The latest Utne Reader has an article entitled, “Me, Myself, and I: Why is it so hard to admit when we are lonely?” The author, Olivia Laing, talks about the pain of loneliness in her own life as she lived in New York City, surrounded by people but still terribly alone. In the article she points out not only her own pain of loneliness but also the research on loneliness,
It seems that the initial sensation triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, one tends to experience the world in negative terms, and to both expect and remember negative encounters—instances of rudeness, rejection or abrasion, like my urn brew episodes in the café. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.
At the same time, the brain’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes. Lonely people are restless sleepers. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates aging, and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study I came across in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine titled “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms,” loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.
Following Laing’s journey of loneliness I noticed a couple of things. First, as she tried to deal with loneliness she went to a coffee shop and met with a friend’s retired dad. It never occurred to her, apparently, that a place to deal with loneliness is the church. In the church Laing should have found a home and a people to be a family to her.
Laing’s lack of imagination for what the church could be in the midst of loneliness caused me to wonder about two angles on the church and loneliness. First, what are churches doing internally to make sure that lonely people who walk through our doors can find a place to heal loneliness? I remember a person saying about a church they walked in to, “It was like I was home.” So here’s my first question, “What happens in your church so when people walk in they say, “It’s like I’ve come home?”
The second part of my wondering has to do with people like Laing who have no imagination for the church being a place where the lonely are embraced. It is not enough for us to simply be welcoming, we need to go out and reach lonely people. Too often we believe if we have good assimilation, good greeters, a friendly chruch, and so on that all is well. It is not. We need to find people, like Laing, and welcome them where they are. So here is the second question: “What is your church doing to go out to people and welcome them where they are?”
Thanks for your willingness to interact on this one. Your ideas and comments will help all of us from the newest church to the oldest engage two nations that are filled with too many lonely people.