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Asking the Clergy: When holiday loneliness is compounded by the pandemic

From left, Rabbi Michael Stanger of the Old

From left, Rabbi Michael Stanger of the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, Panna Shah of the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum, and the Rev. William McBride of the Brookville Multifaith Campus. Credit: From left: Michael Stanger; Long Island Multi-Faith Forum; Interfaith Community Religious Education Program

The warmth of the holiday season can elude people in the best of times. With the pandemic curtailing holiday gatherings, this week’s clergy discuss ways to keep spirits up — whether through online prayer, meditating in solitude or serving others.

Panna Shah

Member, Long Island Multi-Faith Forum

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down in many ways. Diwali, a November religious festival, was observed in limited fashion at a social distance in Jain temples, as well as online with prayer. However, many Jain religious holidays are already observed at a personal level, with fasting or meditation.

During times of loneliness, Jainism encourages introspection. Our behavior and actions are the reflections of internal thoughts. Thus, in the silence of meditation, the ego gets wiped out and we find a source of self-improvement. We learn to love ourselves, and to stop looking outside ourselves for love and care. We can engage in useful, peaceful, spiritually advancing thoughts. Ultimately, we stop feeling lonely.

Loneliness can also be assuaged by developing a healthy routine, by making time not only for work but for exercise by, perhaps, taking a walk amid nature. Overall, be kind to yourself and to others, the latter by delivering groceries to homebound people or writing letters to people telling them you are thinking about them. Doing acts of kindness boosts our mood and makes us feel more connected throughout these difficult times.

Rabbi Michael Stanger

The Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation

One hidden blessing that emerged from our COVID-related concerns is the virtual minyan community that we developed in my synagogue. (A minyan is the required quorum of Jews necessary to say certain prayers in a service.) It has met daily in the mornings and evenings since the mid-March lockdown. We expect to continue meeting daily online until such time as a vaccine or treatment ends the need for physical distancing and other safety protocols.

The truth is, I look forward to seeing the members of the minyan community because there is true comfort in the familiar. After all, that is what community is all about.

So whatever religious institution you belong to, see what services, events and programs they can offer you — either in person or online! And if it still seems tough to not be with friends or extended family in their homes, or to have them in your home this year, look at it this way, as my wife recently pointed out to me: "We are taking these extraordinary steps and necessary restrictions this year so that we don’t have to next year, and, God willing, we all stay healthy and can be together again, in the near future."

The Rev. William McBride

Religious director, Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus

I would like to begin by sharing words of my mother when she faced loneliness. She was a widow, and my sister, who had lived with Mom for 50 years, had recently died. My mother was facing loneliness and a pandemic of pain in her body.

She said, "If the body is the temple of the spirit, then my temple has been bombed."

Relating a conversation with a friend in which they had exchanged aches, pains, lonely challenges and laughter for more than an hour, my mom proclaimed, "Misery adores company." Her one-liner hints at a way we might help others cope with loneliness during this pandemic. Our mission statement might be "Accompany the misery." Together we can offer gifts helping others get through holidays.

People facing chronic or acute loneliness can give the gift of not giving up. We can exchange one-liners to help us live through aloneness. We can offer listening hearts of understanding to accompany lonely loved ones. We can acknowledge the person's vital importance. Help can have many faces this holiday season. "Accompany the misery" echoes the biblical cry of Isaiah who saw that Emmanuel, which means, "God with us," or the Messiah, is revealed in the suffering service of each other.

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