The Talmud tells the story of a man called Honi the
Circle-Maker, a Jewish Rip Van Winkle, who went out for a walk, sat down to rest, and fell asleep for 70 years. When he awoke and returned to his village, no one recognized him. Separated from his former companions, he died of loneliness, at which point the Talmud comments: “O chevruta o mituta; either friendship or death!”
Almost 2,000 years later, we have the science to back up what the rabbis intuitively knew about the life-giving nature of companionship and friendship. Loneliness is literally as powerful an indicator of premature death from heart disease as other factors like diet & exercise.1 People who define themselves as lonely or feeling socially isolated appears to increase the risk of having a heart attack, angina, or of eventually dying of heart disease, by 29%. The risk of stroke increases by 32%, almost a full third.
In an age of unprecedented connectivity, making accumulating Facebook friends and followers as simple as touching a screen, one might think our loneliness would be heading the way of the Dodo bird. However, studies show that people who spend more than 3 hours on social media and cell phones, ironically feel 30% more depressed. Four or more hours on our cell phones also decreases our empathy for others by 40%. This gives a whole new meaning to the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies.”
That reminds me of another story the sages of old tell about a young student who wanted to know what heaven and hell were like. An angel acceded to her request, and brought her first to hell. The first thing she noticed was the food: banquet tables were laden with every possible delicacy and steaming platters of food – and delectable aromas wafted through the halls. But then she noticed the people. They were glum and bitter and miserable.
And then she understood why: large wooden spoons were strapped onto everyone’s arms, past the elbow, so that they couldn’t bend their arms to put any food into their mouths. When the student arrived at the entrance to heaven, she was taken aback. The scene was identical: the same banquet tables, the same delicacies and steaming platters – and the same large wooden spoons strapped onto everyone’s arms. However, the scene was not glum. There was singing and talking and laughter because people figured out they could feed each other.
The moral of this story is, of course, going it alone is hell. Our heart’s true happiness is found in the ways we help our fellows flourish. We can’t do it alone. Ecclesiastes wisely observed, “Two are better than one. For should one fall, one can raise the other. But woe to him who falls with no one to raise him up.”
The rabbis taught that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed on the 9th of Av 1949 years ago this month because of a persistent enmity that grew between friends, giving new meaning to the adage chevruta or mituta, friendship or death. The Chasidic master Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz taught: “Friendship is like a stone. A stone has no value, but when you rub two stones together properly, sparks of fire emerge.” Think about someone whom you consider to be a very special friend. In what ways has that friend helped you to become a better person? In what ways have you helped your friend to grow? How will you show your gratitude to that person?
1These findings were published in the scientific journal “Heart”, the official journal of the British Cardiovascular Society, 2016.