A new study on loneliness was released yesterday, and now making its rounds on Twitter and Facebook. “Loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.” But this is only the latest in ever increasing studies that demonstrate we’re all just depressed. Which reminds me, I need to call CVS to get my Zoloft refilled.
It’s what our congregation has been thinking about for three weeks now—people are lonely and the church has a cure, but we’re not sure how to get it out and use it.
The irony, of course, is that we’re more connected than ever with social media, work, opportunities for play, places for connection. It’s all too common to start a diatribe against technology and social media. Social media draws you deeper into the inward life of envy, comparison, and self contempt. Posting a picture and waiting for likes and hearts is not really connecting. But new research shows that social media is more neutral than we once thought. Our choices about how we implement the technology are the catalyst for either greater flourishing or deeper isolation. I met my wife with the help of AOL Instant Messenger. You might meet your forever partner on farmersonly.com.
I'm not convinced that our in-person interactions are much different from our digital ones. The coffee shop, for me, is a placebo community as I scroll through the room judging and comparing and coveting. Or, how about a church that curates a particular profile—wealthy or hipster, progressive or traditional. They subscribe to their own preferences and police belief systems that don’t neatly fit within their echo chamber. And everyone walks out the door without seeing or having been seen.
But social media is to blame for loneliness, of course.
Was there ever a time when we weren't isolated?
It seem much more complex, doesn't it? (Really, read this)
Cigna’s research on our need for relationships is not really new or surprising. Loneliness is not about being alone; it’s about not being known or knowing others in a deep, personal way. Aristotle taught that friendship was an essential component to human flourishing. And the early Jews suspected this prior to the philosophers. Community is inscribed in our biology and become the way we’ve adapted to survive. We’re carried in a mother’s womb, delivered by the hands of another until we’re finally delivered into the ground. In between, attachment affects brain development and deep friendships activate the same parts of our brains as a good meal. We’re hungry for relationships because that's how we were created.
At the beginning of our story God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Wait, us? Who is us? Christians suggest that it might be the Trinity: Father, Son, Spirit. Maybe that’s right. The Trinity, who is always making room, pouring out more for the other, always inviting another to sit at the table. God, who is community, formed Adam and Eve to be companions—to know God and each other completely. Abraham and Sarah were called to parent a new nation, Israel, to be a holy people, to bless the nations. Each of the Ten Commandments are about ones relationship to God and to one another. Jesus calls a group of twelve and spends his time simply being with people. Paul calls the assembly Christ’s body, eyes, ears, mouth, arms and legs. Community--it’s the image of heaven.
If heaven is community, then the inverse might also be true—hell is isolation, the anti-image of God. The flames and the heat sound frightening, but how about being alone, completely separated from God, people, and the dirt from which we were formed? Here’s a helpful image: picture being cast out in outer space. You have everything to keep you alive for eternity, but you’re alone, floating aimlessly in the dark. That’s hell (Donald Miller talked about this in Blue Like Jazz).
The truth is that many people live in hell on earth. Mother Teresa called loneliness the leprosy of the west. We get home from work, close the garage door, and don’t take another step outside. I can’t even ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar, because I don’t know their names. My daughter would love to know no stranger if I would let her. But I tell her not to trust every smiling face in Starbucks. That’s not our way. Because we are guarded humans, who are distrusting and broken.
But we are also a people who are baptized into Christ’s body and whose central act of worship is sitting at a dinner table. The God who pitched his tent among us certainly cares about delivering us from the hell of isolation. But I'm not always sure that the church does.
And what does it say about a church that does not know the names of its neighbors?
One that caters to only a particular subset of people? One that doesn’t challenge the systems that create inequalities? Or spend time visiting or setting up care facilities for the elderly and most vulnerable?
I’ve been challenging our church, and myself, to do better. And to start with our street.
Meeting people is difficult. And awkward. But neighbors, like an elusive four leaf clover, can be found. Every few evenings when the weather is warm, my family goes for walks around the neighborhood. Children are playing basketball, building forts in the woods, jumping on trampolines. Women are walking dogs and men are out for evening jogs. You talk, initiate a personal connection, and you stumble into them another evening. It’s chit chat today, but tomorrow it might be something more--maybe a street will become less lonely. And we'll have done the work of the church.
Here’s something we put together for our congregation to get started on being better neighbors. It was adapted from something I saw from another church:
Four Tips for Being a Better Neighbor
1) Learn Names--Get to know the names of the people who live near you. If you’re like me, then you’ll need to write them down so you won’t forget. I do this on my phone. I have a whole folder this people’s names and things I need to remember about them.
2) Go For Walks--If you’re able, walk through your neighborhood. This doesn’t necessarily require any social engagement. You might pray for the houses on your street. Or, you might bump into new people, develop new relationships, and find common interests.
3) Deliver Baked Goods or Write Letters--No one turns down homemade cookies. Attach a simple note and drop it off. Likewise, handwritten notes are not antiquated. Take one of the prayer cards from the pew and send one to your neighbors. Say, “Thanks for being a good neighbor.” Nothing more. Drop it in their mailbox.
4) Help and Be Helped--When you have a need, to be too shy to interrupt. Let’s start asking our neighbors for sugar again. We’re scared to ask for help, but most people love helping. And also practice the reverse— say, “yes.” Anytime someone interrupts you, be willing to help.