The Loneliness Epidemic

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There is an epidemic occurring in our society, that few are naming and most our experiencing.  It’s an aching, hungry feeling, that is searching. It’s a painful presence that is wanting, but never satisfied.

It’s the loneliness epidemic.

We are more connected with more people,more than ever before and yet as a society  studies show, we are the most alone and isolated than ever before.

Sherry Turkel is a professor on society and technology at MIT.  She has written a book entitled Alone Together.  She says in her Ted Talk:

These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure. It expresses, but it doesn’t solve, an underlying problem. But more than a symptom, constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being.

The best way to describe it is, I share therefore I am. We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we’re having them. So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it’s: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text. The problem with this new regime of “I share therefore I am” is that, if we don’t have connection, we don’t feel like ourselves. We almost don’t feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.

…We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we’re at risk, because actually it’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.

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It seems to me that the church is the antidote for the loneliness epidemic. It seems to me the church should be the counter-cultural place that offers real connection, real relationships and real conversations. It seems to me the church can be a place that can teach that solitude and community go hand in hand.

If you ask any congregation to describe themselves they will usually say they are friendly. No congregation says, “well, we have great music, but we aren’t very friendly.” I would imagine that most congregations are friendly, but few fully live into the charge that Jesus leaves to his disciples.  The charge to love one another to the point that one would lay down their life for another.  The charge to abide in Christ, to belong to Christ,  to see Christ as a friend, a companion in the journey.

What if every time we checked our phone to make sure we weren’t forgotten, we went to prayer to remember that we are called?

What if our loneliness and our neediness to be liked by others was changed to liking and affirming ourselves?

What if instead of hoping someone seeks us out, we seek others out?

And perhaps most difficult of all, what if we fought the need to connect, by surrendering into a time of solitude.

We need to relearn how to be alone.  We need to relearn that being alone does not result in loneliness.

What a difficult and counter-cultural experiment it would be, to be the church that was the antidote for loneliness. To be the church that said, “in this place we are going to have real relationships, not cyber ones. We are going to have gulps of conversations not sips.”

There is risk to this.  Vulnerability and openness and acceptance are required.  But I wonder if we cannot be a place where conversations happen, where real friendships are developed and where we strive to love others as Jesus love us.  It would require being inclusive, inviting new people into small groups,  creating new small groups, making sure every person is part of the conversation in coffee hour, reaching out to someone we don’t know well, striking up a conversation with a familiar face, but an unfamiliar life.

The great theologian Dietrech Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Life Together:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

I believe we are a lonely culture in need of real relationships, not cyber ones. I believe we are teaching our children that they can never be alone and they are losing the ability to connect, converse and be real.

I believe that the church can be the cure for the loneliness epidemic. It can be the place where the beloved community unfolds.  Where people learn how to have real conversations and real relationships. A place where solitude and life giving community come together.

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community Paperback – May 26, 2009

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other Paperback – October 2, 2012

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