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On Loneliness and Its Diagnosis
Fragments on the Surgeon General's advisory on loneliness
Last week the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, released an advisory in which he named loneliness as an “epidemic” with major health consequences. While I agree that our society has created the conditions for increased social isolation, and that loneliness is a consequence of our individualistic, consumerist culture, I found myself resistant to medicalizing loneliness. What follows is not systematic, but rather some notes on why I found myself resistant to such a framing and how we might think of loneliness and its remedy in another way.
1. The Surgeon General has named loneliness as a disease, a pathology. It is worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, he says. I worry about such a diagnosis, such a framing. In the context of a consumerist-Capitalist society with the power of the Machine ready to answer any challenge, it is inevitable that the market will develop a “solution.”
These solutions will take and make money and there will be plenty of companies ready to provide them. Yet, in the end they will accelerate the problem they claim to solve. What we need is not more money directed to the problem, better policies, or increased research. What we need is a slowing of our lives, the making of space and time, a no to the rush that keeps so many of us too busy for connection and so many others neglected from childhood (nursery care) to old age (nursing homes).
2. What a society that knows only those solutions of money or products can never move toward is love. Love of God or neighbor, the love of a spouse or children cannot be controlled. It happens through presence and can be cultivated through practices, but its ultimate arrival is a gift, a grace. Such a gift is meant to be received, shared, and passed. That is how community is formed. But we are too busy for such community.
3. To escape loneliness we must learn to be alone, otherwise we are bound to rush to whatever product of pseudo-connection the market will offer. Solitude is the discipline of learning to be alone without being lonely. It is in solitude that we quiet the anxiety of isolation and learn to be present to the grace of the world. Loneliness turns inward in the face of absence. Solitude turns toward the world with wonder and discovers a presence, everywhere, ready to connect. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Hopkins. It is in solitude that we learn to hear the quiet, crackling energy of this grandeur and realize we were never alone.
When I am lonely, which I have often been, I have learned to wait through it like the hunger of a fast. Otherwise, I will rush for the available junk, the damaging nourishment of relationships or technologies that don’t make me whole (which I have done plenty of in my life). Fasting from food is a helpful discipline for any waiting; it deepens hunger for the right food and helps us know the difference.
4. Community takes time, a human pace and scale. “God, who is love, walks at three miles per hour. Love has a speed and that speed is slow,” wrote Kosuke Koyama. God is slow because the human pace is slow, the pace of a walk. But we walk little and drive much. Or we sit, not in conversation, but before screens that move information and connections at the speed of nanoseconds. I wrote this all by hand first, a fountain pen on scrap paper. It was slow and I felt comfortable with the pace in a way I don’t when typing. It was a human pace and its one I want to keep moving at, despite the pressure to speed up.
If we want to move at the pace of the Incarnate God who is love, then we must move at love’s pace—a slow pace that waits and attends and is curious. Try to move with such a pace through your day. Welcome waiting as an opportunity to connect. Stand in a line and watch for the one person who looks up from their screen and offer the gift of a face—that place where personhood finds its grounding.
5. Where are our faces? Too many, my own often included, are bent down toward a screen. Those screens occupy our attention like a territory, claimed and colonized by corporations. Our lives are now cut and parceled out. We must pass through the checkpoints of this occupation, separated through each movement from our friends and family. And in the end, we find ourselves lonely—cut off from the world and each other, lost in the solipsism of our device’s dark mirror.
6. I was in a hospital not long ago, trying to visit a sick man. It was hard to have a conversation. Always there was a sound, an alarm on the monitor beside his bed, nurses coming in, all the hospital staff wearing a kind of “communication” device around their necks that was constantly going off with alerts and the voices of others seeking them for this or that. I felt my mind buzzing for an hour after leaving that space. Does a “healthcare system” that would design such a hell have anything to offer to the problem of loneliness?
7. Control is the enemy of connection. All my best relationships have been accidental. But medicine is built on a modernity’s model of control and management. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa has said that connection is a resonant experience, something in which our lives find an echo in the life of another or the world. But such experiences can never be manufactured, managed, or controlled. Resonant experiences are not something that could be signed off on by an insurance actuary because of its predictable outcome. To find connection and community, we must risk something, we must be willing to be hurt. It is unlikely that the systems of technology and control that now dominate the medical mindset will have much to offer for achieving such connection because they will never be willing to take on the necessary risk.
8. So what is to be done? If we agree with the Surgeon General on the basic truth that loneliness is problem for health, the wholeness and flourishing of persons in our world, how should we address it? I don’t have any grand solution, any grant worthy program ready for NIH funding. I’m not seeking any of that, nor do I have any hope from such approaches. Instead, I sit on my porch in the morning, sipping coffee with my wife, absorbed in the birds that feed among the elderberries. An old friend passes each morning on her bike as she rides to work. We wave hello and from time to time she stops to catch up. Across the corner, we see J. and V., a couple who always come by bearing gifts for our girls. It’s a kind of procession, each morning, these hellos as neighbor pass and enter their day.
I then go to my shed, and seek the connection from which all connections come, the love that enables all good love. It is only in such solitude that loneliness can find its remedy, for otherwise all community, all connection, will ultimately fail to fulfill this fundamental need. And when I feel lonely, as I sometimes do, I let that desire for connection drive me back here to prayer, because I know that no other human friendship will ultimately sate that deep desire for wholeness that so often manifests as loneliness.
From that place of connection I try, against all my inclinations for a checklist and a plan, to enter the day with openness, ready to drop what I’m doing inorder to seek the face of those I encounter and be ready to listen to the one with no one to hear them. Sometimes I squirm through the work, not always patient in my presence, but on the best days, if I sit through the discomfort, I discover an unexpected grace in this ones God has sent me. In all of this, I avoid the temptation of screens, and leave my phone behind for meetings or visits, any time when I have the chance to encounter a face instead.
Few, if any of these things, could be provided by a system or institution. As Wendell Berry long ago recognized, “health is membership” and to live in wholeness and connection cannot be provided by a system or institution, especially one that has prescribed isolation and seeks control. What we need instead is patience and slowness, solitude and presence, attention and openness. If we practice those things, we will find ourselves ready for the grace of connection, whenever and wherever it might surprise us along the way.