Humans have always been lonely. But people are beginning to think the human condition these days is facing forces that make loneliness life-threatening!
Jesus has a promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” As the Lord’s hands and feet in the present, we are part of the fulfillment of that promise. We are the antidote to loneliness. We are the hug of Jesus. A lot of people are acting self-reliant when they don’t want to be. Way too many people have just given up on real connection. But we are created to alleviate that.
Why are we experiencing loneliness more than ever before? There are several interconnected reasons, according to Ronald Rolheiser and others.
Up until the very latest generations of humanity, most people didn’t have the time or energy to spare for their psychological and spiritual needs. They were surviving and usually just plain tired. Today, mainly because our recent ancestors rose from rags to riches, many of us were born into affluence and privilege in the United States. Compared to much of the world, we are all rather privileged in the Empire. The modern condition has set us loose to pursue the depths of ourselves or to pursue any distraction that will divert us from facing the depth of ourselves or provide a false replacement. The recent four-year election campaign and subsequent obsession with the results may be indicative. We have a lot of time to waste on our hands.
The “psychic temperature” has been turned up and is pushing on us. Most of us don’t experience that as an opportunity to grow. We just experience a force pushing us into things, like getting excited over the Superbowl, or freaking out about GMOs, or meticulously grooming our dog, or carefully calculating our food practices. We don’t always know why we are doing things, we are just restless and do more things. It’s like we are searching for a place, but we never reach home. It feels lonely.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are making a home together in Christ. Our faith is not just another leisure activity, just another distraction (although Lord knows it is used that way). It is the goal our restless hearts are seeking. Like Augustine said way back when, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Resting in God is a lot more than a good experience in church. But we are part of finding home. We are people someone can touch and know who are working beyond our mere restlessness together. Some of us never settle down very well, but all of us are held in the process by a love beyond any of us.
Fragmentation in society
People formerly lived in extended families. There was little that was impersonal in their lives, little privacy. Not so long ago (and still, in some places) people did not have much physical or social mobility. The United States has rushed into something totally different and preaches the change like it is “freedom” and “progress.” Now we live in a society characterized by the nuclear family (at best), impersonality, and much mobility (which shows like International House Hunters normalize). We have greater freedom to choose how we relate, but we are lonelier — catastrophically lonely and often depressed and anxious as a result. We take meds to stay self-sufficient when we might better heal if we could connect to God and others.
The changes in society undercut the interdependence on which relationships are built. We became habituated to seek privacy and autonomy, to make all our primary relationships chosen ones. When we marry (if we marry or make any love covenants), we break away and make our own nuclear family: a private life with a private house, car and office; plus we want a private room in the house, private cell phone, flatscreen, and so on. We want our kids in private schools, or at least ones we choose. Once we have cut off all our interdependence, we wonder why we are lonely. Even when we live in huge cities, there is no reason to meaningfully connect and we walk the streets wondering how to meet someone, feeling it invades someone’s privacy to talk to them and even taboo to make eye contact.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are audaciously an extended family, a village. Some of us moved in a long time ago and stick with it because we know mobility has some peril for our souls. For many of us, this intimacy and continuity require some re-culturing. We are patient as we all grow, since we know we are all in recovery from the enforced loneliness to which society condemns us.
As the future breaks into the present, we experience people, places, objects and organizations and knowledge passing through our lives more and more rapidly. Formerly we might relate to the same people in the same place, in the same institutions (like school or church), according to the same body of knowledge our whole lives. Now, as technology and knowledge explode around us we don’t relate to things or people for very long.
People, places, things are here today and gone tomorrow. Our government leaders disorient us by talking about “alternative facts” — even truth is being manufactured and changes with whoever is in power, no relating necessary, no testing required! Every few years it is like our location has changed and we have moved into a new culture and started over. We may not have changed our address but the culture changed so much that our surroundings are just as disorienting as if we had moved. Our congregations on South Broad and Frankford Ave. are experiencing such gentrification and development that they don’t feel at home in their own neighborhoods! Science is advancing so rapidly and corporations are acquiring so voraciously that we are not sure where to connect. And we feel very lonely.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We at least provide the opportunity for people to make face to face relationships in the middle of the swirling catastrophe of the future. I hate to call it catastrophe, but it is hard not to see climate change and info synchronicity as forces so large we really need someone to hold onto. The scientists are now tracking loneliness as a disease more deadly than obesity, more fundamental than many other maladies. We are a place where hearts are healed and people learn to find confidence in their future.
Advertising presents many of our ideals of love, intimacy, freedom, community, laughter, presence as elements of the good life which people have already been attained. Those other people on the screen have what I need! Everyone else apparently has what we can’t seem to attain! We know Jennifer Aniston’s real life has not turned out as close-knit as her character’s on Friends. Nevertheless, we spend hours alone watching people who have attained redemption. We are trained to hope that the screenwriters will tidy up all the loose ends on Downton Abbey — and they do.
Watch just one thing in commercials and TV shows: how often people are touched freely and self-confidently. This daily feature, alone, could make us feel more alone. The lack of being touched is so common among us that it is causing a generation of psychological damage, especially among men. As a society, we are very alone.
As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are a place where real people do real things. We are stubbornly just us, not an idealization or a competition. We don’t choose one another as much as we are chosen to be together by being chosen by Jesus. It is a lot of actual freedom for some of us to bear, but it is a sweet suffering.
Humans have always been lonely. We learn both connection and aloneness as babies. But due to the factors listed, and more, our loneliness seems to be intensifying, even slowly building up pressure as if it might explode into some kind of crisis. What do you think, are the first spasms upon us? What are we becoming? I think Jesus has made his church the antidote to the present malady and to what might be coming. It is not like someone will walk into a meeting and automatically feel connected (although that regularly happens). But we have the solutions to the problem, when it comes to loneliness. We have a lot of damage to repair, but Jesus is still the Healer.