In 1985, when researchers asked a cross-section of the American people, “How many confidants do you have?” the most common response to the answer was three. In 2004, when researchers asked again, the most common response — made by twenty-five percent of the respondents — was none. One quarter of these twenty-first century Americans said they had no one at all with whom to talk with openly and intimately.
Also published in 2004, a joint study by the World Health Organization and researchers of Harvard University found that almost ten percent of Americans suffer from depression or bipolar disorder. They also found that binge eating and drinking are up, and that our children are medicated for depression and attention deficit disorder to an alarming degree. (John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick, Loneliness, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008, 247.)
Cacioppo is a professor at the University of Chicago and Patrick, a former science editor at the Harvard University Press. Their book, Loneliness, is the product of twenty years of research by Cacioppo. I thought the bible stated their conclusions more succinctly: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18a NLT)
We have always suspected that loneliness is not good for us. Now we have empirical evidence of the destructive effects of loneliness.
(Cacioppo’s) sophisticated studies relying on brain imaging, analysis of blood pressure, immune response, stress hormones, behaviour, and even gene expression show that human beings are simply far more intertwined and interdependent — physiologically as well as psychologically — than our cultural assumptions have ever allowed us to acknowledge. Bringing urgency to the message, Cacioppo’s findings also show that prolonged loneliness can be as harmful to your health as smoking and obesity. (From the front flap of the dust jacket, Loneliness.)
You are not worried because you have many friends on Facebook? Doesn’t count. Facebook may actually take you away from the life-giving connections you need. Here is a report from the BBC:
People’s health could be harmed by social networking sites because they reduce the level of face-to-face contact, an expert claims. Dr Aric Sigman says websites such as Facebook set out to enrich social lives, but end up keeping people apart … He also says that evidence suggests that a lack of face-to-face networking could alter the way genes work, upset immune responses, hormone levels, the function of arteries, and influence mental performance. This, he claims, could increase the risk of health problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease, and dementia. (“Online networking harms health,'” BBC News/UK, 19 February 2009)
Cacioppo and Patrick concur:
… face-to-face encounters in real life allow us to communicate through even more subliminal cues — body chemistry, body language, action semantics, mimicry — in addition to word and gestures. Once again, the mind that seeks to connect is first about the body, and leaving the body behind can make human connections less satisfying. (Loneliness, 259)
Again, empirical science confirms what the bible has maintained all along — that there is a level of human intercourse that is only possible when we are face-to face.
I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to do it with paper and ink. For I hope to visit you soon and talk with you face to face. Then our joy will be complete. (2 John 1:12 NLT)
Human beings are embodied beings. Fully human interaction is embodied interaction. As John Stott reminds us, “A human being might be defined from a biblical perspective as a body-soul-in-a-community'” (Issues Facing Christians Today, London, UK: Marshall Pickering, 1990, 19). We need our friends and we need to meet up with them face to face.
With all the wisdom of the Scriptures at our disposable, you would expect the church to be at the forefront of the fight against the crippling effects of loneliness.
Unfortunately the church can be as lonely as the world. The primary meeting for most churches is Sunday morning worship. Depending on your tradition, Sunday morning worship is either school or theatre with minimal face to face communication. It is usually face to back communication, a group of believers having their own privatised communion with God, who just happen to be in the same physical space.
Ironically we often look to the number of people at Sunday worship as the main indicator of whether a church is doing well. It is assumed that the bigger the number, the healthier the church. I wonder. Maybe we need other indicators of church health. We need to see to what degree church members are sharing their lives. Here is an observation from Hugh Halter and Matt Smay:
When working with existing churches, we start with the assumption that even if people are in a small group or Bible study, they rarely see those people outside of those 90-minute get-togethers… (But) I’ve concluded that, almost without exception, relationships are formed, important dialogue and conversation begin, and powerful moments of ministry occur during spontaneous, unplanned moments while we are sharing our lives together. (The Tangible Kingdom, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008,161)
The world is slowly, literally, dying of loneliness. The church, followers of the triune God, has the power to help people connect, both to God and to other people. Instead we live the same frenetic, busy, lonely lives as those we are called to reach. Fortunately, the way back may be just as simple as having a few friends over for dinner, and “wasting time” sharing your lives as you share your food. Revolutions have been known to start this way.