From Moral Loneliness to Moral Companionship: Loneliness Epidemic

In my last post I connected hyper-individualism and the church’s failure to provide meaningful, deep community to the rise of political tribalism. One of the consequences of a highly individualistic society is loneliness, which as been described as an epidemic in the United States. This feeling of social isolation is one of the key drivers in the rise of political tribalism, as people attempt to satisfy their desire to be part of – in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s words – a community of worship. Understanding this insight into human nature can give the church the ability to combat the unhealthy influence of politics in our churches, as well as meet a critical need of the society around us. 

For the last several posts I have been discussing the faith-politics relationship, but the more I think the matter through, the more I realize that it is the undergirding of the society that these institutions are a part of that should be the real area of focus. David Brooks observes,

“The reality is that democracy and the economy rest upon a foundation, which is society. A society is a system of relationships. If there is no trust at the foundations of society, if there is no goodness, care, or faithfulness, relationships crumble, and the market and state crash to pieces.”

And relationships, both with God and our fellow humanity, is the primary subject of Christianity. If there is a society wide breakdown in relationships we in the Church have to look first to ourselves to confront where we have failed, and then secondly to realize that we have an opportunity before us. Let’s take a further look at the breakdown in relationships before looking at how meaningful church community can be an antidote. 

Loneliness

 Over the last few years I have become aware of what has been called a loneliness epidemic here in the United States. The discussion has mostly focused on loneliness from a health care perspective, noting the affects of loneliness on physical and mental health. Loneliness has been associated with depression, high blood pressure and shorter life spans to mention just a few of the negative effects of loneliness. As I was researching for this post I found similar articles discussing the loneliness epidemic in the UK , as well as a loneliness epidemic among the elderly in Ireland. Both the UK and Japan have appointed ‘Ministers of Loneliness’ to combat the growing loneliness and isolation in their respective countries. Historian and demographer Neil Howe writing in Forbes shared this: 

“The Economist/KFF findings add to a wave of recent research showing high levels of loneliness. A recent Cigna survey revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Fully 54% said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Loneliness isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. In a nationwide survey released in October from the BBC, a third of Britons said that they often or very often feel lonely. Nearly half of Britons over 65 consider the television or a pet their main source of company. In Japan, there are more than half a million people under 40 who haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months. In Canada, the share of solo households is now 28%. Across the European Union, it’s 34%.”

Several years ago I worked in the housing industry. One memory I still carry with me was going on a delivery to help unload windows for a very large, beautiful home under construction. The entry way looked like a small scale church with gorgeous wooden arches supporting the ceiling. I found out the home was a $4.3 million project being built for a single grandmother. Not only was she going to live by herself, but when her grandkids came to visit they would be spared the indignity of having to share a room for the night as each grandchild had their own room. While some may feel that her home was the reward of that family’s business success (apparently the money came from the sale of a factory owned by the family), to me it screamed of the loneliness and the hollowness of the American Dream. 

Moral Aloneness

In his book ‘The Second Mountain’ author David Brooks quotes French novelist Honore’ de Balzac, “Man has a horror of aloneness, and of all kinds of aloneness, moral aloneness is the most terrible.” Author Ron Rolheiser expands on this: 

Our deepest aloneness is moral. Where we feel most alone is, precisely, in the deepest part of our being, our moral soul, the place where we feel most strongly about the right and wrong of things and where what is most precious to us is cherished, guarded, and feels violated when it is attacked.”

This loneliness is not satisfied by being around people or participating in activities with others, it is a longing to be truly understood by those around us; for others to see the deep passions and convictions that animate our dreams of how the world should be. 

It is this deep aloneness that drives us to seek moral companionship with those who dream of a world operating on the same framework of priorities as we do. Religion and politics are the only two arenas of life where we can find the moral companionship that meets this deep need, and because of this I have come to believe that religion and politics are often competing for same place in the human heart. It is not primarily our beliefs themselves that drive us as much as it is the need to find a community of others who share those beliefs; to know above all else that we are not alone in what is most important to us. An article posted by Ryan Streeter (director of Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute) cited some interesting research: 

“One reason young people get involved in politics might be loneliness. In a nationally representative survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, 18- to 35-year-olds who are lonely and socially active (it is possible to be both) choose to volunteer for political organizations and campaigns at seven times the rate of their peers who are not lonely (22% vs. 3%). Conversely, socially active young adults who are not lonely choose to volunteer for faith-based organizations at six times the rate as their lonely peers (24% vs. 4%).” 

According the article, loneliness was a better predictor than party affiliation as to whether a person choose to pursue involvement in political organizations or involvement in their local communities. Streeter’s conclusion: 

“The picture that emerges of socially active young adults suggests that politics fulfills the tribal needs of lonely individuals more than it does for those who are not lonely. The latter group generally has a higher opinion of all sorts of community institutions. This may be because their lack of loneliness is directly attributable to their embeddedness in richer local networks. For lonely young adults, politics provides the sense of purpose and mission that their non-lonely peers get from church, their favorite local charity, or their kids’ school.”

My original intent with this post was to briefly discuss moral loneliness and then move on to how churches can help forge a spiritual moral companionship to meet this need in our society. But as I delved into the topic of loneliness I was overwhelmed at the reams of articles I was finding online. Clearly loneliness was a much bigger problem than I realized and while I was trying to steer the discussion towards the impact of loneliness on political involvement, my research made me realize the topic is much broader and deeper than that. I am at the place that I would say loneliness, alienation, and social isolation should be the number one concern of churches and church leaders. The impact of the lack of deep relationships spills over into nearly every other area of life. 

I am guessing that many Christians probably feel that loneliness shouldn’t be an issue for Christians. After all don’t we have a relationship with our Savior and Creator? And isn’t that enough? Well in a word, no. It is not that God isn’t capable of meeting our relationship needs as much as it is that God created us to need deep relationships with each other, and we have allowed the individualistic influences of our society to shape our church culture. It is my intention to look at how we can build deep communities in my next post. 

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3 thoughts on “From Moral Loneliness to Moral Companionship: Loneliness Epidemic”

  1. Great insight here. I think you’re definitely on to something. Just a suggestion for further study, check out Robert Putnam’s work on the concept of community and civil society. He wrote a book about it: Bowling Alone. He includes a discussion of religion in his study of the decline of communities of connectivity.

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