing that absolutely no one cares.
I remember sitting in a dimly lit room in my Mom and Dad's house just a few years ago as my mother was dying from a painful and unstoppable cancer of the liver. It was three o'clock in the morning and she lay in a hospital bed that had been brought to the house where her children and children's spouses and grandchildren kept a 24-hour vigil by her side to make sure that someone was with her.
We tried to meet all of her needs but most importantly she knew there was always someone there with her as she dragged her cross to Calvary.
I remember that in that overwhelming silence in the middle of the night she opened her eyes just slightly and enough to realize that I was there. She smiled a very gentle and subtle smile that expressed joy in knowing that the affliction of loneliness at least would never be hers to suffer as she soldiered on.
Hospitals. Nursing homes. Prisons. Halfway houses. The back pews in an otherwise empty church. A park bench around the corner from you. The Social Security office. The place where you work. Maybe even your own home.
These are places where you can easily find people who need a word of encouragement and compassion and love.
You may not be Mother Theresa, but you can help to dilute the pain of loneliness.
Maybe you think you should mind your own business and turn away and go on about your day.
I'm asking you to do something a little braver. Talk to the outcast. Make an effort to find people who are facing challenges and show them that you care.
Would you pass the old decrepit lice-infested man in Calcutta?
Lift him up and take him to your home. Bathe him and dress his wounds.
None of us are lonely if we truly have each other.