There are many different kinds of poverty in our world today, but one form gaining increasing attention is that of loneliness. There’s a distinction between loneliness and the solitude so many of us seek each summer. The former is about the deep disillusionment of being alone while the latter is about the pleasure of being in our own company and finding healing in it.
It is entirely likely that this summer will be plagued by more loneliness than any in recent memory. This isn’t just a thought or premonition since there’s plenty of research and evidence to reveal that loneliness itself might well be at epidemic levels.
Writing in the New York Times last April, Leah Nash made a rather stunning declaration:
“There’s a mountain of evidence suggesting that the quality of our relationships has been in steady decline of decades. In the 1980s, 20% of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40%. Suicide rates are now at a 30-year high. Depression rates have increased ten-fold since 1960, which isn’t only a result of greater reporting.”
She goes on to report a rather troubling observation from former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who claimed that during his many years as a practicing doctor the most common pathology that he discovered wasn’t diabetes or heart disease but loneliness. And that reality was making people sick, with health ailments the same as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and with greater health defects than obesity. He believed that it was loneliness that was driving people to such practices. He was most troubled by the effects of such isolation on the young, noting that the 5.9 percent of American youth suffering serious mental health issues in 2012 had risen to 8.2 percent only three years later.
The bulk of research is increasingly revealing that most of this results from too much times spent on digital devices and the Internet instead of relationally with other human beings. The penchant of the Millennials and those following them for their devices has crescendoed enough that The Atlantic published a feature piece titled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
All this put together is what is creating social poverty – those with too few relational and human connections to fend off the onslaughts of emotional challenges. So much of this transpires without anyone really noticing because those using their devices do so specifically because of the anonymity it provides them. They see relationships as threatening or troublesome, preferring the digital kind instead.
What’s particularly difficult about this is that it is our apps like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and a host of others that are encouraging us to expand lives that are largely disconnected in the first place. It’s how they make their revenue and it’s how their followers and users seek to engage their world, if indeed they do so at all. Privacy isn’t the issue here; social isolation is, and it’s mounting to dangerous levels.
What does this massive migration to isolated existences (perhaps even of greater consequence than the movement of refugees around the world) mean for humanity? Clearly, those benefitting from positive and edifying personal relationships hardly understand the lives of those who are socially isolated and vulnerable – just as those with material wealth have little touch with the economically poor.
What does all this have to do with summer? A lot, as it turns out. The summer season drives more people into depression than we realize. Why? Because it is a time when people sit on a bar patio with friends or on the dock with their families. It’s when millions of people take on the kind of activities with others meant to share in the good times. Just as with the Christmas holidays, such a season can make millions of others sick and depressed.
It’s all about our relationships, or lack of them. Along with enjoying the sunny days and warm evenings with those closest to us, we must also develop greater capacities for reaching out those afraid to step out from under their own shadow and suffer the deep pains of isolation as a result. What happens when half of the world is afraid of social contact with the other half? An epidemic of insecurity and fear. Along with our warmth, companionship and benefits of this glorious season, let’s continue to volunteer, to reach out, to give, to touch, to bring light to darkness and companionship to loneliness. That would certainly be a summer worth reflecting and building upon.