January 3, 2019

Alone in a Crowd

Conquering loneliness—the loneliness of the crowd.

Mack Tennyson

Do you believe in divine appointments? Do world events and social dynamics arise to open doors of opportunity? More specifically, are things divinely managed in such a way that world events and God’s work coincide?

Consider the area of public health. The 1918 flu epidemic, the outbreak of mad cow disease in the early 1990s, the late 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic, and the Ebola outbreak in the 2010s were heartbreaking and special opportunities for the church. Some we met, some we missed. In these epidemics there was something about the denomination that could make us uniquely useful and helpful.

Stranded Without a Phone

I was having a midafternoon lunch alone in a restaurant. Because of my own incompetence my cell phone was dead, so I couldn’t pan through Facebook cat photos. I could do nothing but abide peacefully with the humanity that surrounded me.

To my left sat a middle-aged guy nursing a beer and, presumably, panning through cat photos on his phone. Ahead of me a woman was doing the same: a beer, a phone, and cat photos. To my left was an old codger with a bottle of Coke. He was drinking out of a wine glass. But no phone. The remarkable thing about all three was that for the half hour I sat there none of the three drank anything. They would sip at their glass, but there was no noticeable change in the level of the liquid in their glasses during that time. All three felt that it was better to sit alone in public than to sit alone at home. Were they lonely?

Loneliness is a social epidemic. Epidemic is a strong descriptor, but not my own. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general of the United States, calls loneliness an epidemic and likens its impact on health to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1

In May and June 2018 the Economist and the Henry Kaiser Foundation did a study on the epidemic of loneliness in the United States and the United Kingdom.2 Their conclusions were similar for both countries: More than one fifth said that they often or always feel lonely. About 5 percent of people said loneliness is their major life problem. In the U.K. Tracey Crouch, official minister for loneliness, says this is a “generational challenge” affecting about 9 million people in the U.K., young and old.3

Other conclusions were interesting. Loneliness is stereotypically identified as a problem for old people. When the New York Times reported on this study, it accompanied the article with a photo showing a great-grandmother sitting alone on a bed. Research does not support the stereotype. Figures for lonely people younger than the age of 50 are higher than those who are older than 50, even if not by much.

Also, if pressed, many people would say that loneliness is more of a female problem than a male one. Nope. Women report being lonely at a 10 percent higher rate than men when the question is “Are you lonely?” But when asked if they were “not lonely,” both men and women describe themselves as not lonely at the same rate. This suggests that men are slow to admit being lonely.

Incidence of loneliness reflects only minor differences in income level, education level, and marital status. It is an epidemic that cuts a broad swath across all aspects of society.

In keeping with the times, researchers included questions about social media. Does Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram make people more or less lonely? Do people who see the exciting lives of others feel left out and lonely? Or do they connect with friends and feel part of a group and less lonely? The split is equally divided. One half of people who use social media reported that it helped; the other half said it hurt. One half said that social media helped strengthen their connections to people, so it helped them counter loneliness. One half felt that social media intensified their loneliness. In general, social media doesn’t cause loneliness any more than it helps solve it.

What of the Church?

Does this epidemic of loneliness present an opportunity, a divine appointment, for the Adventist Church? Have we been brought here for such a time as this (see Gen. 50:20; Esther 4:12-14)? We have the people, the facilities, and the aptitude to help.

A few words are in order. Loneliness is likely to occur in the church at approximately the same proportions as outside the church. That is true of many societal problems. Our efforts to address the problem should include embracing our own.

Our efforts should be altruistic. I support church growth, but rather than a crass attempt to get more members, love and compassion should drive our response. We should embrace everyone, including those that we may feel tempted to exclude.

Our attempts to provide a cure to loneliness should be tactful. Marketing campaigns overtly directed to graying populations have backfired. While companies should use easy-to-open jar tops and large print, their campaigns fail when they present them as products for old people. I’m afraid the same would apply to church programs targeted at lonely people. Even the lonely may not necessarily want to go to a program billed for lonely people.

Cross-generational programs are very useful in addressing the loneliness epidemic. Young adult Sabbath School, senior clubs, and singing at nursing homes have their place. But we shouldn’t neglect activities that treat all ages with equal respect and value. This would include such events as church work bees, fellowship dinners, or church interest groups (photography, vegetable gardens, music, worship teams, or drama).

Consider tasking a multigenerational work group with developing your church’s response to the epidemic of loneliness in our communities. We might even study investing the people resources of our churches to help support the many community activities already in place, such as community food pantries, recreational athletics, arts and craft classes. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we can add to that which is already in place and build rewarding relationships in the process.

Company Time

At the restaurant I decided to drop by the table of the old codger drinking a Coke. “Hi,” I said. “Do you feel like having some company?” We have become great friends.

Next time I see that middle-aged guy with the phone I’m going to chat with him.

  1. Washington Post, May 15, 2018.
  2. “Loneliness Is a Serious Public-Health Problem, Economist, Sept. 1, 2018.
  3. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42708507

Mack Tennyson is an associate treasurer of the Trans-European Division and a professor-in-residence for the General Conference Auditing Service.