Along with watching all the fancy TV adverts, it seems there is a new Christmas tradition: highlighting the issue of loneliness at this time of year. For many, Christmas is about joy and time spent with their families. For others, it can be one of the loneliest times of the year.
Whilst this tradition of highlighting loneliness has been around for several years, especially among charities such as Age UK, this year the issue has taken even greater prescience due to the findings of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. The Commission is named after the British politician who was brutally murdered in June 2016 by a white extremist (I wrote about this tragedy in a previous blog post). Jo was in the middle of setting up the Commission to combat loneliness before her tragic death.
Her hope for the Commission was to turbo-charge public awareness of loneliness. She wanted everybody, all across society, to understand more about the extent of loneliness and then, together, to do something about it in our communities, as individuals, as employers, and through greater political leadership. One of the reasons why Jo wanted to set up the Commission was, as she said:
Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate. – Jo Cox
The study from the Commission, officially released Friday 15th December 2017, has presented many interesting findings around the subject of loneliness. Among many things it is calling on the government to fund new ways of battling loneliness. Labour MP Rachel Reeves, co-chair of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, said:
Loneliness is no longer just a personal misfortune but has grown into a social epidemic. If we can tackle it effectively we can make Britain not just a happier but also a healthier country in which to live. – Rachel Reeves
The Commission has started a much wider debate on the subject. For example, the Chief Nursing Officer for England Jane Cummings said:
Loneliness can have a devastating impact. Evidence shows that social isolation increases the risk of premature death by around a third. – Jane Cummings
Whilst loneliness has been called a social epidemic and a public health crisis, Deborah Moggach, author of the novel adapted for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films about retired people from the UK going to India, says that:
Loneliness really is the last taboo. – Deborah Moggach
A quick read of other articles on loneliness reveals that it can be devastating mentally and physically. Loneliness is so damaging to health it is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese. Being lonely is associated with an impaired immune system, it causes an increased incidence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. It raises levels of cortisol in the body which can lead to depression and anxiety. Long term loneliness can lead to stress, paranoia, coronary heart disease, substance misuse, eating issues, sleep disturbance, cognitive deterioration (dementia), arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and even attempted suicides.
There are economic costs too. Researchers estimate that loneliness damages our national economy, to the tune of £32bn per annum. Another view point suggests that the epidemic of loneliness costs £6,000 per person in health costs and pressure on local services. But the London School of Economics study of older people also says that for every £1 spent in preventing loneliness there are £3 of savings.
The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission concludes by suggesting that the UK needs a national strategy to combat loneliness across all ages, and a corresponding ‘minister for loneliness’ needs to be appointed who would be responsible for implementing the strategy. With this in mind the aforementioned Rachel Reeves said, in a recent article for Prospect magazine:
The crisis of loneliness exposes the limits of our welfare system. If William Beveridge was alive today, I believe he would identify loneliness as one of his great evils. Alongside the need for bread and health he would add the need for attachment and connection. And he’d follow up on his belief in voluntary action and give more power and control to people. – Rachel Reeves, from an article in Prospect magazine (Lord Beveridge, a noted progressive and social reformer, was also one of the founding fathers of the modern British welfare state, i.e. the NHS)
So how does loneliness relate to smiling? At the time of reading all these articles on loneliness, I came across a 5 minute audio clip of my favourite Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf talking about how people don’t smile anymore, and how this is related to an increased number of us being more and more alone.
This sense of loneliness goes against the general principle of how Muslims should live their lives. Islam is a community based religion. We have the concept of the ummah, the global Muslim community, to which we are all spiritually connected to. From a young age we are taught that prayer offered in congregation is more rewarding than prayer offered alone. We are taught that it is better for us to have a teacher, a Shaykh, so that we can learn from a living breathing person, rather than sitting alone and reading from a lifeless book.
Also around this time I watched a documentary on the BBC called Attenborough And The Giant Elephant, about the famous elephant Jumbo. David Attenborough explained how Jumbo, when he was in London and isolated and had no contact at all with other elephants, would often have night terrors. However, when Jumbo was shipped out to America he was placed in a circus and found himself in the company of other elephants. The night terrors completely stopped immediately. So even elephants are community based creatures.
Islam is also a religion that encourages us to smile, something the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did often. In fact, in Islam smiling is not only considered a sunnah (a recommended act of the Prophet for us to follow) but it is also recognised as an act of charity (more on this in a previous blog post).
Pope Francis also recently said that smiling more is one of the three ways people can find happiness during this festive season. Add to this the recent scientific news that, according to the journal Psychology Of Sport And Exercise, smiling while working out can lead to a more productive workout. So the more you grin and bear it, literally, the healthier you become. It all bodes well for us to smile more.
Anyways, here is the aforementioned lecture by the always brilliant Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Enjoy!
When Shaykh Khathri came from Mauritania to America he said that he noticed nobody smiled. Because one of the things about Mauritania is, and Sidi Ibrahim knows this, you got out in the desert and they are all smiling, right? People smile all the time because smiling is actually part of fitra (your natural instinct). The Prophet (SAW) smiled all the time. One of his names is ad-dahhak, the one who always smiles. He smiled all time. One of the sahabah (companions) said, “From the day I became Muslim I never once saw the Messenger of Allah except he smiled.” From the day he became Muslim he said “I never once saw the Messenger of Allah except he smiled.” It’s actually fitra to smile. If you see somebody, you know, this is a human being, you smile, he smiles, you feel good, he feels good, right?
And then you get these people, [serious tone] “As-salaam-alaikum brother.” Seriously! You go into the masjid and that’s what you hear, [serious tone] “As-salaam-alaikum brother.”
Just try a little harder on that one, just a little harder, like [polite tone] “As-salaam-alaikum”. You don’t even have to…Seriously, some people, it’s like getting a tooth out of them, or something, to get a salaam with a smile.
But he said that the reason he thinks nobody smiles is because he said he noticed they do everything alone. So he said they have shayateen (demons) with them and they get depressed. Because shaytaan (the devil) rides alone…There is a hadith (a saying of the Prophet), somebody who rides alone is a shaytaan, and two of them, two shaytaans, three is company.
You look in the West, everybody in their cars alone. And who are they listening to? Shaytaan on the radio. It’s amazing, they’re listening to shaytaan. And they’re driving alone. And then they go to work and they sit behind a cubicle alone. They don’t talk to anybody. In California they say “Send me an email.” They don’t even want to talk to them physically. They tell them “Send me an email.” Some of them have a sign, they just hold up a sign, they won’t even say anything.
Shaykh Khathri, when he was in New York, he said the strangest thing he saw, they were in a traffic jam, all these cars, and he said he looked over and he saw a car go in this place and it turned around and then he said it stopped, it rolled down it’s window and it spoke to a box. And then he said the box spoke back to him in a clear tongue. And then he said the car drove up a little further and he said some hands came out of a window with a white box. And he said he gave him money and they didn’t say anything to each other. He said he spoke to the box and he didn’t speak to the person. It was a fast-food restaurant.
But he was just looking at it, just seeing it for the first time. You see, you grew up seeing this, thinking it’s normal. It’s not normal, it’s neuroses, it’s a sickness. This is actually pathology. And somebody in fitra can see it for what it is, but people that are out of fitra they can’t see it. That’s what he said.
They go to work and then they go home and they eat alone. If one person eats alone shaytaan eats with you. And shaytaan just gets stronger and stronger. That’s the thing about shaytaan, people don’t realize this, shaytaan gets strong with heedlessness, he gets weak with dhikr (remembrance of Allah). The more ghaflah (heedlessness), he gets strong physically because he’s eating…if you don’t do dhikr when you eat, like say “Bismillah,” he eats with you. And he gets fat, he has energy because he’s got caloric strength. But if you say “Bismillah” then he can’t eat, he starts getting weak and withers away. If you say “Bismillah” when you go into your house, he can’t sleep with you.
There are two shaytaans, and this is from a sound hadith, they met, one was weak, the other was strong. He said “What’s the matter with you?” He said “I have a horrible assignment. Every time he eats he says ‘Bismillah,’ when he sleeps he says ‘Bismillah,’ when he goes to his wife he says ‘Bismillah.’ I’m not getting any strength.” He said “Oh, I’ve got a good one. He never says ‘Bismillah.’ I eat as all I want. When he goes home I have a nice bed to sleep in.”
So now look at the whole world. I mean, Christians they used to say “Bless us Lord for these gifts which we are about to receive.” They used to say that, and insha-Allah (God willing) it benefitted them. They don’t say that now, they just gobble it down. And so the shayateen are getting bigger and bigger.
And now they can just say they are shayateen, they actually can say it now. Really. They come out literally and say it, like rock bands. They say that “We are Satan.” I mean, they literally announce it. I saw this guy, he had a thing, “I worship Satan,” literally on his t-shirt. He had spiked hair, and it said on his t-shirt “I worship Satan.”
And this is happening in Christian lands, they used to be anyway. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
PS I realised after posting the above that I had previously mentioned a Shaykh Hamza Yusuf quote where he spoke about the Prophet (S) smiling…
Our Prophet was not somebody who was sombre. In fact one of his names is ad-dahhak, the smiling one. He smiled a lot. But he is also da-i-mul-ahzan, a deeply contemplative person, someone who was in profound meditation with his Lord. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf