Loneliness in the most connected era
People suffering of certain long-lasting illnesses have become used to self-confinement. But many young people also feel increasingly isolated. What can our churches do to respond to this phenomenon?
Protestante Digital · BARCELONA · 15 JUNE 2020 · 12:33 CET
There is something romantic about certain images of loneliness. The video clip of a sad song or the climax scene of a movie, when the protagonist melancholically stares off into the horizon after a breakup or uncertainty, have sometimes been understood as a standard of how the West understands loneliness.
But the truth of these conceptual frameworks lasts only until reality sets back in.
For example, with the story of José Manuel Lozano. Elder of the El Shaday evangelical church in Madrid, and dedicated full time in the Christian ministry. In 2016 he began to have lung problems that led to pneumonia, several hospital admissions and, finally, a bilateral pulmonary embolism.
A year later, after a second biopsy, he was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, until the beginning of this 2020, he has received forty cycles of chemotherapy and a medical court has granted him permanent work leave. “When they tell you that you have cancer, you don't know how long it will last; If it's going to be a 1,000-meter race, a 1,500-meter race with hurdles or a half marathon”, he explains by phone.
For Lozano, one of the consequences of treatment has been the obligation to self-confine often, and even before most of us started using this word in the context of the coronavirus epidemic. Despite having the company of his wife, the precautions derived from his illness have led him to experience loneliness and isolation from other loved ones and friends. Even his local church.
“The consequences of the treatment, the weakness, have caused me to be in confinement, so I was already trained when the epidemic arrived”, José Manuel jokes. “I have had to stay home and face the situation of not being able to go out much. Months go by without even being able to go to church. For example, in winter I have to be careful with hugs and kisses. The disease affected my normal life, my work life, my pastoral life”, he says.
José Manuel: “I was already trained when the epidemic arrived”
For him, the fact of feeling isolated has not been a temporary coincidence as a result of the quarantine, as in the case of the majority, but another stage in the development of his new living conditions. “Of course I miss the contact!”, he admits. “If there is one thing that I especially miss, it is being able to go out to the street from time to time on the arm of my wife, to get some sun. Many are experiencing it in recent months. Although I have tried to stay connected through videoconferences, and in keeping up to date with what’s going on”,.
The common phenomenon of loneliness
The data collected by different media and statistical centres agree that loneliness is an expanding phenomenon, that is, it affects more and more people. For example, the latest Continuous Household Survey, with data from 2019, carried out by the National Statistics Institute o Spain (INE), shows that in the country there are more than 4.7 million one-person households, equivalent to 25.7% of the total. Of these, two million correspond to people over 65 years of age, although the most common profiles are that of a single man, in 58% of cases, and that of a widowed woman, in 46%.
“There are several factors that make our society produce greater loneliness now than in previous moments. For example, a process of aging of the population”, points out the national coordinator of the Spanisg Graduates Bible Groups (GBG) and also coordinator of the Lausanne Movement in Spain, Jaume Llenas.
Indeed, the trend of demographic aging is general in Western countries. For example, in 2019 Spain registered a negative balance of 57,146 people in population growth (the indicator that compares the number of births and deaths), and the total number of births fell last year by 3.5%.
Financial poverty is accompanied by relational poverty
“Another aspect is the fragmentation of families and greater geographic mobility as a consequence of the lack of employment. Our families are of poorer quality, the rate of marital breakdowns has caused a disintegration that does not encourage maintaining relationships with relatives on either side. On the other hand, it has become increasingly necessary to travel to find work, which means that hundreds of kilometers stand between family and friends”, emphasises Llenas, who also adds this trend has been influenced by “hyper-connectivity” and “the time we spend in front of screens”.
In Spain, one in four households is one-person, according to the INE./Ricardo Gomez Angel, Unsplash CC0
Francesc Sorribas, an octogenarian, is an example of these paradigm shifts. A widower for eleven years, he lives alone. “My three daughters have their lives in various municipalities and I have always been a person capable of solving my problems due to many years in the business sector”, he explained. Despite his situation, Sorribas says he does not feel alone because he says he has “a large number of friends from his business days and the support and affection of the brothers in the faith in the various churches” he has frequented and that they give him “the feeling of always having someone”.
But loneliness could also be becoming more frequent among younger sectors of the population. In the Loneliness Experiment, the British broadcaster BBC came to this conclusion after interviewing 55,000 people from around the world. According to the data collected, 40% of people between 16 and 24 years old say they feel lonely often.
In the same study, only 27% of those over 75 years old claim to feel lonely. This “represents a very high social cost because much of loneliness is involuntary and unwanted, producing effects in many areas of life, such as health or life expectancy”, says Llenas. “One of the problems of poverty is that it is accompanied by relational poverty and a lack of personal networks. A person is not authentically poor while maintaining a network of relationships that support him in difficult circumstances. That is why it is said that people in poverty do not have to be rescued, they need to be re-socialised in an environment of acceptance and sincere relationships”.
A reality that goes beyond the realm of politics
According to the data collected by the BBC, 41% of all those interviewed consider that loneliness can have positive aspects. “Loneliness is a unique condition in which an individual perceives himself as socially isolated, even when he is among other people”, wrote the late psychologist John Cacioppo in his essay Loneliness.
Individualism is a precious asset for Western societies, but loneliness comes at a high price. Insofar as it is a matter that concerns conscience above all, it is an individual phenomenon, but the moral dimension that accompanies it and the responsibilities it generates in society as a whole cannot be ignored.
“We are a generation and a culture that expects too much from the government. The government has an institutional approach that is excellent for some things but that is inefficient in trying to solve other social problems”, points out Llenas. “The government can open nursery homes for older people, it can pay decent pensions, it can legislate to favour work-life balance so that family members can attend to older people; but it is absolutely ineffective in getting parents to regulate the time their children spend in front of screens, in promoting that some neighbours take care of others, so that relationships are more important than possessions. In the implementation of social values, churches, NGOs and families have more influence than the government. We are in a better position to educate in values than the government”.
Individualism is one of the most precious values in Western societies, but loneliness appears as a consequence of high cost.
Also a victim of the terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004, José Manuel Lozano embodies the institutional limitations on issues such as loneliness. “I am lucky that my wife is with me. But sometimes I think: how do I express myself? How do I explain myself? How do I make myself understood? There are such personal things that come to mind”, he says.
"Are we going to change? Are we going to be better?”, he wonders about the consequences of the general confinement of the population due to the Covid-19 epidemic. “Of course there are people who are going to change, but the question remains as to how we are going to manage the situation that results. And what are governments going to do? I think that the changes are going to have to come from society, from a movement that forces governments to take a series of measures”, thinks José Manuel.
“What has happened should lead us to an absolute change in the economic model so that, with the passage of time and the movement of the different financial forces, we can say that something has really changed”, says Lozano.
According to a BBC study, loneliness extends more among young people than among older people. / Thomas de LUZE, Unsplash CC0
The Church and the ministry of loneliness
In the face of the evidence of loneliness, churches appear as communities with the capacity, space and resources to offer a solution. “We are in an ideal position to serve people who feel alone. When a single person approaches the church he approaches the most suitable place. Especially since the church is essentially a ‘community of the gospel’. A group of people who live with the values of the gospel inside and out, towards those who belong and towards those who are welcome to belong”, says Llenas. Rather, he recalls that “a church that has become simply a venue for weekly events leaves people in the same solitude they were in before entering”.
“The churches are in an ideal position to care for the lonely people”
But for this, a reflection on the vision of the gospel and of the character of God is necessary. “The design of the universe as the Bible tells us is relational. When engaging with politics, instead of voting for our hatreds and fears we have to vote for our biblical worldview that begins the story with a God who has existed in three people forever. In this sense, relationships are eternal and will last for eternity. Christians should support policies that promote the quality of relationships, not those that destroy relationships”, says the Spanish Lausanne Movement coordinator.
From the phone, Lozano indicates that, both illness and loss are two situations that can lead to loneliness, “there are many priorities that must be reviewed”. In this circumstance, he says, “there needs to be a specific pastoral work towards certain people who live alone”. “Starting from a reflection and a rediscovery of what it means to take care of each other mutually, this type of pastoral care specific to single people should remain as something much more permanent. Let us hope that this epidemic arouses greater sensitivity in this regard. I hope that every believer and every church would reflect on this”, he adds.
For this, and also applying it to the return to the ‘normality’ of the communities after having lived in the distance for months, it is essential to adopt the concept of ‘community of the gospel', says Llenas. “A community of people who have time for each other every day of the week, people who see each other more than in meetings or services”.
“To be a community is to live close to each other, not only within a radius of 100 km. Being a community is when a father goes to pick up his son from school, he also picks up those of three other families who live around him, even when one of those families does not belong to the church. Being a community means buying a bigger table so that you can have guests to eat frequently. Being a community is being a missionary to those around us”, says Llenas. “The church must model what it is to be a church and be a response to the loneliness in society”.