The Epidemic of Loneliness
An epidemic has spread across our world, a sickness stealing the joy and corroding the souls of people of every age, ethnicity, and social strata.
I’m speaking of the epidemic of loneliness.
I experienced this epidemic for the first time after I graduated college.
Like so many people my age, I moved home after university to work, save money, and prepare for my next step. I wanted to go to grad school, but I didn’t have the energy to dive straight into the papers and exams, and to be frank, I didn’t have the money either. I knew the year wouldn’t be a glamorous one, but I felt prepared to buckle in and enjoy it for what it was. I loved spending time with my parents, and they treated me like an adult. I found work, I saved, I read a lot of books, and over all it was a fruitful year.
But what I was not prepared for was the deep, abiding loneliness I experienced.
At first I thought it was just a readjustment period. I hadn’t lived in my hometown for many years; I would get used to it eventually. I tried joining clubs and societies, went to church every week, went on dozens of one-off coffee dates. I would have a nice evening, but no real connections seemed to blossom. I was at a loss.
I began to feel alarmed. It didn’t make sense! I am the consummate extravert. Everyone I meet is my friend. I’d never had difficulty making friends before. I began to ask myself scary questions: is something wrong with me? Am I too much? Am I too little? Am I not going about this the right way?
Eventually, drained by the repeated effort, I resolved to give up the battle. It was an in-between year anyway, and new horizons stretched out ahead. I took shelter in my work, and was thankful for the likeminded colleagues I found there. I read a lot, I tweeted a bit, and I started a blog. I was relieved when the next fall rolled round with the opportunity to move somewhere new.
I was excited to prove that I could stay make friends.
I really hoped I could still make friends.
And I did. I was relieved. I hoped I would never feel that way again.
I’ve come to realize that my experience is not unique.
For the past years, social scientists and psychologists have scratched their heads and wrung their hands regarding an overwhelming trend of loneliness in the West. Over the last fifty years, reports of loneliness have doubled. In a recent study based on a survey of 20,000 people, 47% said they always felt alone or lonely, 43% said they had no meaningful relationships and that they felt isolated from others. This trend toward isolation, loneliness, and friendlessness shows no partiality toward gender, age, race, or job.
The data seems to be screaming one painful truth: everybody is lonelier than they used to be.
The condition of world seems to be loneliness and busyness. Our hands are full and our hearts are empty. We are constantly connected through social media, but lonelier and less known than ever. We move for jobs, but not for friends. We long for heart shaping, soul satisfying friendships, and culture is leaving us empty handed.
Our culture is not built in a way that encourages deep, faithful friendships; we would happily tell people to move far away from family and friends for job opportunities, but would rarely suggest someone choose a location based on relational reasons. Friendship is often seen as a pleasant thing most people want, rather than one of the bare necessities of life. It is treated lightly, flippantly even. And yet, I think the inability to connect, love our neighbour, and live in faithfulness to friendship is at the heart of so many of our societal woes.
That is why I have come to believe that one of the most counter-cultural things we could do is to courageously pursue friendship.
The solution to loneliness, to the kind of isolation that makes people give up on hope and life, to fear and hate and inability to disagree with kindness, and to so many other social ills begins with the ability to build bonds of friendship, to love well, and to form faithful and generous centres of community. It can feel like an uphill battle because our culture is not organised around a value for friendship. Nonetheless, friendship is profoundly worth it. It is a shot of hope into a weary world, it is a refusal to let our love grow cold, it is the thing that will keep us faithful, loving, and brave.
To fight the battle of loneliness, we must come to think of ourselves as agents of connection in the revolution of friendship. We must be willing to take the first step, to be the apartment that people can come to, the shoulder people can cry on. We must persist, not giving up the search for meaningful companionship and the hard work of building community. We must be willing to value relationship over productivity and utility. We must see ourselves as a part of the secret society that loves, that initiates, that spreads light in the darkness.
Friendship is our battle, our war against the quiet pain of loneliness that has ruled over our culture too long. Together, we can do something about it.
So, friends, will you join me?
Will you be a part of the friendship revolution?
If you’re passionate about investing in meaningful friendships, I think you’ll love the book I just wrote with my mom and sister, Girls’ Club…
How do we cultivate life-long, soul-satisfying friendships?
That’s what we asked ourselves as we wrote this book, weaving in stories with our social, theological, and biblical reflections. I think you’ll love it. Yes, even you ,fellas. You may also enjoy our guidebook (below).
We designed this guidebook to be a roadmap for drawing closer to your friends. It has practical activities, questions, and exercises to help you know your friends better, call out their passions and values, and to love each other in all your uniqueness. It’s meant to be used either with a friend or in a small group setting.