The shock factor built into the headline worked, and I was drawn into a recent article in a British newspaper. The lead-in was a simple assertion: “Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”. The piece was obviously designed to raise awareness of the growing problem of loneliness in the UK, especially among the elderly, and the seriousness of the issue was supported with statements like this about a large portion of the geriatric population: “…one in 10 go for at least four weeks without seeing any loved ones.”
Another piece on the subject began to broaden my perspective with this declaration: “Social media makes people more antisocial as it causes loneliness among the young.” So apparently, loneliness isn’t a phenomenon reserved for the geriatric population. The conclusion cited in that report affirmed that an increased use of “social” media produces an outcome that is both counterintuitive and paradoxical. As the hours that young people spend on “social” media mount in the digital world, so do their feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Could that have anything to do with the fact that the suicide rate among teens, especially girls, has risen to unprecedented levels?
More than Emotional ~
Loneliness is a common experience that affects everyone in certain circumstances, but its implications extend far beyond the temporary discomfort of an unpleasant but benign emotional state. Psychology Today weighs in with an article that presents the issues involved as much more vital. “Friendship,” they contend, “is a lot like food. We need it to survive… human beings have a fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships… In fact, evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships is not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically.” And finally, The Guardian adds this: “Loneliness has dramatic consequences on health. Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, lower immunity, increase depression, lower overall subjective wellbeing and increase the stress hormone cortisol (at sustained high levels, cortisol gradually wears your body down).”
These few references hardly represent a tiny tip of the iceberg regarding the impact that loneliness has in this age of unprecedented human connectivity. The issue touches everything from mental and physical health to economic and social wellbeing, and whether the issue is worthy of our concern is hardly debatable. The problem is that many of us are on overload most of the time already, and with the mountainous array of other things to be concerned about, the problem of loneliness hardly manages to get on our radar. Most of us just don’t have space in our lives for another effort to right some kind of social wrong.
God Saw It Coming ~
Thankfully, God was aware of the problem of loneliness a long time ago. He said something very significant about His new creation in the very beginning. It was simply this: “…It is not good that man should be alone…” (Genesis 2:18 NKJV). God extended the pattern illustrated in that first family, and throughout human history, His focused attention has been on connecting people with other people. The psalmist said it simply, “God sets the solitary in families…” (Psalm 68:6a NKJV).
As it is with God Himself, love has always been the binding quality that characterized the relationships in the families God instituted through the years. It isn’t surprising then that God’s greatest expression of love would construct His Church in a way that makes it a unique kind of family—disparate individuals brought together by a common spiritual Father. We use familial references for one another, like “brother” and “sister”, and that isn’t just a traditional or cultural thing. It’s a purposeful part of the plan of God to help ensure our emotional and physical health as well as our spiritual wellbeing.
An Anti-Loneliness Strategy ~
There’s a simple admonition that God directed to all of us who are followers of Jesus that is particularly significant regarding the growing problem of loneliness.
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25 NKJV).
There are two profoundly “anti-loneliness” elements included here—the “stirring up” of “love”, and the human contact involved in “assembling”.
Jesus designed His Church to be a kind of “family” that would never die and leave us alone and isolated. It is a constantly regenerating family bonded by love—and the effects of that are profound. People in isolation focus inwardly. Depression, anxiety, despair, and loneliness cause the brain to produce a corrosive chemical called cortisol. Love between human beings has the opposite effect. Love causes the brain to release chemicals called endorphins, which produce emotional responses that are uplifting, positive, and can even be euphoric. People who experience it regularly live longer, have fewer debilitating illnesses, heal more quickly, and stay more productive longer.
Have you ever considered the Church as God’s most powerful mechanism to counteract the devastating impact of human isolation and loneliness? Could it be that the growing list of problems associated with loneliness and the decades-long decline in church attendance are related? God’s love is the most powerful and effective “anti-loneliness” drug ever created. With traditional families falling apart all around us these days, maybe helping to counteract somebody’s struggle with loneliness begins with us just showing up at church every week and stirring up the love that makes us one.
© 2017 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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