by Wayne Geiger
Several months ago, on a Sunday morning, at the beginning of the stay-at-home order, I began my message to the nine people who were in attendance at the church and those watching online.
I remember saying something like, “Even though I’m a classic introvert and am not into hugging, when this thing is over, I’m giving out free hugs.”
Four months later, I’m still waiting for “this thing” to be over and for things to get back to “normal.” Truth be told, I’m missing the human connection and interaction. Complicating the issue is wearing a mask.
About sixty-five percent of our language is nonverbal. Having something covering our face minimizes our facial features. We can’t always tell if a person is frowning or if they have a stomachache.
Even before this pandemic, studies suggested that half of Americans say they are lonely. In addition, many others report that they have no meaningful relationships. They describe their existence as isolated, marginalized, and sometimes, rejected. Some social scientists and mental health experts have labeled loneliness as a crisis. In a 2019 article by Kay S. Hymowitz, she calls loneliness an epidemic.
Loneliness is also dangerous. A study released by Cigna, an insurance company, revealed, “only around half of Americans say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions.” They claim that loneliness is killing as many people as obesity and smoking.
Loneliness is a villain that does not discriminate based up age, gender, or culture. It is a vicious predator that seeks to destroy and has manifested its ugly head in self-harm and even suicide.
I was surprised to learn that, when dealing with the issue of suicide, it’s not the younger people who are the most susceptible. Rather, it is senior adults. The National Center for Biotechnology Information notes that the number one risk factor for suicide is when a person suddenly becomes a widow or widower. The NCBI has called the rise in suicides, a “Major public health issue.”
The issue of loneliness is really nothing new. In 1974, the music group, “America,” released a song called, “Lonely People.” One of the lines goes like this, “This is for all the lonely people. Thinking that life has passed them by. Don't give up until you drink from the silver cup. And ride that highway in the sky.”
But loneliness didn’t begin in the 1970’s. We could go back to the thirteenth century where German emperor Frederick II conducted a bizarre experiment. He wanted to know what language humans would speak if they weren’t taught any language. He placed fifty newborns in the care of nurses who were given strict orders only to feed and bathe the infants. The caretakers were not allowed to speak, hold, or have any other contact with them.
The emperor never discovered the answer to what language they would speak. Sadly, none of the infants survived the isolation. As humans, we were built for connection and interaction. It is a matter of life and death.
Connection and interaction are so important that isolation has been, and is, used as punishment. I can remember as a kid being sent to my room and had to close the door until being invited out. In our penal system, more than forty states still use solitary confinement as punishment.
For the average person, research shows that people without strong social ties are more likely to suffer from major ailments such as heart disease and high blood pressure as well as suffer from lesser ailments such as the common cold. There may be no cure for the common cold, but chicken soup from a friend may help relieve its severity and promote healing. Maybe it’s not the soup.
But, why do we need one another? Although some social scientists would suggest that our dire need for social interaction goes back to prehistoric times when humans lived and survived in packs in order to protect the herd, as a pastor, I believe the issue is not sociological, but theological.
Way back in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, God created the first human in His own image. Adam was one of a kind--literally. He was created for intimacy with his Creator and had the world at his feet. But something was missing—or someone. He was surrounded by other animals in pairs, but he was alone.
God then said, “It’s not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). To remedy the pain of this isolation, God created a helpmate and soulmate. That relationship produced other social units such as the family, extended family, and communities. All of it was part of God’s plan and it was good.
But we weren’t just created to know each other. Primarily, we were created to know God intimately and personally. The French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, put it like this, "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing.” We were built to know our Creator and interact with one another. That’s our happy place. Our place of contentment.
Isolation, on the other hand, is part of Satan’s strategy. He seeks to divide and conquer. Jesus, the Great Shepherd, leaves the 99 to find the missing one. Satan stealthily attempts to find those who are separated from the fold and in isolation.
The Bible says “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:7). Many animal packs, by instinct, learn how to herd in order to protect their young and vulnerable. According to mom.com, “Bison typically run when they sense danger, but when predators approach without warning, bison form a multilayer circle of protection. The females form a ring around the young, and the males form an outer ring surrounding the females.” Humans, on the other hand, often exclaim, “it’s every person for themselves!” or joke, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just need to be able to outrun you.”
Loneliness is a crisis, but, I believe, preventable. I guess, if the statistics are true, and 50% of us feel alone, then, either these people are all living by themselves, or some of them are living with us—or are at least in our circle. If you think of it that way, perhaps, we’re never really alone. We’re just disconnected while being surrounded by other lonely people.
If you fall into this category, my recommendation would be, rather than waiting for someone to come along seeking you—attempt to be proactive.
Even in this time of social distancing when many people are not getting out, there are ways to connect. We can connect through the telephone, video, text, and even cards and letters. If you feel the loneliness is severe, seek the assistance of a trained professional.
In addition to connecting with one another, to connect to God, we have the wonderful power of prayer and the opportunity to connect to Him through His Word. He’s always there. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:27).
On some levels, we all feel a sense of loneliness and isolation. This is expected—for now. Because of the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, the curse entered and we were cut off from perfect intimacy with God. This was the ultimate social distancing.
On this side of heaven, we can certainly “know God” through His Son, Jesus, but there is social distancing. But, a day is coming. The Bible’s comforting words to believers: “We will see His face.” (Rev 22:3-4). The social distancing will end. The masks will come off. On that day, we will enjoy perfect intimacy with our Creator and one another. We’ll even hug. Perhaps the band, America, was on to something when they sang, “Don't give up until you drink from the silver cup. And ride that highway in the sky.”
Dr. Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.