What We Believe
i

Connecting Some Dots on Disconnection

Judith M. Dinsmore

The last three years underscored what many were already realizing: it is both possible and terrible to avoid human contact. Pre-COVID, loneliness had become serious enough to be grouped into our country’s burgeoning mental health issues. A study from 2018 indicated that one in five Americans “rarely or never feel close to people.”[1] The same study indicated that Generation Z (those born after 1996) may be the loneliest. More recent research may show that the pandemic exacerbated loneliness.[2]

For a conservative, Christian churchgoer, however, loneliness in the big, national picture is perhaps not as important as loneliness in the small, local picture. How can it be so easy for us to avoid human contact; how might it be terrible? Written from the perspective of a layperson, this article uses insights from a few recent, accessible books to attempt to connect some dots on disconnection and loneliness.

Our Busy, Efficient Lives

A few weeks ago, I was at the grocery store with my two sons. While I was staring at the shelves making cost calculations, a woman stopped by my cart and locked eyes with my baby, who lit up. The woman, past retirement age, had an engaging smile and was quick to make conversation about my kids, their blonde heads, and their little active legs. After a few minutes, I began inching away toward the next item on my grocery list. She kept talking. She lived in a retirement home nearby, I learned; she was happy to be there; she loved children; she missed children; no children ever came to the home; the activities at the home were nice; but without children, there was somehow no life. I smiled, agreed that children were lively, said goodbye, and went cruising off with my cart. As I walked, my baby bobbed his head around me, trying to find the woman again.

This was not a high point for me. I drove home repentant. Here was a woman sending me all the signals of loneliness, and my attention remained fixed on whether the organic salsa was worth the extra cents per ounce. What is wrong with me? I thought. Why didn’t I at least ask for her name?

Perhaps because it would have been an “inefficient” use of my time. In You Are Not Your Own, college professor and PCA member Alan Noble argues that the “power of numbers” tends to guide our behavior and life. The world we live has become inhuman, he writes, and one aspect of its inhumanity is its efficiency:

There is no space in contemporary life that has not become subject to the dominion of rational methods for achieving maximum efficiency . . . That’s not to say we never prioritize other values—we certainly do—but our one agreed-upon value in nearly every sphere of life tends to be efficiency.[3]

Noble demonstrates that even leisure activities are often justified by appealing to their efficiency: a nap will make one more productive; a run will improve one’s health; watching a game will give one rest. But what would prolonging a grocery store conversation give you?

Well-meaning Christians may be unreflectively embracing maximum efficiency as a way to get more done for the kingdom. But efficiency as a moral value is frequently at odds with loving others. Many (most?) interactions with other humans are incredibly inefficient and quickly absorb more time than we, consciously or unconsciously, portioned to them. If we love our neighbor, we will move an interaction along when the occasion calls for it. If we love efficiency, we will pretty much always be moving the interaction along.

Author and RPCNA member Rosaria Butterfield, in her book on hospitality The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, describes how her household consciously opted out of an event-filled life so that they could be occupied with a people-filled life. Her detail-rich narrative is honest about the difficulty of living so inefficiently. In one scene, a cat which was entrusted to Butterfield’s care while its owner is on vacation becomes mortally ill. The situation is messy. The cat is in pain. Butterfield writes:

I had allotted—generously, I had believed—thirty minutes each day to care for, pill, feed, and clean up after these cats during my neighbor’s vacation. But twenty-four-hour cat crisis management, and neighbor-worldview-clash-grief ministry on top, well, this was simply not on my list of things to do . . . [4]

But she stresses the necessity of inefficient, interruptive hospitality to provide what our neighbors often lack: connection. “We live in a world that highly values functionality,” she reflects earlier in the book. “But there is such a thing as being too functional.”[5]

The inefficient interactions of real life are not pebbles in the machine of our otherwise humming-along plans. They may be the means through which the Spirit works.

And not only in the hearts of neighbors. It must be noted that had I talked longer to the woman at the grocery store to accomplish a feel-good moment of being nice, still my values would have been skewed toward efficiency and functionality, with a Christian veneer. In other words, I would have been loving not so much her as the buzz from completing a friendliness objective. That lonely woman, in contrast, delighted in my children for their very being—their inquisitive eyes and active legs that I hustled through the store. The encounter was, in hindsight, a visitation of grace in the chip aisle. How dangerous it is to avoid human contact in pursuit of efficiency when from its unpredictable interactions we may receive such precious reproof from the Lord.

Our Performative Instinct

Being busy is not just a hindrance practically to human interaction; as a sort of status symbol, being busy can also be one of many efforts to project a brand, to convey what kind of person we are. This performative instinct may be another, deeper trend weakening relationships and exacerbating loneliness within the church. Busy lives can prevent contexts for connection. Performative instincts can prevent connection inside the contexts where it ought to flourish, like the church.

The act of creating an identity—often with the help of specific products—and projecting that identity for the approval and even “consumption” of others is second nature to digital natives. Some are professional brand-builders; perhaps they work in public relations or graphic design, perhaps they are an influencer of some kind being paid for product placement on their social media posts. The rest of us just pick branding up instinctively. Buzzfeed author Anne Helen Petersen wittily summed up some examples of informal branding in her book Can’t Even: “I have a friend whose brand is ‘Parenting is hard but always worth it.’ Others include ‘My kids are so bizarre!’; ‘I’m a Cool Dad’; ‘Wilderness overposter’; ‘Books are life’; ‘Wheels up’; ‘Culinary adventuress,’” etc.[6]

Effortless on a texting thread, branding can also spill from my tongue in real life. At church coffee hour, for example, I might notice and approve someone else’s self-branding (shoes! diaper bag! weekend activities! political opinion!) and, in turn, they might recognize mine. It is pleasant. It feels affirming. And it is problematic.

The scaffolding for our billboarded lives has been a long time in the making. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, writer and OP minister Carl Trueman provides an intellectual genealogy for our modern sense of self, one aspect of which, he says, is its inward turn and another its need for recognition by others.[7] Alan Noble would add there is no line between the two: “Expressing your identity is the same step as discovering or creating it.”[8]

This has profoundly affected how we relate to one another inside institutions, including the church. Trueman explains that instead of finding purpose and well-being by being connected to something outside ourselves, now our commitment is “first and foremost to the self and is inwardly directed. Thus, the order is reversed. Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her inner sense of well-being.”[9]

How does the outward institution become a servant to the individual? By being a platform for them to perform upon, argues Yuval Levin in his 2020 book A Time to Build, “Americans increasingly expect institutions not to form and socialize the people within them but rather to display those people and provide them with arenas for self-expression,” he writes.[10] We come to an institution not to be molded and trained in almost-imperceptible ways but to build our brand or project ourselves. This is an inherently lonely endeavor: “[Institutions as platforms] can become venues for acting alone, more than together, and they therefore contribute to the sense of alienation and detachment that pervades our social life.”[11]

As churches slowly fill with people who, thanks to the culture they live and breathe, conceive of themselves as beings who need to both express themselves and be recognized, it becomes natural to begin to relate to each other as performer and audience, a self-conception that subsumes roles of pastor or parishioner, brother or sister. And the bonds between performer and audience are notoriously weak and capricious.

Performing is lonely work; no matter how vulnerable you are, if you are doing it to build your brand, you forever “use” the other and reserve yourself from being known. “Our moments of vulnerability are often carefully cultivated and prepared for public consumption to maximize attention and develop our image,” observes Alan Noble.[12] Sometimes the temptation to perform is obvious, such as using the church as a launching pad for snappy statements on hot-button issues. Other times it is less so: forever standing apart from the institution to comment upon it (the music! the sermon length! the elders!) can be the dis-associative impulse of a performative individual. Being an audience member can also be lonely; no matter how affirmative you are, you are always commenting as an acknowledged outsider—as a fan, not a friend.

It can be an uphill battle on Sunday morning to lay aside the roles of performer and audience and to move beyond the flurry of giving and receiving small affirmations. Yet failing to may be a decided hindrance to Christian love. Social media demonstrates this. There has been a debate bubbling up even within church conversations about whether social media is a tool, which can be used for good or for ill, or something more sinister, which makes its users more miserable, more lonely, and more angry. Simply by being a platform, however, surely social media supports its users’ sense of self as performers. “Mediating our social lives through information and entertainment platforms suggests we understand our social lives as forms of mutual entertainment and information,” writes Levin.[13] How’s that going? On social media, real knowledge of one another seems to be dwindling away, leaving in its wake only expressions of affirmation (or disapprobation) for someone else’s performance. What Levin says next seems to be increasingly undeniable: “The sense of being connected but lonely, in touch but untouched, is pervasive in the age of social media, and it is hard to overcome on the platforms” (emphasis added). [14] Our obstinate, modern, performative instinct, centuries in the development and only accelerated by social media, makes it challenging for Christians to interact both on social media platforms (it is hard to stop performing when you are standing onstage) and in person (habits of communicating in order to entertain and inform bleed readily into real life).

Our Relationships

What we need from one another is not entertainment nor information; we have Google (ahem, DuckDuckGo) in our pockets. What we need from one another is not more branding or product reviews; we see literally thousands of ads a day. What we need is what is scarce: relationships.

How scarce are meaningful, connected relationships? Very, argues journalist Johann Hari. In his 2018 book Lost Connections, Hari tackles the mountain of research surrounding the wider sociological forces of disconnection, beginning with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and including Hari’s own childhood in quiet, alienated suburbia. Hari began taking anti-depressants as a teenager and continued taking them for the next decade and a half before questioning their efficacy, as he recounts in the book. He develops the controversial argument that the burgeoning prescribing of antidepressants over the last few decades ignores not only the questionable data about the benefits of their long-term use but also the underlying cause of many of the symptoms of depression, which he sums up in his title—lost connections.

The understanding of depression as only biological malfunction says that there is a “war taking place in your head,” Hari writes. “On one side there are your feelings of distress, caused by the malfunctions in your brain or genes. On the other side there’s the sane part of you. You can only hope to drug the enemy within into submission—forever. . . . [But] you’re not crazy to feel so distressed. . . . ‘It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.’”[15]

In other words, to be in mental distress—to be sick—in a sick society makes good sense. Hari interviewed a mother, and clinical psychologist who specialized in traumatic bereavement, who had lost a child. He describes his insight in the culminating chapter of his book:

Deep grief and depression, she explained to me, have identical symptoms for a reason. Depression, I realized, is itself a form of grief—for all the connections we need, but don’t have. And now I realized—just like it is an insult to Joanne to say that her ongoing grief for her daughter is a form of mental dysfunction, it was an insult to my teenage self to say that this pain was just the result of bad brain chemistry. It was an insult to what he had been through, and to what he needed.”[16]

Is it possible that busy, efficient lives and performative instincts might be signs of being well-adjusted to a society that is not well? Perhaps, conversely, following Hari’s reasoning, some manifestations of depression (and what Hari calls the same song covered by a different band—anxiety) are signs of what we lack.

Hari, writing from a secular perspective, gives some interesting solutions, not all of which are necessarily advisable. Most involve making more connected choices.

For us believers, perhaps the emphasis ought to be different. We who once were afar off have been brought near, through no wisdom or excellence of our own. In union now with the second person of the Trinity and filled with the third, we are not choosing our own, more connected future but trusting in the sovereign work of our God in us and through us. The church we are a part of; the family we have; the neighborhood we live in—these relationships are not accidental. They are where the Spirit works. Slipping into patterns and mindsets that lead to alienation, as the world around us does, is to perpetuate sickness. There is better news to be had. There is better news to be shared. There is a God who is with us.

Endnotes

[1] Cigna, “2018 U.S. Loneliness Index,” https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf (accessed July 1, 2022).

[2] American Psychological Association, “COVID-19 pandemic led to increase in loneliness around the world,” (May 2022) https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2022/05/covid-19-increase-loneliness (accessed July 1, 2022).

[3] Alan Noble, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (Westmont, IL: IVP, 2021), 55.

[4] Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a Housekey (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 164.

[5] Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, 111.

[6] Anne Helen Petersen, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (New York: Dey Street Books, 2020), 163.

[7] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 60.

[8] Noble, You Are Not Your Own, 44.

[9] Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 49.

[10] Yuval Levin, A Time to Build (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 137.

[11] Levin, A Time to Build, 37.

[12] Noble, You Are Not Your Own, 102.

[13] Levin, A Time to Build, 121.

[14] Levin, A Time to Build, 124.

[15] Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 155.

[16] Hari, Lost Connections, 259.

Judith M. Dinsmore is a member of Providence Presbyterian Church, Robinson, Pennsylvania, and is managing editor of New Horizons. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2022.

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Ordained Servant: August 2022

The Plague of Loneliness

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