I was talking to an older friend the other day. His life has been hard in many ways—long years of manual labour, the loss of young children to a devastating accident, the death of several partners, a long descent into the pit of addiction and an emergence out the other side, a walking away from and a coming home to faith. Now he’s living out his remaining years on a slim pension in a small apartment. He has a litany of health problems. His medications conflict with each other producing unpleasant side effects. He can’t eat what he likes, struggles to sleep, moves slowly. Whenever I see him, we usually run through some portion of the above scenario. The last few times I’ve spoken with him, though, he’s had a different complaint—one that supersedes all of the others, one that may even, in some way, play a role in his deteriorating physical health. He states it baldly, unapologetically, without a hint of pretense or shame: I’m just so lonely.
Last night, on my travels out and about, I listened to an episode from CBC’s Ideas called “Lonely Together: The Plight of Urban Isolation.” Loneliness is, evidently, one of the most pervasive and pressing health concerns of twenty-first century Western life. It is said to reduce life expectancy by a decade or more and be detrimental to physical health in ways roughly analogous to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. It is experienced by young people and old people and in between people. It is even more acutely experienced by those in urban centres, particularly recent immigrants and the elderly. According to this episode, loneliness is a function of everything from the breakdown of social trust in densely populated highly pluralistic contexts, urban design (towers of one bedroom condos are massively profitable but they breed isolation and disconnection), capitalism (which drives atomized individuals far away from families and communities that might offer support and belonging) and the breakdown of institutions and shared narratives of meaning.
I see this every day in my work. I see and hear from desperately lonely people all the time. Not all of them would acknowledge it as nakedly as my older friend described above (it can be a blow to one’s pride, after all, to admit that you’re lonely!), but loneliness seeps through the cracks of conversations and observations all the time. I see it in people who were raised in highly unstable families characterized by casual relationships and inattentive (at best) parenting. I see it in teenagers who are paralyzed by social anxiety and retreat into the imagined safety of their digital words in a hunger for connection. I see it in people who, for a variety of reasons, struggle with mental illness and are difficult to be around. I see it in those who have been raised in families and communities of incredible dysfunction and who have never learned how to relate to other people in healthy ways. I see it in relatively “normal” people who are grinding along in unsatisfying work and who are often too exhausted to do anything but collapse into their couch at the end of the day instead of potentially reaching out to others. Loneliness is everywhere.
I’ve been thinking about loneliness a lot lately. I think about it because people I care about experience it, and I often feel powerless to address it. I also think about it because I think it might be the problem of our hyper-connected, post-religious, radically individualistic and consumeristic age. It is not one problem among many, taking its place alongside the opioid crisis, the rise of political and ideological extremism, the explosion of mental health issues, or addictions to technology and the decline of civil discourse and whatever else. In many ways, I think, loneliness is often at the root of each of the above.
- Drug and alcohol addiction do not emerge in a social vacuum—as Gabor Mate has ably articulated, addictions are primarily a social problem, not a chemical one. People very often self-medicate to escape lives of dysfunction, isolation, disconnection, rejection, and meaninglessness.
- Political and ideological extremism are exacerbated by loneliness. How many people who shoot up a school or a mosque or a church are later found out to be profoundly lonely people? How much anger and vitriol on the internet is produced by lonely people trying to find a place to belong? How easy is it for toxic ideologies and hatreds to fester and harden when lonely people find a community of like-minded others to validate and ratchet up their views?
- Depression and anxiety are intimately connected to lack of belonging. Johann Hari and others are demonstrating that the absence of meaningful connections in communities is one of the deepest causes for some of our most pervasive mental health challenges. We are mentally unwell because we are alone, cut off from families, stable traditions, and institutions that once would have been implicitly relied upon to support and strengthen us.
- We are losing ourselves in our devices, at least in part, because we are desperately trying to connect. We text and tweet and endlessly share across innumerable digital platforms because we are hungry for someone to notice us and validate our contribution in the world. In the absence of flesh and blood communities, we seek them out online. In the process, we become digital commodities to one another—we access our “communities” on our own time, at our own convenience. And our loneliness grows.
It’s a bleak picture, to be sure. So many of the features of life in the postmodern, post-religious West that we find troubling, threatening, even terrifying are connected to (if not caused by) a deep sense of disconnection and loneliness. Unsurprisingly, I think that the church of Christ should have something important to offer in this cultural moment. We who believe that human beings have been created for community—to love and to be loved, to care and to be cared for, to give and to receive, to discover our true humanity in relationships with one another—ought to be a beacon of light and hope in a lonely world.
And we are. Sometimes. But other times, we’re not. Sometimes people feel just as isolated and ignored at church as anywhere else. And even when we’re trying our best, the task can seem overwhelming. The need is so great and we are so small. And people can be so inconvenient and unappreciative and difficult to love. And we like our personal time and space. And why should we be responsible for someone else’s happiness? And what can we really do when someone seems so determined to burn their life to the ground with stupid and counterproductive choices? And we can’t force people to participate in the communities that we are convinced would help them lead better and healthier lives. And is it really our fault that people are walking away from and neglecting institutions of meaning and support and connection in droves? How do you reverse such massive cultural trends and the idolatries and assumptions that drive them?
I don’t have many answers today, truth be told. I am convinced that the best place to start is small and local, to love the people in front of us as best we are able, to offer a word, a hug, an invitation, a reminder, a challenge, an apology where these things are required. To reach out rather than always waiting to be invited. This seems more manageable than tackling opioid crises or the rancour and ignorance of the online echo-chambers that are lining the pockets of Silicon Valley executives. Perhaps this is the role of the church in these troubled times—to simply keep being the church. To keep bearing witness to an alternative social arrangement where we believe that neighbours are for loving, that there is meaning to be found and nurtured in this life, that we were made for much more than we have settled for.