Loneliness is a Killer
Yesterday I was listening to a program on the radio about the lethal nature of loneliness. Lethal? Too strong a word? I don’t think so. Apparently, there are studies that show that people who experience high levels of loneliness are at greater risk for developing heart disease. Loneliness can literally break your heart. Another study done by Brigham Young University shows that, “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.” All of this is very troubling when you consider that according to a survey by the health company Cigna, “Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.” Perhaps most troubling of all for the future of our society, the survey found that generation Z—those 18—22—is the loneliest generation.
The destructive impact of loneliness on our physical well-being, let alone our psychological well-being—shouldn’t surprise us if we know the biblical story. At the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, we find out that loneliness is not what God intends (Genesis 2: 18—24). After God creates the first human being and puts him in the garden of Eden, God says “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So God proceeds to “form” all the animals and birds and gives them to Adam, but that wasn’t enough to address his loneliness. What Adam needs is the companionship of another human being. Therefore, God creates Eve, another human being. I think it would be too narrow a reading to think that this is only about marriage or the need for a life-partner. I think it is more about the Bible’s awareness that God intends human beings to live in community. It is the Bible’s way of saying that we weren’t created to be alone. In fact, the rest of the biblical story will be God’s ongoing attempt to bring into being a world in which human beings don’t live disconnected from each other. Over and over again, we find that God longs for the world to be a place where communion abounds in one-on-one relationships, families, and the local and international neighborhood.
The church is God’s response to a lonely and disconnected world. The mission of the church is to make strangers friends. Last night I met with a group of people who want to learn more about The Episcopal Church. Some are newcomers; some have been around for years. All the newcomers said that the reason they came back to St. Timothy’s after their first visit is that other flesh and blood human beings welcomed them. Those who have been around for years talked about having found a “home” here. What I know from my own experience is that if new people aren’t welcomed, and if over time people don’t get connected to others, they usually end up looking elsewhere for the communion they didn’t find among us. What I also know is that if the communion people find in a church breaks down for any reason, it can be devastating.
American author Flannery O’Connor wrote the following prayer: “Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.” The season of Lent is still three weeks away, but I think this prayer is going to be my mantra during lent. I am going to pray that God will take me—and my church community—and all humanity for that matter, “to those we are waiting for, (and) those who are waiting for us.” I am going to pray that I will tap into my own longing to be connected to other people, and I am going to pray that I will notice that longing in others and find some way to help them connect with others.
If I pray this prayer, I am convinced that God will send me the people I am waiting for. Whether or not I will receive the people God sends me will depend on whether I slow down enough to notice them when they arrive. We live in a rat race that distracts us from one another; we simply don’t notice the people who cross our path. So let us pray, “God, slow us down so that we can discover what we most need every day, another human being “bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.”