Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World

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Gerald A. Arbuckle
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , October
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a May 2018 interview with Washington Post Live, the then United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, said that the most common illness he sees in his medical practice is loneliness. This observation, shared by numerous physicians, psychologists, educators, spiritual leaders, and others, has been confirmed by research studies such as Cigna’s nationwide investigation, which shows that nearly half of people in the United States experience deep loneliness; likewise, its own Office of National Statistics, which has researched the problem, has dubbed Britain the “loneliness capital of Europe.” Journalists and scholars have analyzed this contemporary ailment, talking to lonely people and counseling and medical professionals; the investigators’ reports have described the experience of suffering due to loneliness, its causes, and the deleterious health effects of it, and they have shared the ways in which professionals recommend that sufferers address it. With Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World, Gerald A. Arbuckle joins this conversation about a serious ailment spoken little of in public, adding his anthropological and theological voice to the mix.

Arbuckle’s book of practical theology approaches the problem of loneliness from a unique angle, charting the cultural patterns leading to loneliness within a wider contemporary milieu of cultural collapse. His many years of research on change and social organizations (e.g., health care, educational organizations, and ecclesial institutions)—using the methods of applied anthropology and the lenses of theology—provide a complex view of loneliness situated in its Western, late capitalist, postmodern context, and manifested in particular areas of political, ecclesial, and economic life. This Marist priest and scholar posits the emergence of a deep loneliness in response to a variety of forms of exclusion, including rampant nationalism, economic and political marginalization, and racism and xenophobia. During times of extreme cultural stresses, he says, individuals and groups evoke various mechanisms of exclusion (e.g., witch hunting, scapegoating) that trigger loneliness as they attempt to create a monocultural “us,” which excludes “them” (127). For Arbuckle, the experience of loneliness is an individual’s—or group’s—sense of being excluded by others, coupled with a desire to be included; thus, the experience of loneliness is one that features both the imposition of rejection from the outside and the hope by the rejected that such an exclusion will end. This definition distinguishes loneliness from solitude: a choice in the service of self-awareness, spiritual contemplation, and creativity. 

In Loneliness, Arbuckle not only describes the situation of loneliness in our context, but also provides scholarly, biblical, and theological resources to help readers address their own loneliness or support to others in doing so. For example, each chapter begins with a set of quotations for readers to ponder and ends with a chapter summary and list of reflection questions for personal or group contemplation. Although the repetition of questions at the end of multiple chapters is sometimes unhelpful, the reflections they engender can, nevertheless, assist the sufferer of loneliness or an educator or spiritual leader aiming to assist their students or congregation. Arbuckle concludes the book with a chapter entitled “Pastoral Responses,” which offers practical, theological, and biblically-grounded paths forward—through loneliness—for sufferers and those who care for them, highlighting the need for humility and detachment linked with the cultivation of a sense of humor, to allow the mystery of God to pervade the process. 

This book is, at times, too reliant on Arbuckle’s already-published texts, featuring sections that seem hastily adapted from previous works. While some sections are too narrowly focused on Catholic Christians alone, Loneliness does add an important and resonant voice into the wider conversation about loneliness. Arbuckle provides his readers with a textbook-example of a work of practical theology following the See-Judge-Act model employed by liberation theologians and others, an effort strengthened by the author’s years of experience as an anthropologist, theologian, and priest. At its best, Loneliness provides resources for individuals, congregations, and others who want to tackle this difficult contemporary condition, particularly in relation to those who live in poverty, who are refugees or asylum seekers, or who feel excluded within the church. What Arbuckle does most successfully is to help readers understand the manifold cultural dimensions of loneliness so that sufferers do not remain in conceptual or experiential isolation, but with a variety of educational and pastoral support, can find their way through the pain of exclusion and into the meaningful sense of belonging that they hope for.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary O'Shan Overton is Director of the Center for Writing and Learning Support and Adjunct Profess at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
July 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald A. Arbuckle, SM, is an award-winning author of many books, including The Francis Factor and the People of God (Orbis 2015). A noted scholar in both theology and anthropol­ogy, he is co-director of Refounding and Pastoral Development, a research ministry in Sydney, Australia.



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