Everyone wants to belong. Everyone needs to belong.

We belong to families of countless shapes and sizes. We belong to churches, support groups, work groups, book clubs, and professional organizations. Most certainly we all know what it feels like to belong. Or do we?

The evidence suggests we do not.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that social isolation and loneliness have officially become a public health problem. The American Psychological Association (APA) warns that the loneliness epidemic now represents a threat to public health that exceeds that of obesity. One study cited by the APA found that having stronger and deeper social connections was associated with fifty percent drop in the risk of early mortality. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) report that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Health research including Harvard University’s nearly eighty- year study of happiness in adult life has proved that embracing community helps us live longer and be happier. The science says that loneliness kills. So, how did this happen?

Consider just a few changes in our social structure and important relationships that have occurred in recent years. Begin with dispersed families and fluctuating neighborhoods. Add to this, vanishing social clubs, VFWs, and diminished church membership. And one can hardly ignore the influence of digital technology including social media, virtual learning, and at-home employment, topped off by an isolating global pandemic. All this and more leave us with far fewer opportunities to connect face to face with one another. It also offers far more opportunities to isolate.

So, how do we define loneliness?

How do we define loneliness—an obstacle to joy? Years of listening to other’s stories tells me, “Yes.” I have watched isolation and loneliness pave the way to anxiety and depression. And, it’s not about how many friends we have, but whether we feel emotionally or socially disconnected from others. This can occur whether we are married with a family or living alone. Plus, we don’t always recognize it in others, or even within ourselves. Loneliness can be confused with belligerent or unconventional behavior. Consider the elderly uncle who comes for Christmas dinner, drinks too much, then grumbles about the food and unruly grandchildren. Even an ornery uncle might not recognize his changed behavior since his son’s overdose and death five years ago. Further, we don’t typically walk up to someone and tell him he behaves as if he is lonely. Speaking of ornery uncles, I am reminded of what happened when two young girls invaded the space of a grumpy old horseman named Bob Stall.

“Horse crazy,” our parents called us. No piano lessons, no summer camp, no party dresses – at age twelve, my friend Robin and I thought of nothing but horses and all the adventures we could cook up with our horses, Koko and Sherry. This passion for everything horse furnished a backdrop for the arrival of a new neighbor.

My mother reported that a man with racehorses had moved in next door. Of course, I wasted no time getting to the phone to share this good news with Robin. The only thing more exciting for us than dressing up our own horses was the prospect of meeting someone who raced horses. In fact, I had already decided to become a jockey, so this would fit right into my training program. But first I jumped into my new Tony Lama boots, strapped on a favorite Gene Autry belt and trotted over to meet the new neighbor.

The sagging barn was a little disappointing.

Daylight streamed through the unpainted boards. Pink holly hocks poked between an empty corncrib and a crumbling cement silo. Holes near the barn’s foundation hinted of rats – or worse. It certainly didn’t look like Churchill Downs, but maybe he had a property improvement plan. Suddenly a voice shot out, “Get the hell off my property!” I wasted no time doing just that.

This was not going to be easy but, after discussing a plan with Robin, I decided to try a different approach. The next day I waited until late in the afternoon when the old man left the barn for home. Once his car rattled out the driveway I slipped across the pasture and into the tumbledown building. Armed with my Labrador retriever, Sam, I crept into a small feed room that smelled of molasses and alfalfa. Two horses peered curiously from their box stalls. The place looked modest but tidy. A grooming box next to the stalls held brushes, hoof picks, and sweat scrapers. A stack of clean towels, buckets, saddle soap, and assorted veterinary products neatly lined the shelves. But harnesses, not saddles, hung on the wall. A picture on the wall said “Dan Patch” beneath it. I didn’t stay long but vowed to come back to spy on the activities, then report all the details to Robin. So, the next day, armed with my mother’s birding binoculars, I stole through the trees and hid under some small jack pines near the edge of his exercise track. Much to my surprise I learned that he owned harness racing horses, not saddle horses – two fine-looking geldings. One trotter and one a pacer. He worked each horse every day while I spied from a safe distance.

Eventually he discovered me, and bellowed that I had better beat it. NOW! I high tailed it home, but had already decided that Robin and I were going to wear the guy down. An old horseman, with his deeply lined face and powerful hands that held the reins almost daintily, was not going to get away from us. After watching this training routine for a couple of weeks, I worked up the courage to try something new. This time, I saddled up Koko and rode over to his place. Surely he couldn’t reach me with those huge hands, if I stayed on the horse. So, I watched and waited as he led the pacer up the drive in my direction. To my surprise, he just walked around us without a word. At the edge of the track, he adjusted the hobbles, checked the horse’s blinkers, and climbed into the sulky. It was as if he didn’t even see us standing in the path. Koko and I just eyed him silently, as he walked away.

Watching the workout made my heart pound.

I had no idea pacers moved at such speed. Dust swirled beneath the sulky wheels, and I could hear the harness slap against the horse’s flanks. After completing the exercise session, Mr. Stall walked his winded horse twice around the track to cool him out. He then headed toward the driveway, where Koko and I waited nervously.

“What’s yer name?” he grunted, climbing out of the sulky and releasing the harness over-check.

“Mary,” I replied attempting to calm the tremble in my voice.

“Okay, Marian, if you’re so blessed interested in what I do around here, climb off that old nag and cool this one out.”

I cautiously slipped out of the saddle and tied Koko to a tree. Mr. Stall. buckled a halter on the gelding and handed me the lead rope. From that day forward, he called me Marion. What began as a hair raising exchange with a cranky horseman turned out to be an unexpected adventure. Soon Robin and I would share his small world of oats, liniment, and horse-racing memories from years past. We learned about Dan Patch, a pacer who set a record for covering a quarter-mile in one minute., fifty-five seconds as a nine-year old. The record lasted for thirty-two years. Old Bob talked about the great horse Hambletonian and the Hambletonian State, a famous race that began at the New York State Fair in 1926.

Bob eventually agreed to shoe Koko. He taught us how to care for our horses’ feet and how to give them a proper bath. He drove us to the Chippewa County Fairground harness racing stable to meet his only friend, George Ashe. The two of them talked about trading horses in Fort Dodge, Iowa and winning races in Milwaukee. Robin and I sat on a tack trunk, listening to tales about runaways on the racetrack, overturned sulkies, and screaming fans.

Nobody believed Bob let the two of us on his property.

He had a reputation for running people out of his barn and out of his life. We didn’t know this. We had no understanding of the loneliness that had haunted him since his wife died in a car accident years earlier. All we knew was we couldn’t get enough of his stories about grandstand calamities and racetrack speed records. As for his own geldings, he said they once had been great prospects at the track until one suffered from a life-threatening puncture wound to his chest by running into a metal fence post. The other horse shin-bucked during his early training, causing an injury of the canon bone that ended his racing career. The puncture wound required months of care and ultimately left a jagged scar. In both cases, the geldings required more rehabilitation than their trainers chose to invest, That was when Bob agreed to take them home with him. I never learned whether he later raced them again or simply enjoyed their company.

Robin and I stumbled into the world of an isolated old fellow. Life’s losses had shut him down. His horses comprised his circle of friends. Old newspaper clippings provided his only social contact. Our unusual friendship eventually lured Bob into my mother’s kitchen for coffee, and to Robin’s house to meet her Shetland pony Midge. None of us would have labeled Bob’s problem one of loneliness, yet our mutual love of horses offered a bright human connection for a solitary guy who finally said, “Yes” to letting someone into his life.

The amazing thing about loneliness is it’s preventable, and good personal relationships are indispensable. In most cases averting loneliness doesn’t even require medicine, professional care, or a big budget. We can reach out. We can call. We can visit. We can include others, and invite multi-generational others to join our activities and get-togethers. We can initiate deeper, more meaningful conversations that help others feel seen and loved. The loneliness epidemic is not going to go away but will continue to grow. We in our local communities can have a significant impact on healing and preventing it. We can make it happen.