I recently read a fascinating article in the AARP magazine (Dec. 2019/Jan. 2020) which wondered if there might be a medical cure for loneliness. (If you’re interested, you can read the whole article here.) What most captured my attention was a statement by one of the researchers, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University:
"Holt-Lunstad acknowledges that people who live alone aren't necessarily lonely and that there are many who may be nested within a close-knit family and still feel disconnected. Yet a subjective feeling of loneliness, she says, is not the only way to measure a person's vulnerability to health risks. Objective factors, such as living arrangements, may be equally important. Simply living alone or in an isolated place may be just as harmful to your health as feeling lonely."
When I was doing the research for my doctoral thesis last year, I discovered that according to The General Social Survey, the number of people with whom the average American discussed ‘important matters’ dropped from three in 1985 to two in 2004, and one-fourth of those surveyed in 2004 said there was no one with whom they could discuss the things most important to them. While I don’t have more recent statistics (if you do, please feel free to share them with me), I suspect that the situation has only gotten worse, given how polarized our US culture has become.
All of this got me thinking about how the church might be the very best place in our society to combat loneliness. We certainly seem to attract a lot of lonely people! Here in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church, we have LOTS of isolated places. We also routinely move clergy around, so that clergy and their family members are often separated from extended family, friends, and close confidants. In those churches fortunate enough to have young adults, we often find that they, too, are living far away from family due to their work. And, our churches include many older adults, at least some of whom are widowed or otherwise living alone. (My research showed that in Macon County, where Decatur is located, about 1/3 of households consist of only one person. You can find statistics for your area at this website.) I’m finding that even in close-knit, smaller communities, like the one I live in now, people can still fall through the cracks.
The biblical witness is that it isn’t good for humans to be alone (Genesis 2:18). In Bible times, people’s safety and survival depended on being part of a group. This truth led Cain to complain against God’s punishment after he murdered his brother, Abel: “My punishment is more than I can bear. Now that you’ve driven me away from the fertile land and I am hidden from your presence, I’m about to become a roving nomad on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:13, CEB). It also explains why being declared “unclean” and exiled from the community (like the demon-possessed man in the fifth chapter of Mark) was so devastating. And the demon-possessed man “lived among the tombs” – I wonder if he felt more accepted by the dead than by the living!
In my next post, I want to look a little more at what lonely people need (other than a medical cure) to combat loneliness. Meanwhile, I would be interested to hear what YOU are seeing in your community. Do people seem to be lonely, or at least disconnected from others? Have you experienced loneliness yourself? Do you find that people don’t want to admit to being lonely?