The wilderness inside us

August 23, 2019

Loneliness is on the rise in our fragmented society.



“Ever wondered where the worst place in the world is? Loneliness.” This was the updated Facebook status of someone with a caring spouse, healthy children and friends in the community. Comments like these are not rare.

“I have loving family and friends, but nobody I can talk to about my deepest, innermost feelings, thoughts and fears,” said a busy young mother, while a middle-aged businessman shared, “Nobody really knows me, the real me, and I have nobody to connect with at the soul level.”

Loneliness has been called twice as deadly as obesity and more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive, Public Health England, 2013). According to a 2016 survey by Lifeline Australia, 60 per cent of Australians often feel lonely, and lonelier than they’ve ever felt before. Of the 3100 respondents, 82.5 per cent felt loneliness was on the rise in society.

Graham Long, recently retired pastor and chief executive officer at the Wayside Chapel in inner-city Sydney’s Kings Cross, says loneliness is the epidemic of our times. And it’s an epidemic sweeping the Western world.


Former British Prime Minister Theresa May set her sights on ‘combating’ loneliness by appointing a minister of loneliness and there is a national ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’ to help the nine million lonely people in the UK. Closer to home, the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, which The Salvation Army has joined, aims to raise awareness of, and address, loneliness and physical social isolation through evidence-based interventions and advocacy.


Loneliness can take many forms. It can be isolation caused by poverty, mental health issues or addiction; it can be moving to a new location; losing a loved one; living alone; the result of abandonment, abuse, illness, injury or family breakdown. It can be the sadness that comes from not having friends or feeling unable to connect with people, and, as is increasingly common, being surrounded by people but not connecting on the deep and intimate level that fills the soul emotionally, mentally, spiritually and even physically. It is not truly knowing anyone, or being truly known.


In the 17th century, when loneliness was usually relegated to being in the space outside the city, solving it was easy. It merely required a physical return to society. However, as Amelia S. Worsley writes in A History of Loneliness, “... loneliness has since moved inward — and has become much harder to cure. Because it’s taken up residence inside minds, even the minds of people living in bustling cities, it can’t always be solved by company. Modern loneliness isn’t just about being physically removed from other people. Instead, it’s an emotional state of feeling apart from others — without necessarily being so. The wilderness is now inside 
of us.”


Hugh Mackay, one of Australia’s leading social researchers and commentators, believes the deep loneliness many of us experience and see around us is largely due to the fragmentation of our society.

“We need to live in communities that sustain us and nurture us, protect us and give us a sense of identity. When we feel cut off from the herd, anxiety goes up,” he says in The Conversation’s 2017 Yearbook –Articles from Australia’s top thinkers.



In his latest book, Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society, Mackay addresses some of the forces at work in our communities — disappointment in political leadership, loss of faith in once-respected institutions such as the Church, dropping education standards and the explosion of social media — that are causing us to experience, sometimes paradoxically, more loneliness.

Part of the solution to repairing our fragmented and lonely society, he argues, is to “get off our screens and connect with the people in our local neighbourhoods...The great thing about neighbourhoods is they’re full of people we may like or dislike, very different from us. It’s very good for our moral development to have to learn how to rub along with people you didn’t choose.”


The Salvation Army has a wide variety of programs and personnel around the nation to work with people of all ages and backgrounds suffering from loneliness. These include: local corps (churches) and community programs, Doorways case workers, chaplaincy network, street programs, youth outreach services, Salvos Stores, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres and multicultural ministries. For more information, go to

Mackay also suggests that faith will play a role in the renewal of our communities towards a more compassionate and less anxious society. 

“Even among people who don’t have any religious faith, they admire it and often envy it,” he says. “People recognise that the expression of faith, whether in medical care, social services, or education, is likely to be of a very high standard because it’s driven by this faith in the higher being, this higher power.”


Lauren Martin, a Salvation Army journalist who runs Red Shield community events, small groups and the Positive Lifestyle Program in the Wollongong suburb of Helensburgh (NSW), says that although The Salvation Army comes alongside people who are lonely and isolated due to poverty, mental health issues and disadvantage, the deep loneliness she sees in her community is not related to those struggles. 


“This is not a low socio-economic area, and most people I speak with don’t have a lack of people to hang out with and speak with on a surface level, but their conversations don’t run deep,” she says. “They’re isolated with the hardships they can’t tell people about, with the pain, shame or fear that they’re dealing with, or family issues they don’t want to share.”


Lauren says many people talk to her because they know she is from The Salvation Army, can be trusted, and that their sharing will be confidential. “It’s so sad that, in a lot of cases, people don’t feel like they can share their deepest fears or struggles with friends. Maybe it’s because they feel like they have to live up to their Facebook image,” she says.

“The more we invest in our social media self, the less authentic we are with the people around us, and that creates severe loneliness and isolation.”


Life’s busyness is also a huge barrier to developing deeply connected relationships, she adds. 


“People often don’t have the time to respond when their friends really need them,” she says.


“When a crisis happens, the real gift people can give is their time — immediate response, a listening ear, confidentiality and non-judgmental compassion. To help combat loneliness, people need to know that someone has heard them, is not judging them and stands alongside them with encouragement and care. It’s time and it’s love, wherever you live. It’s not rocket science, yet it’s incredibly powerful.”


There are many excellent sources of immediate help in a crisis, as well as resources, to assist in understanding and reducing loneliness and isolation.


These include:

13 11 14


Kids Helpline:

1800 55 1800



1300 22 4636




MensLine Australia:

1300 78 99 78


SANE Australia:

1800 187 263

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