All The Lonely People: Eleanor Rigby and Edith Stein

If you spend any time getting into deeper conversations with people on social media, you rather quickly discover, if you were not already aware of it, that the world is absolutely chock-full of people who are feeling lonely as a result of physical or emotional worries, and are looking for a means of support or escape from their lives.  There are of course Stoics on social media sites, who at their end of the scale rarely or never talk about any bad things they are going through.  On the opposite end of the scale, there are people going through a number of very difficult things all at once, and they share that with you in detail.  Yet all of us, even if surrounded by family and friends, can fall into a sense of isolation when things are not well.

Among the many things which do not endear me to my peers – such as my dislike of Buffalo wings – is my dislike of anything having to do with The Beatles.  I have always found them cloying and self-important.  However recently I have been thinking about the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”, which we were forced to learn and sing along to in music class when I was in 2nd grade along with “Yellow Submarine”.  No points for guessing what generation my teacher belonged to.

The song deals with someone who was lonely and, while fictionalized, representative of a certain type of person we all recognize – maybe even ourselves, to some extent.  Readers will recall there was an interesting story a few years ago about the name in the song, thanks to a subconscious memory Paul McCartney may have had from a local graveyard.  It turns out Eleanor didn’t have such a nice life, after all, nor did most of her family.  We could be forgiven for reading that story and either recognizing ourselves in it, or being grateful that we are not in such bad circumstances as the people we read about in it.

Yet as depressing as that story may seem, was the real Eleanor Rigby’s life so terrible, in the end? To be poor is by no means pleasant, first of all, and yet in the end no amount of material wealth preserves any of us from death.  Eleanor married late, but she did marry, and though the marriage was not blessed with children she did have almost ten years of married life, with all of its difficulties yes, but with its blessings, as well.

We learn from the article that despite the funereal tone with which the authors examined her life, Eleanor Rigby was not actually alone, whether or not she ever felt lonely.  She lived in her family home where she had been born, surrounded by other members of her family, and helped her mother with her laundry business.  She had at least some degree of education; she was godmother to one of her sisters; and she learned to play the piano thanks to the generosity of her uncle.  And though she died in early middle age, she died at home, surrounded by her family, and was buried in her local church along with members of her family who had pre-deceased her.  While her younger sisters seem to have been more lonely, as pointed out in the article they did have each other, right up until the end, and were not really on their own.

It is easy to find people on social media who have things very badly off, or at least to all appearances they do.  They suffer from illnesses and diseases, physical maladies, emotional or psychological problems, or someone they love does.  Most of us are going to find our armchair understanding of the human psyche and human suffering to be less than adequate to deal with some of the issues people present us with in social media, particularly when we have some pains and sorrows of our own to deal with.

So for those of us who are not trained counselors, some thoughts from St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a.k.a. Edith Stein (1891-1942), whose feast is today, may prove rather helpful. To start with, she points out that not everyone is capable of rendering assistance to all of the people whom they might wish to help.  The way to approach this is not to try to help everyone on your own, no matter how well-intended that effort may be.

“Do you hear the groans of the wounded on the battlefields in the west and in the East?,” she writes. “You are not a physician and not a nurse and cannot bind up the wounds. Does the lament of the widows and orphans distress you? You would like to be an angel of mercy and help them,” but you cannot. So what does she say to do? Unite yourself to Christ’s suffering. “You cannot help here or there like the physician, the nurse, the priest. You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief, in the power of the cross.”

Elsewhere, she writes about how whatever plans we make, whether things succeed or fail, at some point the mind has to stop and leave things to God, rather than turn in on the self:

There is a state of resting in God, an absolute break from all intellectual activity, when one forms no plans, makes no decisions and for the first time really ceases to act, when one simply hands over the future to God’s will and ‘surrenders himself to fate’. God is there in these moments of rest and can give us in a single instant exactly what we need. Then the rest of the day can take its course under the same effort and strain, perhaps, but in peace. And when night looks back and you see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it to Him – really rest – and start the next day as a new life.

In short, there simply is no way to be able to help everyone suffering whom we might like to help, whether in day-to-day life or via social media: we have enough problems helping ourselves.

What we can learn from the example of the real Eleanor Rigby is that life is difficult, but we must still take a step back and see its good points, even when times are very hard indeed. And even more importantly, what we learn from Edith Stein is that since we cannot possibly do it all to alleviate suffering, we should ultimately turn all things over to Him, whose love for each of us individually outlasts whatever suffering life throws our way. Social media connections can provide encouragement among the walking wounded that populate this world, but ultimately all relief from suffering is only to be found in Him.


St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

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10 responses to “All The Lonely People: Eleanor Rigby and Edith Stein

  1. Very well written. As a nurse, I see almost daily that not all suffering can be alleviated and that God is in control, not medical science. It only makes sense to turn all things over to Him.

    • I can imagine you see some really terrible situations, too. Most of us will not be as lucky as Eleanor Rigby – having a quick death at home in our own bed without prolonged suffering. Father Groeschel points this out in one of his books. Most of us are going to drag on through years of pain and misery of some kind. I find that particularly with people in social media who are sorrowful and lonely, there has to be point of pointing them toward God as much as possible. They need that more than the rest of us who are just unhappy some of the time.

  2. Good post, Sir William. Thank you for it. Now that I am in a decidedly melancholic mood, I need to go track down that song….

    : )

  3. A thought-provoking yet comforting post from a Catholic! Who’d have thought such a thing possible! :p (Thanks, it was quite helpful.)

  4. As always written with a practiced hand and a tender heart. St. Teresa Benedicta is dear to me. Thanks for this.

  5. miss

    This explains well why some people are so peaceful even under great suffering, and why great joy can be found anywhere, even as a nun or priest. God is everything and will provide everything we need. I am only just getting to know St. Teresa Benedicta and I love the quote you cited. Thank you and may God bless you in all your needs

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