Rediscovering the power of community

My wife recently had some CPR training from a Swedish fireman who explained that Stockholm was a bad place to have a heart-related incident in the street. There were, he said, 10,000 incidents per year and only 700 make it to the hospital. You have 4 minutes to help someone when their heart is in trouble but the average response time of an ambulance was 17 minutes. In those situations you need a stranger to help you. Sweden is a bad place to be if what you need is a stranger to help you. 

In Scandinavia loneliness is a significant problem. According to one researcher, “More and more young people are getting lonely and stressed and having mental disorders.” In Stockholm the majority of households are single occupancy. This is a problem because cities, despite being full of people, are isolating places. In Sweden the State is strong and they want individuals to be strong but there is a weak middle where community should be. 

Anything that gets described with the adjective ‘epidemic’ or ‘plague’ is unlikely to be good. No one suffers from a plague of happiness or an epidemic of well-being. But people are suffering and struggling from loneliness.

Both the BBC and The Economist have in-depth articles on the causes, shape and growth in loneliness. Loneliness when it becomes chronic is catastrophic for our overall well-being.

Smaller-scale studies have found correlations between loneliness and isolation, and a range of health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, cancers, eating disorders, drug abuse, sleep deprivation, depression, alcoholism and anxiety. Some research suggests that the lonely are more likely to suffer from cognitive decline and a quicker progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

As this brief survey of loneliness shows loneliness is both relatively modern and mostly Western.

Where once philosophers asked what it took to live a meaningful life, the cultural focus has shifted to questions about individual choice, desire and accomplishment. It is no coincidence that the term ‘individualism’ was first used (and was a pejorative term) in the 1830s, at the same time that loneliness was in the ascendant.

From the articles I’ve linked to here it seems people are wary or drawing too thick a line between individualism and loneliness but it surely should be a consideration. We live in an age which seems to inadvertently steer people towards isolation.

Swedes value personal space and privacy and find talking to people they don’t know a largely unwelcome and stressful experience. They are also among the most individualistic people on the planet. It increases the difficulty they face when what they really need, at times of grief, divorce and illness for example, is a community but have none. 

Sweden is a place where the State provides but it is not very good at providing community – the State is an unwieldy tool for dealing with something so personal as loneliness.

As a curious aside, the Swedish language has no direct equivalent of the English word community. They have society (samhälle), fellowship (gemenskap),  company (sällskap) but not what we might call community. 

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. 

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