As I wrote in my last post, our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever, causing us to often feel like a nameless face among a sea of other nameless faces. And it’s making us lonely.
In fact, loneliness is now an epidemic in America.
A recent study on loneliness in the lives of Americans age 45 and older found that more than one-third of people in this demographic describe themselves as lonely, citing a “perceived lack of social support and a shrinking network of friends” as the primary causes.
The same study showed that lonely adults are twice as likely as those who are not lonely to feel they have deep connections through the Internet. In other words, those who believed they had meaningful connections online were actually lonelier.
Loneliness is more widespread among younger generations, particularly Gen Z, or iGen. Jean M. Twenge has been studying generational differences for 25 years, but she’s never seen anything like what’s happening with iGen: skyrocketing rates of teen depression and suicide that have put Gen Z on the brink of “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”
What’s behind the meteoric rises in mental health issues and loneliness? “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” says Twenge. She goes on to say,
The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.
Depressed. Unhappy. Lonely.
Perhaps one would expect this sort of dramatic language from a sociologist, but Twenge’s concerns are shared by physicians, including Vivek Murphy, who served as Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017. Murphy writes, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”
The Cost of Loneliness
OK, we’re lonely. But what’s the big deal? Murphy explains the cost:
Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.
Social isolation is the central challenge facing our era according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who notes that “social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression, and alienation.”
There is a cost to the “personal” world we have created, and that cost is the person.
How Long Will You Hide Your Face from Me?
There is nothing more serious than losing the face of God. In Psalm 13:1 the psalmist moans,
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
Psalm 27:9, 44:24, 51:9, 69:17, 88:14, and 102:2 all record psalmists begging God not to hide his face from them.
Adam and Eve used to enjoy walking with God in the cool of the Garden of Eden, but after succumbing to sin they were cast out, never to see God face to face again.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For the first time in eternity, the Father turned his face from his Son, and it almost killed Jesus.
Nothing is more devastating than losing our Father’s gaze.
The Devastation of Loneliness
Why is the turning of God’s face away from us so devastating? In a remarkable talk, Andy Crouch observes,
The moment we were born, we were looking for a face. Because until we see a face, until another sees us, we do not who we are. And we look for someone who would look at us. … But at some point in every human life, the gaze shifts, the face disappears — no one is looking for us. That’s loneliness.
So many of us feel like no one is looking for us.
It’s as if we don’t exist, a sentiment hauntingly captured in Arcade Fire’s song “We Exist”:
They’re walking around
Head full of sound
We don’t exist
They walk in the room
And stare right through you
We don’t exist
But we exist …
The great challenge for the church in an impersonal world is to see the people everyone else is staring through.
I talk more about that, along with calling the church to rise to the occasion, in my next post.