On Loneliness and Resurrection Moments
A year ago, I wrote a prayer letter in response to a surprising outcome of Christians engaging conflict together in the presence of God as an act of worship. Over and over, leaders trained in The Colossian Way tell us that they’re not only discovering the ability to live faithfully amidst conflict, but also how just being together through conflict reveals a deep and abiding loneliness afflicting their lives. In a spate of recent news articles triggered by a health report, loneliness is back in the spotlight (see e.g., USA Today, US News & World Report, and Comment). In the report, the physiological effect of loneliness is equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is a disease ravaging our nation, churches, and families. Especially concerning is the reality that the primary victims of loneliness are those most awash in an endless stream of digital communication—our youth. I was struck by these articles, in part, because just the week prior my wife and I confessed to some of our closest friends that one of our deepest spiritual hurts is indeed loneliness. This seems a strange affliction for two people who constantly feel overwhelmed by endless email, tweets, posts, texts, and phone calls. How can we be lonely amidst all this noise? Loneliness, disease, poverty, sickness. These are not words we associate with America or the American church, but they afflict us nonetheless. We feel vulnerable and silly even saying them out loud. Perhaps we’re not the only ones feeling alone—oddballs who need to get it together. According to Jamie Smith’s Comment editorial: “You are alone. Except there are hundreds of thousands of you. You’re not alone in being lonely—not that that makes you any less lonely. Loneliness—often a factor of social isolation—has become a societal epidemic in late capitalist societies. The Centre for Social Justice provides a succinct snapshot in the United Kingdom, for example: As many as 800,000 people in England are chronically lonely and many more experience some degree of loneliness. 17 percent of older people interact with family, friends or neighbours less than once a week, while 11 percent do so less than once a month. It is linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression and according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity. One study revealed that it can increase the risk of an early death by as much as 30 percent. In addition to this there is a strong link between isolation and poverty: having two or more close friends reduces the likelihood of poverty by nearly 20 percent.” So, what’s the relationship between conflict (our fear of it and our incapacity to engage it well) and loneliness? My own experience and the experience of hundreds of Colossian Way participants has been that despite ubiquitous digital communication, we are cut off from communion with those we love because of our fear of getting conflict wrong. Ironically, we are most in need of fellowship and friendship at the very places we are most afraid. Hence, we suffer spiritually, emotionally, and even physically from a poverty of friendship. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Mother Teresa said years ago that, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” When asked by an American reporter to name the poorest country she’d visited, Mother Teresa responded, “I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because”, she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.” Let’s face it, our engagement with conflict as an act of worship won’t fix the world any more than Mother Teresa’s cup of water for the dying. Yet, as captives of hope we believe these small acts testify to a reality bigger and more beautiful than we can imagine. Even though we only see “as through a glass darkly” these little eschatological foretastes of what will be enable us to participate more fully in the deepest truth of the world, in contrast to the endless news cycle of violence and conflict. We can say this with confidence because we’ve seen the kingdom break forth already through our Lord’s death and resurrection, and in multiple iterations of that resurrection in our own lives of worship and witness. As we risk laying down our lives, or at least our arguments, we become a cup of water to a dying world—marking the inbreaking of the new world. And what better way to quench the thirst for relationship hidden at the core of our deepest conflicts.