Sunday, June 28, 2009

Loneliness, Isolation, and Depression

It is both odd and tragic in this age of the internet, cell phones, text-messaging, and various forms of e-communications, that we should still be discussing the ills of isolation and loneliness. However, despite all the outlets at our disposal to “reach-out,” the problems seem to be escalating along with the resulting depression. Psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz cite two “major studies” in this regard. In the first:

“McPherson found that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discussed ‘important matters’ dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said that there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: in 2004, individuals without a single confidant now made up nearly a quarter of those surveyed” (The Lonely American, 2).

This is particularly serious, because loneliness and isolation seem to provide optimal conditions for social-psychological breakdown. Olds and Schwartz observe that, “A great many people who think of themselves as depressed have in fact a sense of isolation at the core of their feelings” (5-6).

Many explanations are brought forward to explain our growing isolation. Some cite America’s legendary pioneering spirit and our emphasis on self-reliance. Others suggest that loneliness is a product of our frenetic pace. However, these explanations fail to explain the recent nose-dive in levels of intimacy, since we have always been self-reliant and frenetic! In addition to this, there is the finding of James Buie that “Depression…for those born after 1950 is as much as twenty times higher than the incidence rate for those born before 1910” (quoted from Edward Welch, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 113).

What then has happened to us in recent decades? I’d like to suggest that one of the greatest culprits for this phenomenon has ironically been the cult of “self-esteem.” Welch appropriately asks: “What happens when people are raised on a steady diet of ‘You are great, you can do anything, you deserve it, you are the best’…Depression and denial are the only two options left.”

Why this dismal assessment? For one thing, we become addicted to relying upon an inflated self-esteem to get us out of bed in the morning. This means we need increasingly higher levels of the “drug” of self-esteem. It also suggests that for the self-esteem fix to work, we have to believe it. Therefore, before long, we come to believe that we are a highly superior person and, consequently, to maintain our emotional high, we deny and repress all data to the contrary. Isn’t this our natural inclination anyway? How much easier to succeed at this when society is telling us that believing in ourselves is such an admirable goal!

What then happens to our relationships when we believe we are god-like and deny everything that contradicts us? We cease to share a common reality—a necessity for meaningful relationships. Have you ever tried to relate in a meaningful way to someone who thought he was Napoleon or Caesar? It’s impossible!

Consistent with the “religion” of our day, I too had convinced myself that I was a superior human being and that nothing could stop me once I made up my mind. Although it gave me a confidence and a swagger, I was paying an increasingly high price for this mental addiction. First of all, failing to assess myself correctly, I made many foolish and painful decisions. But perhaps even more importantly, I had isolated myself from others, although not purposely. On an unconscious level, I needed others to affirm what I believed about myself. When they treated me according to what they saw with their eyes, I, of course, was offended. They had failed to give me the acknowledgement I thought I deserved and had contradicted everything I was trying to tell myself. Furthermore, whenever I had a disagreement, having already denied my own culpability, I was convinced that all the blame belonged to the other guy. I was “Caesar,” and everyone else refused to recognize this fact.

It is only as I became assured that Christ loved me and would accept me forever that I was able to accept myself. It was only in the context of His love that I had the courage to face the painful truths about myself along with my self-delusions.

Now, I love to be transparent and laugh at my foibles in front of my students. They find this liberating and are drawn closer to me because of this. One student remarked about how different and refreshing this experience is from being with someone who maintains his fa├žade and brags about himself—something that drives people away and kills relationships. Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32) He has certainly set me free from my delusions and isolation.

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