I’m going to start light-hearted because as I wrote this piece, all I could think of was this:
Who do you sympathise with, Donkey or Shrek? Is there a difference between being alone and being lonely? The difference mostly resides in whether or not being alone is a choice or not. The default self-coping mechanisms of introverts everywhere is to ensure there is time to retreat in order to rest, recover, think. A parent of small children is often desperate to be alone, to not have another person constantly there. This time of being alone is blessed, cool water on an over-heated soul or an over-clung to body. Alone in this scenario is healthy and welcome.
On the other hand loneliness, the profound feeling of being all alone without option of friendship or companionship manifests itself in distinctly unhealthy ways. An elderly person desperate for conversation, walking to the shops just to have interaction with another human being or a young worker in a new city with no one meaningful to talk to can both feel dreadfully alone and that loneliness is stressful and bad for your physical and mental health.
People who are lonely are also more susceptible to illness. Researchers found that a lonely person’s immune system responds differently to fighting viruses, making them more likely to develop an illness.
But it’s even worse than that as Olga Khazan writes,
A lack of social connections can spark inflammation and changes in the immune system, so lonely people are far more likely to die prematurely. Loneliness is more dangerous than obesity, and it’s about as deadly as smoking. The threat is considered so serious that England has created an entire “Campaign to End Loneliness.”
But in a cruel twist, the loneliest among us are set up to get lonelier still. People with few social connections experience brain changes that cause them to be more likely to view human faces as threatening, making it harder for them to bond with others.
Bella DePaulo in this article puts up a spirited defence of singleness and of course it’s worth being abundantly clear that being single does not mean someone is destined to either be alone or lonely. As Jennie Pollock says,
In the past couple of years I’ve been living in the joy of realising that singleness isn’t actually as awful as it’s often made out to be. At least, it’s not when you’re able to dig into Jesus and find your contentment in him. My message to those who are unhappy being single is that the only person who can complete you, fulfil you and bring you lasting joy is Jesus – not someone you meet on a dating site.
Therefore it would be trite, not to mention wrong, to assume that the answer to loneliness is a romantic relationship. Yet the answer clearly is relationship and satisfying engagement with other people. And how people achieve that is no longer as straight forward as it used to be.
The reasons continue to be discussed as to why there is so much loneliness in societies that are among the wealthiest and most materially secure in the world: the US, Europe, Japan etc…
Kay Hymowitz in a long and generally sad article (it’s hard not to read a lot of stories about loneliness without feeling sad, I find) points to a number of reasons why this might be the case in America.
Still, the loneliness thesis taps into a widespread intuition of something true and real and grave. Foundering social trust, collapsing heartland communities, an opioid epidemic, and rising numbers of “deaths of despair” suggest a profound, collective discontent. It’s worth mapping out one major cause that is simultaneously so obvious and so uncomfortable that loneliness observers tend to mention it only in passing. I’m talking, of course, about family breakdown.
But there are changes that contribute to loneliness long before a family breakdown and that’s how long it takes to form a family in the first place. The Relationship Timeline Continues to Stretch as people delay marriage and relationships.
Yet it’s also true that amongst the many significant changes that have happened in western society over the past 70 years, has been a significant loss of faith. With that loss has also come the loss of all the social capital that was associated with regular church attendance. This study from Pew Research shows that:
People who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of religious groups,
I’ve mentioned the link between the loss of faith and the rise of loneliness several times here, here and here. But it’s not just Christians who are aware of this connection. As Scotty Hendricks says here in this piece about secular humanism,
While the decline of religious belief and attendance at mainstream churches in general isn’t the only reason for this decline, the traditional place of religion in American life means that lower church attendance can be a destabilizing factor. Say what you will about churches, they were great generators of social capital.
Take this description of an attempt to build community for young people (15-30) in Denmark.
The essential services its venues offer are straightforward, and yet can be so elusive: a place to go, things to do, and people to do them with.
What they are describing or at least trying to replace is the church youth group. When I was growing up, every church I knew had a youth group that was open to anyone with games followed by a ‘Bible slot’. Less churches, less youth groups, more young people with nowhere to belong.
So there are large social pressures at work that are leaving people stranded and feel all alone but there is an individual dimension that shouldn’t be discounted or ignored. Jennie Pollock gives three reasons for the person who is on their own struggles:
When I considered inviting others to hang out I thought only of my own needs. I couldn’t be bothered. I was fine on my own. I was quite happy to have an evening ‘off’ where I could just chill (even though I had no plans for the weekend, so had plenty of alone-time coming up).
I didn’t give a moment’s thought to whether others might be feeling lonely and wanting some company. It was all about me.
What stopped the person who really wanted – and needed – some company from posting a message to a group of godly people who she is in community with? It was the shame of revealing herself as someone who had nowhere to go and no one to go with, of revealing her vulnerability and need.
We can cut off our own noses to spite our faces sometimes, staying indoors sulking because no one has reached out to us, when it’s definitely their turn. ‘Can’t they make the effort once in a while?’ we fume, while missing the event we really want to go to, or the film we’re desperate to see. And all because we refuse to swallow our pride and ask again.
It’s not a good look and on the other side is there can be laziness, a lack of awareness and empathy and selfishness. Those who are not feeling lonely are often blissfully ignorant of how others are feeling, and yet the effort and sometimes uncomfortable nature of disrupting your own peaceful bubble with the presence of another can lead to a sinful lack of action.
Charles Moore asks then, the right and most obvious question that needs an answer:
Thomas Merton once noted that living alone does not necessarily isolate people, and that merely living together does not necessarily bring us into communion with one another.4 So what is the key to communing with one another?
We need to be aware that community does not just happen. The ground as it were for friendship can be initially hostile – the ground not ready for the seed and the seed not ready to flourish in the soil. Norman Wirzbe explores this picture in his article on The Ground of Hospitality & concludes:
Agrarians believe that few tasks are more fundamental than for people to become hospitable to the soil that is hospitable to them. The work of making room for others, noting their need and potential, and committing to care for them, is the indispensable work. It is here, in the giving and receiving of nurture, that we learn the meaning and the point of life. If you want to experience life’s abundance and potential joy, give yourself away. This is what the gospel teaches. It is what God has been doing since the beginning. It is what the soil witnesses to every day.
Charles Moore brings us to the Word and the call to combat loneliness through the Community into which Christ has given us admittance.
The apostle Paul wrote, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). Words and ideas, forms and structures, can take us only so far. In the end, it’s a matter of whether we will lay down our lives for one another. For Christ’s followers, this is not just a matter of obedience but the distinguishing mark of our witness. Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).
I’ve said it once, so I’ll let myself say it again:
Churches should be places where loneliness and isolation are defeated not only because we will do our best to love everyone but because we can point people towards an eternal fellowship in which no one is ever abandoned or forsaken.