Many thousands of lonely people daily pay online sites in the hope of connecting romantically. Electronic gadgets keep the eyes of their users averted from the people around them; in return, the ignored feel invisible or, at least, discounted. People lose jobs and the relationships they provided, and then compound their alienation by withdrawing even further in shame or anger. Many people do not have the means to participate in social situations they would otherwise choose, and then erect a wall of jealousy against the people who go to the places and events they cannot afford. People with disabilities and people facing death are too often relegated only to paid social services or brief civic glad-handing, instead of being embraced and sustained over time by their families and communities.
In these and many other ways, people around us are condemned to a modified form of the punishment reserved for the most intransigent prisoners–-solitary confinement. In their 2008 book, Loneliness, Cacioppo and Patrick demonstrated that humans are hardwired to be sociable and that to be set aside to the margins has negative effects on our emotional, intellectual and physical well-being. In Bowling Alone Robert Putnam outlined how our communities have lost social capital, the reciprocity, cooperation and collective good will derived from connection with the larger community.
So how do we counter this modern plague of isolation? The most obvious answer is to spend time with one another. Our son, Mark, was hospitalized for an extended period following surgery to correct the ravages of cerebral palsy. Unexpectedly, a woman who had volunteered in his recreation program came to visit. They are not only friends twenty-five years later, but next week Mark will speak about disability awareness to her Cub Scout troop.
We can also share our emotional burden with our Heavenly Father. I remember a graduate student confiding before our congregation his profound sense of loneliness. He had followed the advice in the scriptures to share his personal longing in prayer. I can imagine him kneeling in the solitude of his tiny apartment, begging the Lord to remove the sense of isolation that grieved him.
The answer he felt was that the righteous woman who would become his wife was waiting for him. Over the coming months, he extended himself further into church activities designed specifically for young single adults and announced finally that he was engaged to be married.
We also need to look for opportunities to serve in a way that goes beyond the bounds of our comfort zone. For several years my good friend, Dee, spent time every week listening to me, affirming my self-worth, sharing spiritual encouragement and seeing me faithfully through my life’s most painful season. She warned me often that I buried my emotions in work, multitasking through my days into nights of exhaustion. Slowing my hands and mind, she promised, would help me enjoy more satisfying relationships, and Dee set the example with me until she moved away.
Later when a new acquaintance, Berkys, made the decision with her doctors to have a double mastectomy, she was abandoned by her husband. She was left with three children to raise with significantly less income, while she took a medical leave from her career. Her sister could help some evenings, but otherwise she was alone. For each of her chemotherapy appointments, I prepared a meal and placed it in her refrigerator to be reheated later. Then I would drive her to the hospital. My original intent was to spend the hours on my own, reading or writing until she needed the return trip home.
Apparently, what she needed more than a meal for her family, more than a ride to and from her treatments, was to talk. My new acquaintance was remarkable–not consumed with anger, not questioning the Lord and His divine plan for her life–but filled with gratitude for the second chance her medical team was giving her and for having found the fullness of the Gospel before being faced with these terrible circumstances. Her hope was infectious, and I found myself sharing my story in return. Her hair has returned; our friendship remains; and she finally got me to slow my pace to that of a human being, instead of a frenetic human doing.
There is a famous picture of our Savior, knocking at a door without a handle. The door is a barrier to that precious relationship and leaves us alone on the other side of it. The message is that He waits for US to open the door. The same is true of individuals around us. Whether the loneliness we feel is for other people or for the love of our Lord, there is always something we can do to remove or at least lessen those barriers. We may open our figurative door to others through attention and service. We may form a deeper bond with our God through prayer and following the example of our Redeemer. When we take a step toward others, the relationships become closer, and we feel more connected.