“The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart…. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will retreat to our corners, angry, sick, and alone. We must take action now to build the connections that are the foundation of … strong communities. (Vivek H. Murthy)”.
Loneliness or social isolation is a sad reality of modern life. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.(source)
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, from 2014 to 2017. As Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy commanded the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of 6,600 public health offices serving vulnerable populations in 800 locations domestically and abroad.
During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.
Loneliness is a greater predictor of early death than drinking smoking and excessive eating. “Loneliness can kill. It’s proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” says Mark Robinson, chief officer of the non-profit Age UK Barnet.
In early January 2018, the parliament in Great Britain appointed a ‘Minister for Loneliness’ because loneliness is at epidemic levels. After conducting a 12-month survey they released a report which found that around 14 million Brits suffer from loneliness.
This report was published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Jo Cox was the member of Parliament who was brutally murdered in the streets of her Yorkshire constituency in June 2016, two weeks before the Brexit vote. Britain appointed Tracey Crouch as the minister for loneliness in order to continue work of murdered politician Jo Cox.
Loneliness equals lack of emotional, spiritual and physical connection.
Fiona Patten a Victorian Politician has argued that we need to appoint a minister for loneliness in Australia. Patten’s proposal to follow the UK’s example points to a Harvard study that showed that social isolation is more deadly than obesity and had the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
We feel lonely because we do not have adequate social connections. Loneliness also causes stress: “Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body” (source).
Long term stress elevates cortisol levels which in term has been linked to inflammation in the body. Causing:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Heart disease,
- Joint disease
If we are to prioritise our health we need to create connections that build quality relationships.
“Unfortunately we are also in a crisis of spiritual connection. We have forgotten that we are all inextricably connected to each other through love” (Dr Brene Brown). Whether we understand it or not we all have a deep desire to belong and to be needed. Village living, community living has diminished with the majority of us living in isolation and isolated soulless suburbs.
Christ says that we will be known by our love. Love and acceptance are the anecdotes to loneliness. We need to be known by our love and in doing so our loneliness will be diminished. To come together in community. To grieve with one another, to laugh together and to support each other.
We are called to find the face of God in every single person we meet not just the faces that look like ours.
It is really important for our health that we embrace diversity. We need to hold hands with strangers.
Look around the world right now and people are fearful of diversity. They are fearful of each other. People want to build walls and stop those seeking asylum so they can protect their own identities. We want everything neat and reconciled. We don’t like mess, we don’t like things unresolved. We don’t like challenge or conflict. Yet these are the very things that bring growth and transformation.
We have become a society of us and them. In our division, in our fear, we have lost sight of love. We have lost sight of community.
The story of Noah teaches us some amazing things. God tells Noah to bring into the ark all the opposites: the wild and the domestic, the crawling and the flying, the clean and the unclean, the male and the female of each animal (Genesis 7:2-15).
Then God does a most amazing thing. God locks them together inside the ark (Genesis 7:16).
“God puts all the natural animosities, all the opposites together, and holds them in one place. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things in their seemingly unreconciled state that widens and deepens the soul. We must allow things to be only partly resolved, without perfect closure or explanation. Christians have not been taught how to live in hope. The ego always wants to settle the dust quickly and have answers right now.
God’s gathering of contraries is, in fact, the very school of salvation, the school of love. That’s where growth happens: in honest community and committed relationships. Love is learned in the encounter with “otherness” as both Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas taught. (Reference).
The story of Noah is about how we are to live with diversity and with opposites within the community. Everyone in the Ark was ‘locked up’ in ‘community’. In a village, you were ‘locked up’ in ‘community’. There was little escape. In a small town, you are locked up in ‘community’. Today’s sprawling metropolis’ makes this very difficult. It is easy to escape the pain that relationships and diversity inevitably bring.
To live within healthy connected communities we MUST learn how to love and how to forgive. If we do not forgive we live with the pain of dislocated relationships and we retreat, put up walls, become isolated. ‘We retreat to our corners, angry, sick, and alone” (Murthy).
- Discrimination and dislocation cause intimidation and isolation.
- Intolerance causes anger and resentment.
- Hostility towards others eventually leaves us cold and bitter.
- Love is learned in our encounters with others.
- Love is learned when we embrace diversity
- Love is learned when we offer forgiveness
When we love diversity and differences, we create spaces where everyone belongs. Love builds communities where everyone is accepted and valued. That is why Jesus said that we will be known by our love. People are drawn to love. Love is inclusive, it embraces, it enfolds, it heals, it gathers. Love dispels darkness and loneliness.
Love never fails.
If you would like to read more on this subject, my husband Philip has a post he has written from his experience with loneliness called Only the Lonely.
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Reference— Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 36-37; and with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2001), 141.