Is it possible to have a million friends on Facebook and countless followers on Instagram but no real friends? Is it possible to go to work surrounded by dozens of people and have no genuine support? It’s not only possible; it’s real every day. And, it’s become a dangerous crisis in America.
Researchers contend that social isolation and loneliness may represent a more significant public health hazard than obesity. Some researchers argue that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Other studies reveal that loneliness is involved in everything from depression, alcoholism, strokes, decreased immune system, and early death. John Corry, in the New York Times, wrote, “Loneliness seems to have become the great American disease.”
The settlers of the North American western frontier learned this reality the hard way. When the challenge to “Go west, young man” came, many left the security and safety of home to stake their claims on the frontier. The settlers built their houses in the middle of their homestead (miles from the nearest family). The settlers, from their new homes, wanted to survey all of their property and say with pride, “As far as I can see, that is mine.” But in time, isolation proved to be a far cry from ideal. When photographers returned from those lonely houses, they showed pictures of wild-eyed women, stooped, gaunt, prematurely older men, and haunted-looking children. Isolation proved difficult.
Why? We are a relational people. We were made and designed to be in relationship with others. A lack of relationships produces isolation. As difficult as people can be, we need each other. Have you ever said, “I love my job; it’s the people I can’t stand”? Or, “If it weren’t for the people, this would be the greatest workplace in the world.” Or, maybe you’ve said, “What I wish I could do is go to a remote spot, build me a cabin, and live alone. Then, I would be happy. I would find peace.” Before you do that, let me remind you that the worst and cruelest punishment is solitary confinement. Loneliness is a threat to your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Many people suffer from loneliness because they have lost their sense of community. Numerous sociologists have observed that most Americans don’t experience meaningful involvement with a community of people.
Consider once again the settlers on the western frontier. As time went on, the early settlers benefited enormously by building their homes nearer each other. They erected their homes on the corner of their property rather than in the center. Four families, living on the edge of their farms near neighbors, could survive much more comfortably if they loosened their grip on independence. When they came together—being a community—meant hope, security, and survival.
When I moved 600 miles to attend seminary, I did not know a soul. The city was extensive. The people seemed distant and unfriendly. I left behind all my support systems. I was miserable. I was lonely and depressed. A professor told me, “We can make a heaven or hell where we are, but it’s up to us.” God seemed to impress on me that my past support systems—school friends, church friends, family relationships—did not happen overnight. They took years to develop. New ones would not occur immediately, either. The key was involvement and commitment to those relationships. I decided to make a heaven out of my new location. I joined the church I had been attending. I got involved in a small group. I volunteered to serve. I joined a tennis club to stay in shape and to meet new people. Then, along with two other friends at the seminary, we had lunch one day a week at a different restaurant. In time, the feelings of loneliness dissipated. I was enjoying life. The city that I thought was cold and unfriendly became my home for seven years.
Human survival depends on connectedness, with feelings of loneliness serving as a biological signal to socialize. Meaningful, high-quality relationships have the most significant protective health effect on humans. You and I need community. We are doomed without it.
Instead of counting your friends on Facebook, make some real connections, and build a community. It’s the means of survival.