Last week, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. This advisory comes in response to a national “loneliness epidemic,” which is profoundly impacting both our collective emotional and physical health. Dr. Murthy speaks not only as a medical professional but as one who has personally experienced an intense and prolonged period of loneliness. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Murthy writes candidly of the shame, loss of self-esteem and sense of invisibility which accompanied this loneliness in the year following completion of his first appointment as surgeon general.
As a mental health practitioner, I am excited to see loneliness growing in recognition as a public health issue. In the broad, cross-section of humanity I meet, the affliction is ubiquitous. While those experiencing discrimination and marginalization may be deemed at greater risk, COVID-19 starkly reminds us that there is no fail-safe immunization against loneliness. Both higher- and lower-income individuals, persons partnered and single, the popular and the misfits and those with creased brows and fresh faces have each spoken to me of the persistence of loneliness.
Murthy’s proposed antidote is three-fold: Strengthen social frameworks that support healthy relationships, modify our use of technology to allow for more intentional presence with one another and personally take steps to rebuild our connections with others. Murthy refers to these steps as “medicine hidden in plain sight.” He also credits his own recovery from loneliness to the support, connection and love of family and friends.
I have witnessed that not everyone has safe access to this medicine. And conditions probably will not improve until the dominant culture abandons the myth of independence and self-sufficiency, until we remember that we have need of one another. “Our need for human connection is like our need for food and water,” Dr. Murthy writes, “[it is] essential for our survival.” Until this is a universally-held belief, the stories entrusted to me by others will repeat and blend into one another: I live with many others but am often on my own. In a crowd, I joke and laugh, but it feels like a performance. I worked up the courage to go to that event, but I was ignored. I was rejected by a potential companion and have to pretend it doesn’t bother me. There can be a kind of cold refuge in loneliness, in a world that is not so kind or has rebuffed our kindness.
“I’m afraid I’m running out of time,” a young adult recently told me. “Running out of time for what?” I asked. “Running out of time for love,” he replied. My heart broke for him, but I could not give him the tired advice of “getting out there.” Sometimes we need to heal from unloving acts before we can safely seek love and give love again. Even Jesus took three days.
If you count yourself in the company of the lonely, it may feel overwhelming or undesirable to step out of your enclosed space to ask for support, to socially extend yourself or to do for others. That is ok. Well-meaning persons may tell you that you must take the first step. What they may not know is that the first step is believing that you are worthy of companionship, community and connection. I am here to tell you that you are worthy of all that, and more, simply as you are. And to tell you that you are more than worthy of love. Actually, you were made for it.
You may feel invisible now, but I see you. And I am not the only one. As screenwriter, author and artist Jonny Sun tells us, “You are not alone in your loneliness.” In his TED talk, Sun reflects on the creation of a community born from the experience of loneliness.
The autobiography of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day is aptly named The Long Loneliness. In its postscript, she writes, “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know [God] in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.” I have read those words countless times over the years, usually when I was alone. Recently I read them out loud to a group of friends. It was the end of a long day when love and community had often been difficult, when knowing each other had at moments seemed impossible. Yet there we were sharing a loaf of unsliced bread, somewhat indiscriminately breaking it into chunks, much messier than those anemic communion wafers, but also more filling. This act maybe even began to fill that God-shaped hole gnawed wide by our loneliness.
“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community,” I finished reading, as my friends continued to chew.
Afterwards I slipped the printed page into the Book of Gospels. It was its own Good News.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call, text or chat “988” to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angela Paviglianiti practices social work in Chicago where she also completed seminary; however, she has not yet mastered divinity. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, you can find her at The Fireplace Community, and on other days, you can usually find something she forgot there.
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