Food and Loneliness

I started a mini-rant on a friend’s facebook page when she posted an article on loneliness. The article had implications about social networks and increasing isolation, which is probably true, although I haven’t experienced it as such, because it is an easy way to keep in touch with my busy, computer-literate sisters, nieces and nephews. My sons are more likely to send the long letterish message via e-mail, and I love it when we get to talk on the telephone. My life has kept me more mobile than my family, so the internet has meant that I am in touch with them more than ever before.

The blog here at WordPress has also meant that I could continue in ministry without a parish, and receive the ministry of others beyond a small circle of friends, and I have needed that at times. Electronic, digital communication is a wonder, and I think in general it is useful for promoting the faith even as there are great problems with the technology being misused. But then, this was true of the printing press as well, and even the invention of cheap paper. (Parchment and papyrus take a lot of work and preparation; cotton or woodfiber paper can be made in a couple of days.)

The main drawback to communication at a distance is that it can keep us separated. While communicating, we have no incentive to see each other. We do not share that vital part of human interaction, which is the communal meal. We are designed to share food. It is the most basic of social events.

It begins with family meals, with the infant fed by the mother in the security of her arms, in the presence of the other members of the family. The nursing baby is then given table food, and eventually a seat at the family table. It should be the most secure of all our memories, that we were fed and loved in the presence of the rest of the family.

Our contemporary culture has lost a lot of that basic security. Meals are haphazard events, sometimes eaten in the car or alone or in the presence of strangers (think of the mall food court.) These are not times that evoke a feeling of safety and security. Families struggling with social pressures may devolve into nothing more than individuals sharing a house, all eating at different times, with different motives, and even competing with each other for resources. Food and eating disorders can be the result.

Our elderly who live alone may stop eating properly. Meals remind them that they are alone and lonely, that they are unwanted by family or society. Meal programmes at churches or community centres may bring them together sometimes, but it is not a good substitute for a healthy family life. This isolation of the elderly is a recent phenomenon; most of human history, the older family members remained in a family home with children and grandchildren. They contributed memories, knowledge, household help and childcare. Now they may go to nursing homes long before they are ready, or into seniors’ apartments. This can be a good thing for those who need medical care, or who remain in their home community, but it is very isolating if the elderly move to a new location with unfamiliar faces and places. They may end up eating alone most of the time, or not eating much at all, or eating inappropriate foods out of boredom and depression.

I have been to more Christmas dinners given for the elderly than I can count. They often seem rather forced in jollity, and a poor substitute for the family table. Yes, everyone gets fed, has some company, gets a little souvenir of the day and goes home for a nap. But it is a thin replacement for the daily family meal, and there are eleven other months when there aren’t holiday meals provided. It’s a brief respite from isolation and boredom, but very brief – a ceasefire in the loneliness war.

Many family homes have formal dining rooms, or a large dining area with a big table. People fantasize when they buy a house that they will have family dinners, or intimate romantic suppers, or big parties in these dining areas, but how often do they become deserts, wildernesses of maple furniture and gold-rimmed dishes, never used except for the token holiday meal? The kids eat fast food or sandwiches in the car, and spend more mealtimes with their friends than their parents. Parents eat something out of the microwave or from the coffee shop while flying around from task to task.

Some of us are taking back the table. One of the reasons is that the Lord Jesus Christ gave us a special meal, communion, to bring us together, to nourish us in real physical and spiritual ways. Every meal among Christians is special, set aside, our sharing of God’s gifts, even if it is not the consecrated meal of the altar. We pray for blessing on that meal, and for our needs and the needs of others; it is a sacred time becuase it is so elemental. God gave humanity the good food of the earth in the Garden; humanity fell to temptation and corrupted it. But when we sit down in love and reconciliation at the family or neighbourly table, we are taken back into the goodness of the original home, and share its bounty with God.

Some churches continue the communal aspects of table fellowship with an open meal following their worship. This goes beyond the sign of communion, and takes its understanding of our relationship to God into the world. Perhaps we need to do this more, since the usual denominational “coffee hour” is so often paltry, cold and brief, poorly attended and even resented by those who have to arrive early to fill the pot and lay out the cookies. I was closely involved in the aftermath of a “coffee hour” gone tragically wrong; the spiritual implications of that will reverberate in that community, church and denomination for generations, I believe.

Traditional Christians are trying to take back the traditional family life. We are called to model that for others, to show that it works, that it builds up our families, our children and our elders, and supports our communities.