I have been reflecting more on my work recently, in part because of the changing university culture and in part because of the changing culture of young adults; I note particularly the shift among university students from “millennials” to the “iGeneration” with their different interests, priorities and needs. It has been important to me, in my professional work, to be both rooted in the tradition in which I stand, but also to adapt and change my ministry in order to be relevant to my changing context.
When I began in chaplaincy at Mount Allison in 1993, I was interviewed by the media about my work: among the questions posed, I was asked what I thought was the single biggest challenge facing young adults. I thought then that this challenge was loneliness, and 25 years later I would say the same. In part, loneliness has become a huge challenge for all adult ages in Western culture, and for young adults particularly the challenge has only become greater. Despite the connectivity of the iGeneration to the larger world, and to one another through a variety of different social media platforms, deep down I think many young adults still struggle with loneliness. New parents, busy with work and young children and often at a distance from their family, can also feel the challenge of being isolated. Many in middle age, seeing children move away, leading full lives with work and travel, are still lonely. And seniors, more than ever before, are facing the challenge of loneliness. Newcomers of all ages to communities, especially immigrants and refugees, experience bouts of loneliness, as do those who are disabled and those who experience the challenges of mental health issues.
This past week British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed one of her cabinet ministers to lead a government-wide group to address issues of loneliness: as one British paper declared, “the Minister of Loneliness.” Tracey Crouch, who currently serves as Minister for Sport and Civil Society, will take on the task of addressing this huge social challenge. As the Prime Minister noted, “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”
In the small town of Sackville, where it seems we all know one another, and on the small campus of Mount Allison, we might assume we are exempt from this social challenge, yet the challenge of loneliness is still present; it does not discriminate based on age, education or geography.
This has been one area where I have sought to engage in a ministry of presence, of support, of friendship. In non-political terms, I have tried to be a “minister of loneliness,” and continue to work to address the challenges posed by social dislocation and isolation, but this is a challenge we can all address. Whether moved by faith or spirituality or common kindness, whether younger or older, outgoing or shy, despite the busy schedules of university life, it can be a simple thing to keep our eyes open for those who are disconnected; it can be a valuable investment of time to spend a little with someone who would benefit from a meaningful conversation, a shared cup of tea, some interest in their well-being. My challenge for 2018, then, is not about what I might do, but about what I might encourage others to do: to see the real faces of real people who might gain immeasurably from some human contact and conversation. The benefits would not only be for those whose lives we touch, but for ourselves as well, and indeed for our social order. Let’s not wait for a government ministry to be introduced in Canada; rather, let’s begin today to “reach out and touch someone,” and break the cycle of loneliness.