Crisis of Isolation
Volume 58, Number 2
We are bombarded seemingly on a daily basis by crises after crises that come across our computer screens, phone screens, TV screens, radios, newspapers and any other outlet where we get news. As we read the headlines, we come to the conclusion that the world is dominated by a never-ending series of desperate situations that clamor for our attention and to which we must focus our energies. At the time of this writing, there is a war in the Ukraine, spy balloons floating in our atmosphere, devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, acute food shortages across the globe, and the U.S. is pushing up against its debt ceiling of $31.4 trillion.
These certainly are dire situations that need immediate attention, but many of us are powerless to help in any meaningful way. But there is another crisis that has been brewing for quite some time, that hits close to home, and that likely has directly affected you, or someone you know. It is the crisis of isolation. There are a growing number of people in our society who find themselves isolated from others, alone, without companionship, without relationship, without regular interaction with another person. There are a number of factors that have contributed to this phenomenon, but it has been exacerbated by the recent pandemic. There is a growing vacuum of social interaction, and the results are devastating.
The church is not insulated from this crisis. Many churchgoers also find themselves lacking meaningful social interaction and find the Sunday morning service a positive outlet. This was confirmed in the pandemic. And although the church in America continues to be on the decline, it has an opportunity to fill this void and to bring the message of the gospel and the strength of community to lonely people. I invite you to read the following article which further describes the severity of the crisis and consider how you or your church could intentionally address this need.
— Eric Brubaker
CRISIS OF ISOLATION
By Eric Brubaker
When God created man, He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It is the first occurrence in the Bible where God said something was not good. In doing so, God declared that we are social beings and we find fulfillment in relationship.
However, there has been a phenomenon unfolding in our society where people are becoming increasingly isolated, separated from one another, alone, without social interaction, without conversation and relationship. This has contributed to increased feelings among many people of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, despair, sometimes leading to addiction, self-harm and suicide. This phenomenon was happening years before the pandemic, but the pandemic certainly magnified it.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been tracking a group of (724) original participants and more than (1,300) of their descendants for over three generations (85-years) to find out if there is a crucial factor that contributes to physical health, mental health and longevity. Contrary to what we might expect, career achievement, exercise and healthy diet are not the key factors. Their research has concluded that good relationships are the key to the above. Even the simple measure of time spent with others can prove beneficial. On the other hand, loneliness can have detrimental physical consequences, and according to their research, chronic loneliness can increase a person’s odds of death by 26% in any given year. Social interaction and relationships are necessary for our well-being. However, we are increasingly becoming isolated (Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. “The Real Secret of Lifelong Fulfillment.” WSJ, January14-15, 2023, C1.).
Several years ago National Review featured an article entitled, “Lonely America.” It noted, “Prosperity has afforded our independence from neighbors and networks…but the relational and emotional collateral damage has fallen hardest on those least able to afford it…an isolation of affluence is indelibly marking modern society.” Since the 1960’s, faith, family and community have suffered tremendous losses. “We have set loose a scourge of loneliness and isolation that we are still afraid to acknowledge as the distinct social dysfunction of our age of individualism” (Yuval Levin. The Fractured Republic, as quoted by Michael Hendrix, Lonely America, National Review, March 29, 2018).
Alex Katz is a 95 year-old American artist who has been sketching commuters on the New York City early morning trains for 7-decades. What he has chronicled is that the chattering riders and shuffle of newspapers (on those early morning subway commutes) of years ago has all but vanished. Today, people ride alone, together! The light in their eyes reflects the glow of their phones! There has been a profound change in America.
There is a crisis of isolation, and our explosion of technology and social media platforms isn’t necessarily helping us. Several years Facebook (now Meta) quietly posted independent research, that said that using their platform can sometimes lead to “lower measures of physical and mental well-being,” and that, “people who spend a lot of time passively consuming social feeds do tend to feel worse” (New York Times, “How Does Facebook Feel About Making You Feel Bad?” Saturday, December 16, 2017. B1).
Is it unfair or inaccurate to say that the new technology and social media platforms have directly led to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, hopelessness and even despair? Perhaps, but many are drawing that conclusion. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has research that would suggest that “all of a sudden” around 2013, depression rates began to rise, only among those of Gen-Z (those born between 1997 and 2012), and especially among teen girls. His conclusion is that in 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram and young people flocked to it. Also, the first front-facing camera on the iPhone 4 (released in 2010), was greatly enhanced on the iPhone 5 (released in 2012), thus leading to the “selfie era.” According to Haidt, these visual platforms are where people post their “perfect life,” and it leads to a “compare and despair” syndrome. “It seems social because you are communicating with people. But it’s performative. You don’t actually get social relationships. You get weak, fake social links” (Jonathan Haidt as interviewed by Tunku Varadarajan. “The ‘National Crisis’ of Gen Z.” WSJ, December 31, 2022 – January 1, 2023, p.A11).
Also during that time there has been an increase in addiction. Several years ago TIME magazine came out with a special report, an issue devoted solely to the opioid crisis in America. It was called, “The Opioid Diaries.” The issue started with these words, “The opioid crisis is the worst addiction epidemic in U.S. history.” According to TIME magazine, the opiod crisis is so dire, that in the 95-year history of TIME magazine, this was the first time that an entire issue was devoted entirely to the work of one photographer. The special report concluded with these words, “This is a visual record of a national emergency – and it demands our urgent attention” (TIME Magazine, March 5, 2018).
In addition to this crisis of addiction, there has also been a rise in suicide. The New York Times reported several years ago that because so many suicide attempts were made from the George Washington Bridge, an 11’ high fence (connected to safety netting) was installed on top of the bridge. As a result, (68) people were saved in 2017, and foiled in their attempts (that’s roughly (1) every 5 days.)
Things had become so severe that prior to the pandemic, the life expectancy in the US was declining. From 2014-2016, the mortality rate from drug overdose, (age 25-34) shot up by 50%. The opioid epidemic is hitting our young people the most, although it is not limited to the young.
All of this was happening prior to the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic the isolation was voluntary. During the pandemic, the isolation was mandated, and forced even more use of the new technology and social media platforms which in some cases, perpetuated the dilemma. Much has been (and is being) written about this, but many believe that the devastating effects of the pandemic on people’s mental health and social well-being has had a generational impact that will not be overcome. How should we think about this? What does scripture have to say, and what can the church be doing?
HELP FROM ABOVE: (Psalm 139)
When we look to scripture, we see that God has an intimate knowledge of all the details of our lives. He knows everything about us and is with us. We are not alone, and therefore, we should not despair.
In Deuteronomy, God assured His people that He would “not abandon or destroy” them, “or forget the covenant” He made with their forefathers (Deuteronomy 4:31). Twice in Deuteronomy 31, God promised that He would “never leave you nor forsake you” (verses 6 and 8). That promise is repeated in the New Testament (Hebrews 13:5). Although these promises are firm, many godly people down through the years have struggled personally with feelings of loneliness, sadness and even depression. The Psalms contain a record of some of their deepest longings and laments.
In Psalm 6 the Psalmist admits that he is “worn out from groaning; all night long I drench my bed with tears” (v.6). In Psalm 42 the Psalmist pours out his heart to God and states, “My tears have been my food day and night” (v.3). In Psalm 56, David says to God, “Record my lament; Put my tears in Your bottle; Are they not in Your book” (v.8)? Down through the years, the people of God have not been immune to feelings of deep sorrow.
Psalm 139 is one of many scripture passages that give us comfort of the knowledge and presence of God. It is a Psalm of David. We often think about this Psalm when we think about the unborn and how God, “knit me together in my mother’s womb…I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (vv.13-14). But there are other instructive aspects to this Psalm that help us as we think about the subject at hand.
The Knowledge of God:
When we are tempted with feelings of loneliness, hopelessness and even despair, we should attempt to call to mind the knowledge of God. This is Him knowing us, not us knowing Him. This Psalm reminds us that God knows us. He knows what we are doing and how we are feeling and what we are thinking. He knows where we are. Verses (1-3) say, “O Lord, you have searched me and know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. Thou dost winnow my journeying and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:1-3).
This Psalm reminds us that God knows our habits. He knows our routines. He knows our path. He knows our journeyings. He intimately knows all of our ways. If we are tempted to think that God doesn’t know or doesn’t care what is happening in our lives, then we must change our thinking. God doesn’t forget about us. He doesn’t abandon us. He doesn’t forsake us. He knows everything about us.
There is an app that we can get for our phones that allows us to track the location of other family members. This can be a handy tool if you want to know where your children are. God not only knows where His children are, He also knows what they are doing! He knows everything about us.
The Presence of God:
Not only does God know where we are and what we are doing, but He is also there with us. Verse (7) says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there…If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You” (Psalm 139:7-8, 11-12).
There is no place too high or too low or too dark for God. Everywhere we go, He is there. It is impossible to flee from the presence of God!
If we are tempted with feelings of loneliness because of social isolation, we must remember that God is with us. The New Testament book of Romans puts it like this: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the deep? (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:6-8). We must remember that God is near. He is with us when we feel alone. He is there to meet us.
The Plan of God:
God doesn’t just know about us, and decide to be with us, He has a plan for us. Even when things seem bleak and hopeless. You might say, “But I don’t see it. I don’t see how He is working things out. I can’t possibly see how He can make anything good come out of what seems to be so bad.” Verses 9-10 say: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:9-10).
God has a plan. He has a plan for you, and He is guiding you, although the path may seem desolate and difficult. His right hand will hold you fast. Verse (5) says, “You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5). The idea here is that He surrounds us – He is behind us, in front of us and beside us. The New Testament tells us that for the Christian, He is also within us. Colossians 1:27 says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Jesus promised that for the Christian, the Holy Spirit will be “with you forever,” and will be “with you and in you” (John 14:16-17).
Here in Psalm 139 it says that God lays His hand upon us to reassure and comfort us. God has a plan, though it may look much different than what we may expect. Verse (16) says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).
God doesn’t just count our lives in years, He counts our lives in days, and each day of our lives was ordained by God before we were even born. God has a plan for your life. He has ordained our days, and we must trust Him, that He is leading and guiding as He wants.
HELP FROM BESIDE:
It is comforting to know that God is with us in times of isolation. But sometimes it is difficult for us to realize that and apply it in practical ways. We must remember that in the beginning, at creation, God made Adam. At that time, it was simply Adam and God. There was likely some level of fellowship there (between God and Adam). Perhaps they walked together in the Garden in the cool of the day, just as Adam and Eve did in Genesis 3:18. But for Adam, this was not enough. God declared that it was not good for the man to be alone. In other words, God confirmed that we find fulfillment in physical relationship.
We are relational beings. This was resoundingly confirmed during the pandemic. The relational benefit of being part of a church family and gathering for Sunday services was clearly recognized in the pandemic. People found great benefit in the social aspect of the church.
1. Reclaim Community: Therefore, the church should take this opportunity to reclaim and re-emphasize the communal aspect and social benefits of being part of a local church body of believers and find practical ways to express that.
The early church devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and prayer, but also to the fellowship and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). Now, this could mean that they were devoted to the fellowship (meaning the church body). But it would also indicate that they were devoted to fellowship, defined as a friendly association and close relationship among those who share common interests. Acts 2:46 says that they broke bread, “from house to house, and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” There was definitely a communal, social, relational aspect to the early church, as it should be today. The church should take this opportunity to reclaim and re-emphasize this important aspect.
2. Recognize the Trend: The church should also be aware of this trend toward isolation and social disconnectedness. The pervasive use of technology is impacting us. Researchers tell us that in 2018, the average American spent 11-hours every day interacting with media from television to radio to smartphones. All of this interaction is typically done alone. Although there may be someone else in the room, you are not likely interacting with them.
It would be a mistake to think that this social phenomenon is out there, and not in here, and that somehow the church is insulated and unscathed. There are many among us who are dealing with the effects of isolation and who face issues of anxiety, loneliness, depression and even despair. But it is also interesting to note that there have been quite a few people (in church settings) who have voluntarily acknowledged that they lack meaningful relationships, even in the church. They feel lonely. Perhaps this is a symptom of our social crisis, or simply part of life. But it is real.
There have been a number of studies that show that after the age of (25) people tend to stop making new friends, and their social circles shrink significantly. It has been reported that a person’s peak mobile phone usage happens at age (25) and then goes downhill from there. This is likely part of the aging process but is nonetheless a factor of increased feelings of loneliness among many.
It has also been reported that at least 25% of households in America are made up of people living alone. This is partly because the number of senior citizens is increasing, and younger people are delaying getting married. Putting all of this together, it becomes evident why young and old alike (and those in between) are increasingly feeling isolated and alone.
3. Seek Solutions: What can we do? What should the church be doing? It is interesting to note that in the early church there was a social program to meet an immediate physical need. The church was involved in “the daily distribution of food” to care for widows who had no family to care for them (Acts 6:1). In other words, the church took care of its own and did not let these physical needs unmet.
Later in the New Testament we are commanded to, “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14/ESV). Therefore, as we become aware of situations of isolation and loneliness, we should reach out, befriend, express concern and try to fill the void and offer help as best we can.
It is interesting to note that in 2018, Great Britain appointed its first “minister of loneliness” to address the growing concern among the public. Their job is to seek practical ways to alleviate the problem.
But it is also well documented that one of the ways to lessen feelings isolation and loneliness is not only to offer help, but also to ask for help. In other words, if we are aware that someone is feeling isolated and alone, we should ask them for their help! Or, ask them if together, we could meet the needs of another. This strikes at the fact that we tend to feel more useful, productive and fruitful if we are seeking to help someone else rather than dwelling on our own needs.
A strange twist to this topic is that although the glut of technology and social media is part of the problem, especially for the young, it is also part of the solution for those who are older, because the new technology allows older persons to better stay connected with their family and loved ones. However, the challenge is to teach them how to use it. But this is where the younger can help the older.
Conclusion: There is growing awareness that many people are feeling more isolated and lonely. This was evident before the pandemic, but compounded in the pandemic. Isolation is defined as limited contact with other people. Similar words would be seclusion or solitude. Extended isolation is not good for our well-being.
On the other hand, loneliness is defined as the disconnect between the relationships we have and those we want. There is also growing awareness of anxiety and depression among many.
Loneliness is not a new thing. The Apostle Paul, writing from a dungeon in Rome, in his last New Testament letter, bemoaned the fact that everyone in the province of Asia had deserted him (2 Timothy 1:15), but the Lord stood by his side (2 Timothy 4:17). David, the Psalmist, cried out to God in his own loneliness and said, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalm 25:16). And later he declared that God is “a Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows…[He] sets the lonely in families, He leads forth the prisoners with singing” (Psalm 68:5-6).
God definitely has great concern for the isolated and lonely and wants to meet them where they are. But He also calls the church to be His hands and feet and to meet need where we can. May the Lord help us personally to walk in healthy ways and to open our eyes to the need around us and give us the wisdom and strength to act.