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I’m a millennial. I’m not exactly proud of that moniker, given its usage over the past decade. Regardless, I’ve never known a world without television, mobile phones, and computers, but I have gotten a glimpse of such a world. I remember working at a camp in Maryland some years ago as a counselor. This camp had no wireless internet, and smartphones didn’t exist yet. We used to stay up late at night in the lobby and talk and laugh with other staff members. When my younger sister went to work there a couple of years later, the camp had installed wireless internet. I asked her about the lobby. She said that in the evenings, virtually no one used it anymore. Many stayed in their rooms to catch up on email and browse the internet.
It’s strange that technology can so change the way we live, but it has, and it does. We are physical creatures, and our environment isn’t just around us. We are part of it, and it is part of us. Something about our environment—and, therefore, us—has changed over the past years. Robert D. Putnam, in his landmark study of social connectedness in America, Bowling Alone, writes:
Across a very wide range of activities, the last several decades have witnessed a striking diminution of regular contacts with our friends and neighbors. We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less often, we engage less often in leisure activities that encourage casual social interaction, we spend more time watching (admittedly, some of it in the presence of others) and less time doing. We know our neighbors less well, and we see old friends less often.
Putnam highlights in his vastly researched book the real decline of political, civic, and religious participation over the past decades. And, of course, with more isolation—that is, less social connectedness—comes more loneliness. A couple of recent surveys, including one by the healthcare provider Cigna, along with another by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation, highlight the pervasiveness of loneliness in the Western world. The latter found that 22 percent of adults in America often or always feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated. According to experts, younger people are more likely to be lonely than older people, and loneliness appears to be increasing among everyone. Several studies, such as one by the American Cancer Society, have even linked loneliness to poor health and a higher risk of death. Some have taken this data and given it a name: “the loneliness epidemic.”
What has caused our loneliness? We can’t point to any one thing, because the issue is complex. Putnam acknowledges as much, but he also suggests some contributing factors, such as technology. Yet technology, such as wireless internet, has in some ways brought more connectedness. It allows people from different places around the world to communicate with each other. Social media, for example, has allowed many people to reconnect. Yet at the same time, social media doesn’t offer nearly the same level of engagement as personal presence does. That is, it is nothing like having a friend over for dinner. Other technologies offer a similar experience. Television can seem great when we’re lonely, but it can also feel empty. We could also point to technology such as the automobile, which has given us greater freedom of movement, but often at the cost of isolating ourselves. Humans live further from each other than ever, which provides less opportunity to see each other. And, when we do travel, we are each isolated in our own car.
We could also point to social and religious change over the past century. Putnam points out that women entering the modern workforce in the mid-twentieth century changed our social connectedness significantly. Women, he acknowledges, are typically more socially engaged than men, and with both partners working, there’s simply less time for community engagement. (That’s not to say, of course, that women should never enter the workforce. After all, before men entered the modern workforce, they were home, too—on the family farm.) Moreover, we can also acknowledge the increasing number of Americans who have disassociated themselves from organized religion. By and large, without belonging to a particular religious group that fellowships regularly, our social connectedness has declined. In any case, regardless of the causes of our increased isolation, we are more isolated than ever.
Maybe you don’t feel isolated. If you don’t, you likely know someone who does. Loneliness is everywhere today. Studies make that clear. How should we then live? We, as Christians, are called to follow the example of Jesus Christ and bind up the brokenhearted (Isa. 61:1). If you know people, have friends, and are socially connected, share that bounty with the lonely and destitute. Look for people in your church to befriend and welcome, for Christ has welcomed us (Rom. 15:7). Lonely people are often easy to spot, because they are sitting in church alone and talking to no one. If you are lonely and isolated yourself, remember that God is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18). The Christian is never truly alone, for God is with him (John 14:16–17). Pray that God would bring you friends and community, and then when He does, share them with others.
We have the great opportunity, in a lonely and isolated age, to be a light for Jesus in our world. For Jesus has told us that everyone will know that we are His disciples, if we love one another (John 13:35). And what is the solution to isolation, but the love of Christ?