I had the sudden realization, some time past, that every life choice that I have come to regret, or to later see as unhealthy or unwise, was somehow fueled by loneliness, or my perceived lack of social connection.
Some were clearly decisions born out of a lonely state of being, while others were more subtle, and I had to track them down, by investigating the motivations behind each and every choice that I had made, questioning my motivations behind these choices.
We are social beings, and we want to connect with others, we want to be a part of something, and we want to know how we fit into the grand scheme of things – what our role is. Every adult has probably had a conversation with a younger human about wanting to fit in, and about the need to make wise choices about friends. And every adult has probably watched as that younger human has seemingly ignored that advice, because despite the good intentions of those who have traveled that path before, they need to find their own identity in order to know what they do and do not agree with.
And while this example of kids finding their own way is an obvious one, as adults we often don’t realize just how many of our decisions are based on similar attempts at fitting in, at defining our identity, at finding our role within our social context. Did I come to this church because it provides the best theological teaching, or because it offers the best programs, or the best adult groups? Did I take this job because I love doing it, or because this type of job pays more money than one that I love to do – and by extrapolation, more money will allow me to get what I really crave? Did I buy this object because it serves a practical purpose, or because it is an object that shows my relevance and role within this social infrastructure?
If we are bold enough, and honest enough with ourselves, we can usually trace every purchase beyond the necessities, every life choice beyond survival, every job choice beyond meeting our needs down to a simple motivation. These decisions are not inherently healthy or unhealthy, but more often than not, we will find that we pick these friends, do these jobs, buy these objects because they are fueling a need to place ourselves within our social context. And while we might make healthy choices – which is, after all, why we tell kids to sped time with good friends – we most often recognize our motivations when things have turned out poorly. These choices don’t necessarily fill an immediate practical need, but they offer a hope of what we really crave, which is meaning and true and authentic connections.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General, put out an advisory titled, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” partly in response to the isolation that people felt during the pandemic, but also to show how the perception of loneliness has increased over the years, despite living in a society that has ever more technology to promote communication.1 The problem doesn’t lie in our communication options, but rather in the collective lack of knowledge on how to communicate.
Social isolation is a physical state of being, though that physical isolation can lead to loneliness, which is “the painful subjective experience of feeling isolated or feeling that one’s relationships are in some ways unsatisfying or deficient (either in quality or quantity).”2 And this painful, subjective feeling of deficiency leads to an ever increasing state of fear/anxiety, despair, and rage.
If rage is an outgrowth of loneliness, then it is clear why the surgeon general believes that social isolation and loneliness are an epidemic that must find a solution in our communities, because that rage has fueled too much division within this country, and threatens to widen the gap between those who have entrenched themselves in various political or social ideological camps.
It is in this division along ideological lines where people often find connection. Loneliness is related to our social identity, because not a single one of us defines ourselves merely by who we are, but by which groups we belong to.3 As adults, as hard as we might try to warn those younger people about the need to carefully choose their friends, we do the same thing, and align ourselves with those with whom we agree. And only with those we agree.
Arthur C. Brooks, who teaches Happiness at the Harvard Business School, said in a 2022 talk, that one of the necessities for happiness is to get rid of our attachments. Quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, he says that some of our strongest attachments are to our opinions. What Brooks realized is that he was holding on to some very strong political opinions, and that he would only talk with those who agreed with him. “I was stepping over $100 bills, for the sake of a nickel,” he says, and that when he disengaged from his opinions, when he detached from tying his identity to those opinions, then it opened up his connections, because it was no longer about trying to convince people to join his camp, but instead became, “Tell me why you think this.” The conversation became interesting, rather than divisive.
The church is just a microcosm of this same cultural phenomena. Our people are socially isolated, sometimes physically, and other times emotionally. Some people feel lonely because they are unwilling to detach from their strong opinions, and others feel lonely because they are not able to find a common ground with those around them. We might be tempted to say that people simply need to do more church shopping to find the right fit, but what we are really saying with that is, find the right tribe, so that you can align yourself with those who think like you. This is why researchers list over 45,000 separate church denominations worldwide. It is because we often look to forge spiritual connection based on cultural and social identity, rather than kingdom identity.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years about how to make the Gospel relevant, which is to say, how to make the Gospel meaningful to people in a world that craves real and authentic connection. The way to make the Gospel relevant is the same way that we build a community that unites, rather than a community that divides: we detach ourselves from our strongly held opinions and beliefs, and focus instead on inclusion and compassion; we focus on understanding what motivates others, rather than telling them what motivates us; we educate people on how to love their neighbor as they love themselves, rather than educating them on scriptures that will score points and convince others to their way of thinking; we build up communities that prove that God loves and welcomes everyone, and not just those who think like us. If we do this, we may quit stepping over $100 bills for the sake of a nickel, and find that those who are already a part of our communities come to life in a way that gives them wings, and those who do not yet belong find themselves drawn to us because of the love and acceptance we show each other.
- Our Epidemic of Loneliness, pp. 19-21 ↩︎
- Psychology Today, New Research Identifies Two Major Causes of Loneliness. ↩︎
Simon and Garfunkel – I am a Rock ↩︎
Mike is a jack of all trades. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023.