Beyond lonely scrolling

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Sitting alone in a living room on a dark winter night, I am staring at a screen once again. With a TV buzzing in the background, I scroll down through tragic headlines, past photos of smiling babies and occasional political rants. The warmth of the laptop upon my legs and its glow across my face create a cozy feeling perfect for a winter night.

Then, I notice the status update of an acquaintance from years ago; a little cry for help that sends a ripple of worry through me: Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about the movement of Jesus’ heart: In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and having nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way …”  (Mark 8:1-3)

Today, two millennia later, the great crowds are online. Now, we rarely sit on hillsides and absorb the wisdom of prophets and teachers. Instead, we stare at screens and connect virtually. We often ignore those who are in the same room or neighborhood. Instead, we share and retweet the insights of like-minded friends living in other time zones.

By each act, our needs and desperation glare out at us, reflecting back at us like images in mirrors. In the gap between these flat surfaces and real-time — lived human experiences — we meet our longings for intimacy and connection; for closeness with others, God, and our true selves.

I am fascinated by how technology influences our processes of building relationships with one another today. I am especially curious about how the changes impact the way we serve, love, share and care for others. With more ways for us to connect, are our communities stronger? Healthier? How are we living out the Christian call to create inclusive communities and care for one another? Does our modern tendency to connect more through screens and devices than through human contact, touch, influence our spiritual health?

The Incarnation — God taking on human flesh — insists that our human bodies are holy, sacred. Sitting around tables and sharing bread and wine is sacramental. Praying side-by-side and sharing air and space is communion on holy ground. We are made to be together, united as one.

Yet, we often are not. In fact, there is a rise in the number of people who are considered lonely. To give you a sense of just how alone we feel, in the 1980s, 20 percent of adults were chronically lonely; a 2010 study told us that 35 percent of people over 45 are now chronically lonely. It’s even more grim for millennials. As noted in Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan, “nearly 60 percent of those aged 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35 percent of those aged over 55.” (p 28).

And, it turns out that loneliness is slowly killing us. If you are chronically lonely, your blood pressure increases, your immune responses decrease, and you are likely to gain excess weight and suffer from insomnia, headaches and anxiety. Researchers tell us that chronic loneliness increases mortality by as much as 26 percent. It is such a serious public health problem that a year ago the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

We are social animals, we are meant for each other. We are called to be in community. It’s actually all science, as the research of John Cacioppo highlights.

So, what are we supposed to do? I’m not sure. I am still learning, making my way forward into serving and living in this mess. But I am certain that we are called to build connections, community.

It comes down to this: we all need to have strong connections to exist and be healthy. This is the way God designed it; nature helps us know it. Actually, scientists theorize that loneliness has a biological function; it is an innate drive that works to help our species survive. The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate us to reach out, to get closer to the tribe … the community.

Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

My scrolling pauses and I contemplate how to respond compassionately, kindly. I know that responding to the needs of others expressed online doesn’t have the same effect as responding in-person or over the phone, that whatever words I might type could go ignored or unread.

Yet, I feel compelled to serve and care. Is this pity? Like Jesus, when he looks upon the hungry crowd?

I recognize the scale and scope are vastly different, but the question remains: how do we respond to an expressed need? What is helpful, appropriate, meaningful, real? In seconds, I settle on an action and type “Have you ever considered trying MeetUp.com to see if there’s a group in your area that you’d like to join?”

My heart sinks some and prays a bit of blessing and hope for that person. I feel uncertain about what I’ve done; unsure whether it was enough, if it really made a difference at all. It’s hard to know what’s the compassionate, Christian way to act in this modern, technology-infused world.

I return to scrolling, reading. I don’t ever follow up to see if the person is feeling better. And I don’t feel any better, either.

Change isn’t linear

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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“I can’t believe I have to do this again,” I thought angrily to myself about a year ago as I made preparations to enter treatment for an eating disorder … for the second time. I had completed the program just six months prior. I was so frustrated with myself (as I’m sure some of the people who love me were too) for the relapse that sent me back to treatment. As I processed this fact with my therapist, she reminded me of something I’d heard before: recovery isn’t linear.

For any of us who have tried to make changes in life, to grow into healthier versions of ourselves, it doesn’t take long to also see that they — like recovery — aren’t linear; that conversion and growth are more like the messy work of spirals.

When I began treatment the first time I was overwhelmed by the many changes I had to make, but in the back of my mind I thought that by the end of the program they would be made and I would be, officially, recovered. Then I experienced some of the hardest emotional and spiritual work I’ve ever had to do. I remember lamenting to one of my counselors, like my fellow group mates would also do, “I just want this recovery process to be over.” We were consistently reminded that “recovery isn’t linear.” It was (and is) just as change; a one step forward, two steps back sort of thing.

Returning to treatment felt like I had taking more than two steps back, and I had to accept that I was going to have some of those same good days and bad days and would sometimes make mistakes, even some of the same mistakes. That making lasting, lifelong changes can be frustrating and messy. But it was necessary, and I wasn’t starting from square one. I wasn’t the same person who went through the program before. I had the capacity to deal with the challenges from a deeper place and a different perspective.

During my second trip to treatment, with the support of my therapist and a very dear friend, I was able to forgive myself, to focus more directly on the issues at the root of my eating disorder, to finally give away the clothes I wore when I was at my lowest weight. This symbolic action helped me accept my new size and forgive myself. I wouldn’t have been able to do this before.

Oftentimes you hear the saying “New year, new me;” about people making new-year resolutions such as losing weight, saving money, starting a hobby or adding a spiritual practice to their lives. My commitment to myself this year — and all those yet to come — is to continue working toward recovery from my eating disorder, a journey I began almost two years ago. I will struggle to stick with some of the important changes I’ve needed to make to stay well, but I now have the tools to deal with the struggles in a healthier way. I can learn from my successes in the past.

I remember first hearing the Serenity Prayer back in my high school English class and being struck by the power and meaning in those words as I was doing the difficult work of leaving adolescence and becoming an adult. These days, as I continue the hard work of conversion and growing closer to God, I have returned to the Serenity Prayer as frequent mantra, a reminder that making changes is the stuff of spirals.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Sister Shannon Fox

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Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.