An Epidemic of Loneliness
In February of last year, the Harvard Graduate School released a study showing that 36% of all Americans feel “serious loneliness,” a figure which has only increased since the start of the pandemic. Many of us have experienced this ourselves in the past two years, but this is not a pandemic-specific problem–for many people loneliness has been an increasing issue for years, and it has been challenging our society for decades.
“Lonely” is a word that’s easy to write off or trivialize, but it’s important to realize that our lives as Christians are supposed to be lived out in community. Our relationship with each other as members of the Body of Christ helps to form us and allows us to grow closer to Christ. In a perfect world, we would be living lives of deep community–deep communion–with each other. But as we all know, the world we live in is far from perfect.
The knee-jerk reaction to hearing about the problem of loneliness is often “just spend more time together!” Anyone who spent part (or all) of the past two years quarantined in close quarters knows that proximity isn’t a cure-all for loneliness. Sometimes being crammed together in a small space, feeling like sardines, can just make feeling isolated worse.
If simply spending more time together isn’t the answer, then how can we combat what’s often called an epidemic of loneliness?
Building Intentional Community
“Intentional community” is often proposed as an antidote of sorts to feelings of isolation and alienation that are part of modern life. As people uproot themselves, move across the country for work, and often leave behind the communities they were raised in, more and more people are working to find groups of like-minded people who they can not just live alongside, but share their lives with.
The first step in building community is learning how to value it. Rather than jumping into a list of steps that promise to fix loneliness, it’s worth understanding why building community is important. Building community isn’t easy. It comes with setbacks, miscommunications, frustration, and sometimes hurt. Understanding the value of a supportive community might help those setbacks be easier to overcome.
As Christians, we’re called to live out to live out our lives not just for others, but with them. Even monks and nuns called to live apart from the world are called to live in community with each other. Those communities allow them to share their hopes, fears, joys, and setbacks just as we can with those around us. Sharing these parts of our lives draws us out of ourselves and re-focuses our vision to see the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ.
One of the dangers of isolation that’s often overlooked is the lack of accountability it can come with. Sharing lives with our family, friends, or even a roommate helps to keep us accountable in ways that are difficult to do by ourselves. If cutting someone off in traffic or being lazy about the dishes comes with a gentle reminder we’re more likely to see our moments of failure as opportunities to grow in virtue. Trusting your community to hold you accountable allows you to stretch yourself and grow in ways that bring you and others closer to Christ.
Of course, some of the benefits of living in a community are practical as well as spiritually fruitful. Having someone who can share carpooling duties, pick up your groceries, or lend you a book you want to read can lower your stress and make your day a little brighter, and that’s certainly not something to overlook.
By taking time to see and appreciate the community around you–or maybe see moments where communal support is needed–we can begin to see the social, spiritual, and practical needs of those around us and maybe articulate our own needs better. After all, if we are all united in the Mystical Body of Christ–the church–shouldn’t we find ways to appreciate, celebrate, and grow that unity?
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