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FIRST-PERSON: The ‘quiet devastation’ of loneliness

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP) — Loneliness is horrible, often called the “quiet devastation.” Novelist Emily Dickinson described it as “the Horror not to be surveyed.” Albert Schweitzer said, “We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”

About 33 percent of Americans older than age 65 live alone. By age 85, it jumps to about 50 percent. The General Social Survey found that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people the average American discusses important matters with decreased from three to two.

The millennial generation is being ravaged by loneliness, with one researcher noting, “It’s not a coincidence that loneliness began to surge two years after Apple launched its first commercial personal computer and five years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.”

A growing number of people use the internet to assuage their loneliness, substituting virtual relationships for real ones. Social connections no longer require a car or a phone call — just go online. It seems to satisfy, though only temporarily meeting one’s longing for relationships. Ultimately the internet cruelly isolates us, inhibiting our ability to sustain relationships, researchers say.

The negative impact loneliness has on public health is shocking. Starting in the 1980s studies showed that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after corrections were made for gender, age and lifestyle choices like eating right and exercising. Research has linked loneliness with the increased risk of heart disease, stroke, the progression of Alzheimer’s and shown that it carries the same long-term risk factors as smoking. A 2015 Brigham Young University study, using data from 3.5 million people collected over 35 years, found that those who fall into the categories of loneliness, isolation or even simply living on their own see their risk of premature death rise 26 to 32 percent while their risk of dying from heart disease doubles.

The reasons for loneliness can vary, but many cases follow the loss of a spouse through death or divorce. And, increasingly in today’s culture, many are choosing never to marry or never find a life partner.

People can be lonely even if they are among others. Studies suggest that the lonely feel the way they do because they are shunned by others. We must never make people feel rejected or ignored. Every human being is made in the image of God and deserves dignity, respect — and yes — even fellowship.

So ask God to make us more sensitive to those who are lonely among us. The Christian faith does not merely give material goods for the relief of the distressed, it also oversees their care (see Acts 6:1-7 and 1 Timothy 5:3-16). The psalmist says, “The Lord watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow” (Psalm 146:9).

No one understood — and felt — loneliness as much as Jesus. His loneliness was on full display when the disciples went to sleep rather than pray with Him in Gethsemane. And He experienced vast loneliness while agonizing on the cross as He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

The same Jesus who died on the cross for our sins is with us — even in the deepest, darkest moments of our loneliness. Hebrews 13:5 says it all, “For He Himself has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you. So we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.”

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle