Man looking at smartphone on abandoned rusty bridge.
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With more resources than ever for communication and connection, we have an epidemic of loneliness. Why?
June 13, 2023
The press release begins, “Today, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new Surgeon General Advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical, and societal health. In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.”
Such an advisory certainly would lend credence to the dire analysis in some quarters that we are all living under the weight of late-stage capitalism or the general malaise of Western (American) cultural decline. Here we all are, with more resources than we’ve ever had for communication and connection, and we have an epidemic of loneliness.
When I first read this advisory, I decided to conduct a kind of personal inventory of loneliness. You might do the same as you read this.
First question: Am I currently alone. Answer: Yes.
Second question: Do I feel lonely? Answer: No.
Third question: Why? Answer: Because I want to be alone to read this article and write this column.
Fourth question: Why do you want to be alone when you write? Answer: Well, I find that although I write best when I’m alone in the literal sense of the word, I also am writing to a community of imagined readers, and so in that sense the writing, though solitary, is not lonely.
Fifth question: Okay, I get it, but in a more general sense, do you feel lonely very often? Answer: Well, that’s more complicated.
Please bear with me, then. I’m going to stick to a strict interrogation of whether I’m personally lonely before I move on to the wider community or cultural aspects of loneliness.
So, the honest answer to the question is “no, I don’t feel that lonely.” By which I mean, I get a lot of social interaction through my work as a pastor, and a lot of social interaction at home as a father and husband. Additionally, I nurture hundreds if not thousands of relationships via social media, many of which are personally fulfilling.
However, I do recognize that on some social levels I’m isolated or cut off from what I believe are the deeper aspects of connection some have. A lot of clergy notice that it is difficult to find time for, and nurture, relationships that aren’t “professional” because most of their relationships are in and through their congregation.
Although I have many friends, I do not have any friends with whom I spend every day or even every week. I witness parishioners or others who do nurture such friendships. I don’t know how I would. By the time I invest the amount of social energy I have in church life, community life, and family life, any free time that remains desperately chases down the introverted activities that also make up a significant part of my personality.
Often I feel over-connected, and just want to get away to run, read, nap, pray.
In other words, I both do and don’t want closer friendships. I idealize them on some levels, but wonder if I’d actually want to invest the amount of time and emotional energy required to make them work.
Additionally, although I spend an unusually large amount of time with people in many different walks of life, nevertheless I don’t know that I entirely understand how the relationships of others “work.” The friendships and relationships of others are like an iceberg—only a small portion of the entirety is visible to me, the rest sinks into the depths.
For all I know, this has to do entirely with how I am made up as a personality or person, my emotional intelligence, capacity for empathy, and so on.
What I do know is that this may be part of the reason there is a phenomenon of loneliness in our culture—we do not entirely understand one another in our differences, and so what can be lonely for one may feel completely replete with connection for another.
I used to pastor a couple of very rural congregations in Minnesota. I’d get up on Sunday mornings very early, get in the car, and drive two hours from downtown St. Paul out into the southwestern part of the state.
The first service of the morning was always at a church so remote it had yet to install indoor restrooms. If you needed to go to the bathroom, you went to the outhouse.
I remember how each Sunday the congregation would come up for communion as “tables.” Groups of approximately twelve would come forward and kneel at the altar rail. It was my responsibility to serve each table, first the bread, then the wine from a common cup.
One older farmer mentioned in passing how much he loved coming to church because he rarely, if ever, talked to others during the week. His farm was that remote, and he rarely left it. One Sunday he said, “You’re the first person I’ve talked to since last Sunday.”
As I consider the public health crisis of loneliness, I wonder how we ended up with a society that could be that alone.
Of course, there has been a lot of popular analysis of the decline of connection in our society. Robert Putnam epitomized the argument in his now famous essay Bowling Alone. Putnam focused on “civic” engagement, social capital, and its decline. Broadly speaking, he was observing how Americans were less likely to be joiners, whether that was a bowling league, a social club, or a church.
But striking out alone is not a new phenomenon in American life. All you have to do is get up into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, or explore the more liminal places in Alaska, to discover folks who have quite intentionally gotten as far away from human society as humanly possible.
And what’s remarkable about this is its distinctiveness from many other cultures. I’ll always remember riding the train in places like Eastern Europe and realizing people tended to live in the villages and travel during the day out to farmland. Having grown up on a farmstead located about a mile from any other houses, I had simply assumed all farmers lived far away from each other, not in town.
But none of this quite gets at the crisis of loneliness.
For one, we all know there are times when we honestly need to get away and be alone simply for our own mental health. Being alone is different from being lonely.
Rugged individualism is not necessarily loneliness.
Conversely, we all have had experiences (I think) of feeling incredibly lonely while sitting in a crowded room. Proximity to others, even many others, is no guarantee of connection. In fact, often quite the opposite.
I think we can fairly assume that urban dwellers are as likely to be lonely as small-town farmers, if sometimes for different reasons.
Perhaps part of the reason for the phenomenon of loneliness in our culture is that we do not entirely understand one another in our differences, and so what can be lonely for one may feel completely replete with connection for another.
We might ask ourselves, “Does the church in particular have some kind of responsibility related to connection and loneliness?”
Let’s just take the New Testament as a baseline example. In it, we read the story of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels. There’s a lot about friendship in there. Jesus repeatedly calls the disciples his friends, and as the meme says, “Nobody talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30s.”
The reason this tweet resonated so resoundingly has to do with the widespread feeling many of us have in our 30s that it is, indeed, more difficult to make new friends. No longer do we have onboarding spaces for friendships as they were designed for us in school or university. You have to figure it out on your own.
Other signs in the New Testament point to the importance of friendship in the early church. Paul’s letters are replete with his recognitions of the friends he’s with while writing the letters, or friends he misses and mentions in the hopes they’ll hear from him through the letter when it is read in community.
So, although there is not direct instruction (like there is in the New York Times) on how to make friends as an adult, nevertheless the maintenance of close friendships is modeled in the New Testament, even more so than the nurturance of biological, familial relationships.
Of course, we don’t know for sure that simply because the twelve disciples were together with Christ and other followers that they never felt lonely. Presumably, at least one of them may have felt incredibly lonely—Judas.
And then there is this one additional mystery. The New Testament records Jesus’ ascension to the Father after his resurrection. Once that takes place, Jesus is no longer with the community of friends he gathered during his earthly ministry. He’s just gone.
And yet… I think we must acknowledge that there are millions, if not billions, of humans across this planet (and I would count myself among them) who have felt less lonely because of the presence of Jesus in their life.
Even though he isn’t “with” them in the typical sense of connection or community. How do we even make sense of this? It has parallels in other ways of connecting with one another in absentia—epistolary relationships, social media relationships, etc. But it’s a profound mystery, that at least some humans regularly report that when they felt incredibly lonely, it was Jesus, someone not even literally there in the room with them, who comforted them and made them feel less alone.
Think Psalm 23.
I’m operating here in this reflection on the assumption that one blog post is not going to reverse the crisis of loneliness in the United States. So I’m aiming at a few smaller steps. I’ll end with those:
-Is it helpful to do a personal inventory of our own loneliness, to perhaps notice an aspect of our life less tended?
-Might we consider what it means for others around us to also feel lonely, regardless of whether they are “alone” or in a crowd?
-What is the responsibility of the community of faith in addressing this crisis?
-How can we effectively connect to “faith in Christ” as a first and possibly greatest resource for relief?
-And most importantly, how do we authentically, in ways that feed connection and all our idiosyncratic distinctiveness, call one another friends?
Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.