A quick google search will yield endless entries of various websites and blogs giving advice as to how to stop feeling lonely during the holiday season. Our uber-connected world is lonelier than ever. This constant strain is exacerbated by the holidays, a time when the religious and the irreligious focus upon the home and traditions flowing from the hearth and table. The year end rhythm of joyous raucous gatherings, gift giving, and tables laden with celebration are for many absent. Our screens flicker with images and sounds of joy and yet we sit in a dark room by ourselves.
Loneliness is becoming a recurrent contemporary theme. In our pursuits of autonomy and the ability to be authentically ourselves and everyone else be damned, we have often turned unknowingly into a cul-de-sac of despair and loneliness. In 2018 the United Kingdom created and appointed a Minister of Loneliness in response to a report from 2017. The United States has also noticed this trend. Studies show that loneliness can shorten people’s lives as it raises the risk of premature death as much as smoking or obesity. Those suffering from loneliness have been shown to have an increase in the stress hormone “cortisol”, which can greatly affect the immune system and increase the rise of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and dementia. 1 And this is just considering the elderly among us.
Our youth are actually the loneliest generation. In a 2020 Cigna study found that 71% of millennials are lonely, 50% of baby boomers are lonely, and 46.1% of men are feeling lonely compared to 45.3% of women. Loneliness serves as a serious catalyst for depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. A 2019 CDC report tells us that the suicide rate of Generation Z increased by more than 50% in the last decade. Just take a look at this video of scientists in Japan who have created a robot hand to battle loneliness.
We are dying from loneliness.
What has brought this sudden interest in solving the problem of loneliness by insurance companies? To save money. “It typically comes from — just like everything in healthcare — you follow the dollar,” said Greer Myers, Turn-Key Health CEO and a member of the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness.2 Loneliness produces workers who are more prone to missing work, do less work, do their work poorly, and ghost on their jobs.
One would think that with all of the technology, economic growth, and other promises given by most modern ideologies that we would all be thriving, connected, and living almost god-like upon the earth. Perhaps modern life will eventually disabuse us of all the pretensions of modernity. So much of new technological advances are sold to us under the guise of fulfilling us in some deep and meaningful way. 5G promises more connectivity. But it is not connectivity that we lack. Technology or the increase of bureaucracy and government and employer initiatives will not address our loneliness. So far it seems to only further alienate.
What do we want? More scales to measure our loneliness? More forced opportunities to gather to pursue some hobby? More government funded initiatives? More apps?
Dr. Linda Fried, a clinician working with elderly clients, discovered that just telling people to go out and develop some hobbies was not working. What her patients wanted was “close relationships with people they care about, satisfying social roles and a sense that their lives have value.”3
Living Lives of Value: The Church Engaged
Dr. Fried recently told the National Academies of Science that we need “new societal institutions that bring meaning and purpose.”4 There has been a serious decline in American institutions and sense of belonging. In 2000 Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in which he argued that democracy was being undermined by the fact that Americans have quit joining and participating in local organizations, like Boy Scouts, labor unions, Knights of Columbus, or bowling clubs. The lack of face to face engagement, contended Putnam, undermined the development of virtues needed to support a democratic republic. 20 years later we discover it also leads to incredible levels of loneliness! Surprise!
We absolutely need new, or renewed, societal institutions and our deep investment and involvement in them. But we must first, as Orthodox Christians, ask ourselves where is the Church in all of this? Through a number of factors it is a reality that many faithful members of the Church are experiencing incredible loneliness. Is there anything to be done? Can the Church play a part in assuaging the loneliness of our faithful and those in the world around us?
I want to use what Dr. Fried discovered about her patients to guide us. Her patients desired “close relationships with people they care about, satisfying social roles and a sense that their lives have value.”
The Challenge of Close Relationships
We all want to be loved. But it is often hard for us to love others. And therein lies a deep dilemma. Close relationships are incredibly challenging. Let us take away the challenges of modern hyper mobility, the reality that we have been shaped to be ready to uproot and move for better opportunities at the drop of a hat. Let us also ignore the challenges of disembodied communication through texting and the ambiguity of GIFs and memes. And, further, let us set aside the culture’s creation of generations that seem to live in completely different worlds, e.g. compare boomers with Generation Z.
Close relationships are hard. The patient attention needed to actually hear and understand someone. The growing knowledge of the flaws of those closest to us. The incredible maneuvering it takes to be thinking of not just one significant other but an entire family’s, or even extended family’s, desires and needs. People are difficult, especially the ones we love. Why? Because we know the intimate and detailed flaws of those closest to us better than we know that of a stranger’s. To ignore this is to miss something vital about love.
Journalist Judith Graham in reporting on this issue relates that, “One of the root causes of loneliness can be the perception that other people have rejected you or don’t care about you. Frequently, people who are lonely convey negativity or push others away because of perceived rejection, which only reinforces their isolation.” Loneliness is the product of a lack of love and forgiveness. In some cases it is the fruit of trauma.
The Church serves as a hospital and a school. For those of us who have experienced the trauma of rejection or lack of love, the Church stands to point to the love of Jesus Christ. The Church also stands to welcome those rejected by the world into the family of God (Mark 10:29-30). The Church aims to heal us.
The Church also aims to instruct us and sometimes even rebukes us. There are patterns of thinking that we can drop into that are self destructive and drive us into loneliness. Through the word of a confessor or a trusted sister in Christ, we may be able to break the bonds of falsehood. For it is this deception, that we are unworthy of love, which can condemn us to loneliness.
The Church points to the absolute necessity of faithfulness, love, service, and the constant action of forgiveness. Without these practices, without these examples, and without this purpose in life how could anyone love well and be well loved?
To be continued…