This article was written for, and printed in, Grain Valley News
I’ve been working on this article for about six months. Or, perhaps I should say, “it has been working on me.” As a pastor, I generally keep a list of topics and issues that I believe God is prompting my heart on which to speak or write. I attended a seminar some time ago where a speaker talked about the issue of loneliness and how it was affecting the younger generation. I was intrigued. I heard a gentle whisper and wrote the word, “loneliness” in a file in my Google Drive.
About a month later, I was listening to a podcast and the guest talked about loneliness using words like, “crisis” and “epidemic.” The whisper turned into a shout and I began to dig deeper. Once in the rabbit hole I found the issue of loneliness fascinating and frightening.
Studies show that half of Americans say they are lonely and many others report that they have no meaningful relationships. They further describe themselves as isolated, marginalized, and sometimes, rejected. Some social scientists and mental health experts are calling loneliness a crisis.
According to a 2019 article by Kay S. Hymowitz, loneliness is an epidemic. A study released by Cigna, an insurance company, revealed, “only around half of Americans say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions.” They claim that loneliness is killing as many people as obesity and smoking.
Loneliness is a villain that does not discriminate based up age, gender, or culture. It is a vicious predator that seeks to destroy and has manifested its ugly head in self-harm and even suicide.
When dealing with the issue of suicide, we often tend to place more emphasis upon young people, but senior adults are also affected. The National Center for Biotechnology Information notes that the number one risk factor for suicide is becoming a widow or widower. The NCBI has called the rise in suicides, a “Major public health issue.”
Although the issue of loneliness has risen to the surface recently, it’s really nothing new. In 1974, the music group, “America,” released a song called, “Lonely People.” One of the lines goes like this, “This is for all the lonely people. Thinking that life has passed them by. Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup. And ride that highway in the sky.” I remember the tune, but really, never thought about the lyrics. Apparently, they knew something I didn’t.
Or, we could go back to the thirteenth century. German emperor Frederick II conducted a bizarre experiment. He wanted to know what language humans would speak if they weren’t taught any language. He placed fifty newborns in the care of nurses who were given strict orders only to feed and bathe the infants. The caretakers were not allowed to speak, hold, or have any other contact with them. The emperor never discovered the answer to what language they would speak because none of the infants survived. As humans, we were built for connection and interaction. It is a matter of life and death.
Although, at times, we cry out, “I just want to be alone!” too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Connection and interaction are so important that isolation has been, and is, used as punishment. I can remember as a kid being sent to my room and had to close the door until being invited out.
In our penal system, more than forty states still use solitary confinement as punishment. Some studies have revealed that long-term solitary confinement can be detrimental and cause hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, paranoia, and intense feelings of rage and fear.
For the average person, research shows that people without strong social ties are more likely to suffer from major ailments such as heart disease and high blood pressure as well as suffer from lesser ailments such as the common cold. There may be no cure for the common cold, but chicken soup from a friend may help relieve its severity and promote healing. Maybe it’s not the soup.
But, why do we need one another? Although some social scientists would suggest that our dire necessity for social interaction goes back to prehistoric times when humans lived and survived in packs in order to protect the herd, as a pastor, I believe the issue is primarily theological.
Way back in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, God created the first human in His own image. Adam was one of a kind–literally. He was created for intimacy with his Creator and had the world at his feet. But something was missing—or perhaps, someone. He was surrounded by other animals in pairs, but he was alone.
God wanted Adam to see and recognize this. God then said, “It’s not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). To satisfy the pain of this isolation, God created a helpmate and soulmate. That relationship produced other social units such as the family, extended family, and close bonds with others. All of it was part of God’s plan. But then came rebellion, rejection, and subsequent isolation: loneliness.
And so, we were designed to know and to be known. The French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, put it like this, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing.” We were built to know our Creator and interact with one another.
As a communication professor, I see the problems associated with a disconnected society. There is no quick, simple fix. Perhaps, you are, or feel, alone. Sometimes, being lonely has nothing to do with being alone.
I guess, if the statistics are true, and 50% of us feel alone, we’re never really alone. We’re just disconnected from other lonely people. Those closest to us may feel the same way. Remember “The Pina Colada Song”?
My recommendation would be, rather than waiting for someone to come along, be proactive. Create, or integrate, with an existing community. Join a club or team, learn a new craft and meet friends, go to church, or whatever it takes to create community. If you feel the loneliness is severe, seek the assistance of a trained professional.
As a pastor, I realize that some people think that God is a myth and heaven is “all pie in the sky in the great bye and bye.” But, the concept of a Creator and the promise of a future restoration does satisfy and rectify the effects of the initial rebellion and provides the total reversal of a tarnished and tainted community that has us disconnected and experiencing pain and isolation. The Bible’s comforting words to believers: “We will see His face.” (Rev 22:3-4).
In heaven, there will also be no barriers or the marginalization of people. We will be one. Perhaps the band, America, was on to something when they wrote, “Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup. And ride that highway in the sky.”
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.