The fallout from loneliness
Americans are increasingly isolated and disconnected from one another. They lead lives detached from their neighbors, families, and communities. David Brooks reports that 35% of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely. Only 8% report having important conversations with their neighbors in a given year. I could go on.
The awful fallout of this is in evidence everywhere, but Northern Michigan is in many ways especially susceptible to the loneliness epidemic. Being a rural and relatively secluded locale, people need to work a little harder to maintain regular human contact. And our disproportionately aged population is the demographic that is most vulnerable to loneliness.
But wait! Aren’t we Americans more connected than ever? Hasn’t the internet enabled us to find “virtual” communities? Don’t our devices keep us in constant contact with one another?
Yes and no. On the one hand, anyone who has lived on the other side of the country from Grandma & Grandpa (raises hand) can testify to the benefits of Skype or FaceTime for maintaining a long-distance relationship. That’s great.
On the other hand, the technology has just as often, if not more, exacerbated the problem. In the pithy but haunting phrase of Sherry Turkle, all our devices and social media have left us “alone together.” And the loneliness contagion continues.
What’s to be done?
So what is to be done? In Senator Ben Sasse’s excellent book Them (which I’ve cited before in a sermon), he advocates for a recovery of true tribes—in contrast to the “anti-tribes” that thrive on mutual animosity and shared antipathy. We need to put down deep roots, he says. Cultivate shared loyalties. And for the love of all that is good and holy, set limits on our tech use. These are all great prescriptions that I wholeheartedly endorse.
Ultimately, though, loneliness is a spiritual malady that can only have a spiritual cure. Recall Jesus’ lament that the crowds were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9.36). Make no mistake, this human propensity for wandering off, isolating ourselves, and ending up alone and lonely is nothing new.
But what is new is the extent to which our society perpetuates the loneliness. Lacking the thick bonds of faith, family, and community, people are more swiftly sliding into despair, particularly in rural communities like Arcadia.
What, then, is the solution? Of course, the ultimate answer is that y’all need Jesus. This Jesus is known, though, only through a community of believers—through His Body, the church.
Reviving the parish
And so, while I’m undeniably biased, I can’t help but think that at least part of the solution must be through a renewed emphasis on the local church. And in particular, by reviving in its fullest and richest sense the concept of the parish: a thick, rooted community of Christians, gathered by Christ and His gifts and scattered out in blessing through the neighborhood. (I'll have to say more about this in a future Inkling, I think.)
Loneliness might be endemic, but it doesn't have to be incurable. The Good Shepherd, who seeks out the lost ones, ever and always gathers them into His sheepfold. In the company of His flock, we find that we're no longer alone together, but at home together, in Christ.