I think it was the loneliest I have ever been in my adult life.
After five years of living in a city where we had close friends, active involvement in our church and work, and my sister close by, we had moved two hours away to a city where I suddenly felt incredibly isolated.
My husband had friends who moved with the transfer and work colleagues who valued him. In contrast, I had started graduate school and was working as a TA. I enjoyed my classmates and fellow TAs. I loved the two weekdays I got to spend with our toddler daughter without the pressures of classroom teaching. We had a fixer-upper that kept me incredibly busy whenever I had free time.
But despite the interaction with students and classmates and the presence of a loving husband and busy toddler at home, I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere. We church-shopped for two years before finally settling on a worship home where we only kind of felt like we belonged. I eventually got a full-time teaching job with wonderful students and colleagues, but I still constantly felt like an outsider in this new space. Over the five years that we lived in northeast Indiana, I came to understand what people meant when they said that they were lonely even while surrounded by people.
It is a feeling that far too many of us Americans understand all too well.
The Loneliness Epidemic
In early May of 2023, the United States Surgeon General released a report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” warning that the physical consequences of our lack of connection can increase our risk of premature death as much as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. In his interview with NPR, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, “It’s hard to put a price tag, if you will, on the amount of human suffering that people are experiencing right now.”
Our world may be increasingly virtually connected, but our in-person connections continue to decrease each year, and it is impacting every facet of our health.
It’s become easy to make the COVID-19 pandemic the scapegoat for many of the problems that we are facing more than three years after we first watched the globe shut down, but it’s important to note that loneliness was a social issue even before 2020. Across all age groups, we are spending less time with others in person than people were doing two decades ago. The decrease in social interaction is more pronounced in 15-24-year-olds, who are spending as much as 70% less time with their peers. It should not go without notice that this decline in social interaction became significantly more noticeable after 2014, the year that smartphone penetration reached 50% of the US population.
The Importance of Belonging
Technology has become the double-edged sword that has connected us with those who have like struggles and concerns, while also preventing us from interacting with those who live right next door to us. As much as our smartphones and laptops have introduced us to others like us, study after study has indicated strong evidence that more time with a screen also increases our likeliness for depression, loneliness, and less emotional connection with others. While finding like-minded voices on the internet can help us feel less alone with our struggles, it often does not help us experience true belonging.
One of the reasons I struggled so much with loneliness during that move thirteen years ago was that we’d moved into a space where I didn’t feel like I belonged. Sure, I had social media and texting to keep me connected to friends and family we had moved away from. But that did not replace the need to find a place where we belonged in our new city. Social scientist Brene Brown frequently distinguishes between belonging and fitting in. Fitting in requires us to adjust to avoid standing out. Belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are.
And in a world where we are constantly trying to measure up to the carefully curated microcosms on our social media feeds, it can be difficult to be authentic and find true belonging.
Can Church Connect Us?
It can be tempting to oversimplify the issue by pointing out that more religious people tend to have lower rates of depression and loneliness. However, while some people feel completely at home and connected in their religious communities, political unrest, and cultural wars have affected many worship spaces. Some people are finding that a place where they had always found belonging and community has become less welcoming and safe.
I believe it’s important for us to recognize the varied experiences that people have had within their faith communities. I have friends who are faithful Christians who waited to return to weekly worship until long after churches had reopened at the height of the pandemic. Instead of feeling like they belonged, they felt they would have to compromise the health of their high-risk family members to fit into the expectations inside the church building, expectations that did not take their families’ needs into consideration.
As Kaitlyn Schiess pointed out in an episode of the podcast Holy Post, many churches have resorted to appealing to specific demographics instead of working on building a cross-generational and cultural community. How can churches work to meet the needs of vulnerable communities? And, when we lose our way, what would it look like if we returned to a posture of building Gospel-centered communities?
Loneliness Doesn’t Have to Last
Part of dealing with loneliness is accepting that life changes will bring periods of physical and emotional isolation, but it is not a permanent state of being. Through work, our children’s activities, and increasing our involvement in our church, I eventually found friends who filled some of the holes in my life. There were still times when I longed for what I had known five years before, but when our family moved again across the country to Texas, we found ourselves in a community of transplants, all of whom understood the commitment and effort required to make real connections with others. Using social media to keep in touch with friends from across the miles and years has sometimes been life-giving, but nothing has ever replaced going out to lunch with a friend or sitting on a back patio and talking until far after the sun has gone down.
Even Jesus experienced the loneliness that many of us face today. He had friends and followers and people who walked with Him all the way to the cross, and still experienced loneliness as He hung there to die. No number of friends and family could erase the isolation He felt as He suffered. No one could understand the ache He felt as He went from being surrounded by community to being ostracized by those who should have most welcomed Him.
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly shows us how to keep going back to those closest to us, to make time to build community. He ate and drank with his friends. He traveled and worshiped with them. He grieved with them. And according to the Scriptures, after the isolation of His death, He restored His community following His resurrection, eating with them, traveling with them, and guiding them as they processed everything they had witnessed.
As I remember that, I continue to try to do better. I work to put my phone down more. And I’m attempting to offer plans with friends, instead of just saying, “We need to get together soon.” We don’t have to live in a state of constant loneliness. We can do better. And by doing so, we can show Jesus to our neighbors.