Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18a)
“I definitely characterize myself as lonely.”
For those who know Joy Beth Smith from Twitter, “lonely” is not the first adjective that comes to mind to describe her. She engages with her several thousand followers on topics ranging from health care policy to the latest episode of “The Bachelor” with an outgoing, easy air. But the creative project director for CT Studio (a division of Christianity Today) knows a form of isolation all too common to single, Christian women smack dab in the middle of the millennial generation.
“Church is really hard as a single person,” Smith said in fall 2020. “I can only go to so many services by myself and do only small talk without someone bringing me into their fold, and inviting me to lunch after the service or to their small group.” The activities she described were put on hold by almost everyone for most of 2020, but her experience goes back much further.
Loneliness has been recognized for years as a serious social problem. In 2018, the government of then-Prime Minister Theresa May launched a “loneliness strategy” in the United Kingdom, including the appointment of Tracey Crouch as Minister for Loneliness. In her announcement, May called loneliness “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.”
In the United States, a 2018 survey by Cigna and Ipsos found that most American adults are considered lonely on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, an academic measure of loneliness. Single parents, those living alone, and those in Generation Z (ages 18-22 at the time) had the highest loneliness scores.
Recent research cited in the Harvard Business Review has charted the physical and mental harm associated with loneliness, with one study showing a negative impact on health that is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes every day and another attributing productivity losses in the billions of dollars to underperformance. In 2015, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (themselves a married couple) calculated that there were nearly 100,000 missing Americans due to a rising mortality rate among white middle-aged adults in the previous 15 years. Many of these were “deaths of despair” — deaths caused by suicide, drug overdoses, and liver disease from alcohol.
According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 1 in every 10 adults in the United States regularly felt “lonely or isolated from those around them all or most of the time.” For the single and divorced, it was 1 in six. As the year 2020 dawned, those who were paying attention knew that loneliness was a serious, pervasive problem. And then came COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus that struck in early 2020 proved extremely dangerous to older adults and those with certain preexisting health conditions. Among its particular cruelties were asymptomatic transmission and a long incubation period. Public health experts quickly determined that, in the absence of vaccines or effective treatments, the best way to fight the virus was to slow its spread by avoiding others. Government officials soon forcibly closed most of the places people tend to gather — office buildings, restaurants, schools, and even churches.
After it became apparent that the pandemic would last months rather than weeks, life settled into an odd pattern of semi-isolation. What places we could go required “social distancing” — maintaining an unnatural amount of space between persons — and covering our faces to minimize airborne infection, eliminating much of the normal human contact that helps us feel connected to each other.
The wisdom of such tactics will be debated for years to come. What is clear, however, is that they did not come without costs. Among them was a further democratization of loneliness, both within the communities where it was already prevalent and into new ones. For example, a global mid-pandemic survey of “knowledge workers” — those who traditionally work in office buildings — found that half of respondents reported a decline in their mental well-being, including 20% who experienced isolation and lack of connection. Another survey of a similar set of workers found that, despite the surprising success of large-scale remote work, nearly 90% of respondents want to return to the office at least weekly. Three-quarters of them said this was mostly because they missed their co-workers.
The highly educated professionals who used to sit in offices during the week were thus given a taste of the kind of loneliness many others were already feeling. It would be impossible to catalog all the ways various groups of people experienced increased isolation in the pandemic’s wake, but it is easy to think of examples.
How many elderly people suffered with COVID and died alone because restrictions on hospital visitation robbed them of the presence of family and friends? How many more languished in senior-housing facilities, unable to touch their loved ones or see them except on a screen? How many single adults holed up in their apartments, venturing out only for essential shopping?
Though it is hard to know for sure, there are signs that deaths of despair have accelerated even faster since the pandemic’s beginning. According to the CDC, there were more than 81,000 overdose deaths in the 12 months ending in May 2020, a new record. The cycle of isolation is bad enough when it means spending nights and weekends lost in an online world of social media or gaming. But when it is no longer possible to meet with others during everyday activities — at work, at school, or just going out — there is more time to kill, and that means more opportunity to abuse drugs.
Children, too, have suffered more. From March 2020 onward, the proportion of emergency room visits among minors for mental health issues far exceeded that of a year prior. While it is impossible to say with certainty that loneliness was the cause, physical separation from friends at school and other social activities must surely be a contributing factor.
The inability to connect physically with those we care about most is a devastation that immediately conjures empathy. Whether that means missing grandchildren, siblings, or close friends, the loss is palpable. But the lack of other forms of embodied relationship is also damaging. People also need what The Atlantic writer Amanda Mull calls “weak ties.” We might think of these people as acquaintances or friendly strangers — not the type we would make a point to keep up with via Zoom.
As we are cut off from our favorite friends, we have the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the unchosen people around us. It is our neighbors whom we ask for help or who are simply the only people we see regularly anymore.
“Most Americans were especially ill-prepared for the sudden loss of their weak ties,” Mull writes. “The importance of friendship overall, and especially friendships of weak or moderate strength, is generally downplayed in the country’s culture, while family and romantic partners are supposed to be the be-all and end-all.” And yet, she says, these are exactly the people who make polite society polite, those for whom we make the effort to be social. When they are gone, the consequences are real — from dressing down for remote work to forgoing hygiene or medical care. “Humans are meant to be with one another,” says Mull, “and when we aren’t, the decay shows in our bodies.”
Researcher Eli Davies theorizes that one reason people get lonely is not so much that they are unable to relate to others, but that they have too few categories of relationships they consider worth pursuing, even if they knew how. “Loneliness … is partly produced by the way we organize the world,” Davies writes in The Guardian. “To address it we need to seriously rethink how we approach our … relationships. This includes questioning our dependency on certain forms of relationship — the couple and the nuclear family — as units of social organization.”
This notion may sound radical or even dangerous to Christians. In fairness, it is unlikely there is much common ground to be found with Davies’ preferred policy solutions. But there is more than a kernel of truth in the notion that the exclusive nature of certain intimate relationships can become a double-edged sword, enslaving those within to idolatrous expectations of fulfillment while simultaneously excluding those without from the benefits of connection.
When Christians read Genesis 2:18, the immediate context takes us, of course, to marriage, the most intimate of human relationships. This is well and good. But the first marriage gave rise to an entire social ecosystem, one that was always part of the Creator’s design. Churches do well to support and strengthen nuclear families, but it is an oversight to do so at the expense of pursuing other necessary relationships. Making strong ties stronger is good, but neglecting weak ties is not. This, unfortunately, is what Joy Beth Smith and others like her have observed.
“I’ve been to age-and-stage churches, and the assumption is that I should make friends with other singles,” she says. “Go and find your people!” is the message that comes through. Being a single woman, that quest is particularly fraught. “There’s a weird thing in churches about male/female relationships,” says Smith. “Single women are a threat to marriages. And then there’s almost a stigma among singles about whether they are dating or not.” As we have already seen, this is what happens in the good scenario, the one where she is not entirely ignored.
The scene is familiar. Families arrive at church and sit together or with friends during the worship service. Perhaps they go to their various Bible study groups or Sunday school classes. The adults chat, the children play. Perhaps a few friends or a couple of families get together for lunch. Ties both strong and weak are nourished. And then everyone goes home.
The value of this mundane ritual became acutely apparent to many of us when it was no longer available during the pandemic. Perhaps that temporary (if extended) lack ought to retune believers to seek out those for whom connection was never part of the “old normal.” Having been jarred out of a pattern of inertia, perhaps Christians will refocus on purposefully combating loneliness both inside and outside the church walls.
… and Family
The New Testament is replete with familial language. Christians are called sons of God, adopted by the Father to be co-heirs with Christ. The apostles frequently addressed their sheep as brothers (clearly intending gender inclusivity when they did so). John wrote to his dear children. The symbolism is unmistakable. The church was not instituted for families; the church is a family. As the writer of Hebrews says, we are His house if we hold fast our confidence in Christ. Within this house, even the weak ties on earth are blood bonds above. If one member suffers, all suffer together.
Remembering who and what we are has implications for waging war against isolation. One of the most important is that we will understand that it is family — and, perhaps counterintuitively, not friendship — that is the true antidote for loneliness. The New Living Translation renders the first part of Psalm 68:6 thus: “God places the lonely in families.” Why is this His loneliness strategy? Why does He not simply surround them with friends, in whose company it is impossible to feel lonely?
The answer is forensic. One chooses one’s own friends willingly. This is probably the defining characteristic of friendship. One’s family, however, is simply a fact of existence. There can be choices involved, such as marriage or adoption. And certainly very many friendships are permanent. But it is no disparagement of friendship to say that familial commitments are fundamentally of a different sort. They are designed to be enduring, even taken for granted. Being part of a family (at least, a healthy one) means never being alone.
Christians who see each other as family will acknowledge obligations involved and anticipate the joys inherent in meeting them. For example, they will welcome the Joy Beth Smiths of the world into their lives, not just their singles ministries. That may not be easy when it is time to get tired, hungry children home from a long morning at church. But her account of such a visit to a rambunctious household foreshadows the reward: “It was chaotic, jarring. There was nowhere to go to escape! There was chatter, but also inclusion in conversation. It was exactly what I needed.”
Another way to be the family of God is to obey Christ’s command in Matthew 25 to visit the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. Restrictions on public gathering during the pandemic have been enormously painful to Christians accustomed to meeting together every Sunday. In some states, governments made good-faith efforts to make equal or even exceptional provision for religious services; in others, the opposite was the case. Some churches openly defied restrictions they deemed overbearing.
One wonders, however, whether a better form of Christian civil disobedience would have been to visit the sick and the dying in nursing homes and hospitals despite prohibitions, joyfully bearing the consequences along the way. One writer has suggested this as a noble use of time for the vaccinated. Regardless, though there will not always be a pandemic, there will be those whose condition makes them prone to loneliness.
Author Leah Libresco Sargeant has a third suggestion for Christians, one also inspired by the pandemic, but with long-term relevance. “As we are cut off from our favorite friends, we have the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the unchosen people around us,” she writes. “It is our neighbors whom we ask for help or who are simply the only people we see regularly anymore.” Chatting with neighbors across driveways and dropping off groceries for them are the kinds of activities that can get crowded out amid a bustling, mobile social life. The involuntary emptying of calendars created more space for those nearby. If it took a socially disruptive event to draw attention back to those whom Scripture says we are to love as ourselves, then it would be wise not to forget them in normal times. As Libresco Sargeant says, “We can love them for their particular virtues as we get to know them, but we start by simply being grateful that they are there.”
These examples all involve Christians seeking out the lonely, much in the same way that the shepherd sought the one sheep while the 99 were safely in the fold. It is not, after all, a child who must seek adoption into a family, but the family that invites the child. The required mindset is reminiscent of Jesus’ final words before He ascended into heaven. He said to go and make disciples, to seek out and find our brothers and sisters. And we will not be lonely, because He will be with us always.
Phil Mobley is a commercial real estate researcher living in the Boston area with his wife, four children, and two millennial roommates.
Artwork by Han Cao