Lenten Journal Entry: Loneliness in America

You may have missed these two stories about the rise of loneliness, but they are worth revisiting as we head into Lent. (From NPR and NBC.) Lent being that time when I think it’s a fine time to consider more deeply what it means to be human.

On the face of it, these news accounts are not very surprising. We’ve known about the problem of loneliness for years. Our friends in Japan have a specific word in their language for dying alone and have developed a cottage industry of people who clean up after one of those deaths. And, we have only to look at our own divided nation to see the effects of diminished social connection and the corrosive energy that brings to our political narrative.

The headline numbers from the Cigna study 3 in 5 reporting feeling lonely, rising levels of mental health problems — are troubling on their face, but taking a deeper plunge into the survey data finds more interesting threads to explore. The survey pointed to a number of reasons for the increasing rates of loneliness, including a lack of good “social supports, infrequent meaningful social interactions, negative feelings about one’s personal relationships and generally poor physical and mental health.”

The study asked about balance and found people report, not surprisingly, a lack of “balance” in one’s daily activities – doing too much or too little of any given thing — meaning the cult of busy is alive and well. 

It also showed, sadly, that this problem hits the younger members of our society the hardest.

In thinking about this material this week, the thing that sticks out to me most is how important human connection is to each of us. Our society may be very fragmented along political and cultural lines, but our experience of that fragmentation, isolation, and, dare I say it, loneliness borders on the universal. 

We have but to look a little deeper into the biblical account of the garden — both Eden and Gethsemane — to see how important connection is to the human condition. I think there is more than enough here to ponder as we get about the business of getting ready for Lent this year.  

And, it makes me think that all of us, are perhaps more important in each other’s lives than we know. I think it may be impossible to really know how many lives we touch in our daily round of living. Consider this a possible Lenten practice to add to your life this season. Notice those tiny flashes of human connection and, in Christian spirit, help to foster them.

If it is true that a large portion of our society is undergoing the terrible pangs of loneliness, then it may follow that we all owe it to each other to reach out more than we do. 

The problems the study found — poor social support and low-quality social interactions — are really something that each of us have the power to improve in our lives. Doing so has is one of those wonderful situations were loving your neighbor has the potential for also changing your own life for the better.

So, make your practice this lent to help to build some of those bridges.

Rev. Jeremiah Rood is a freelance writer, minister, and stay-at-home dad. He has served congregations in Massachusetts, where he still lives with his wife and daughter. For more book thoughts read his reviews at Foreword Review. For more information please visit him at: www.revjeremiahrood.com

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