Friday, December 6, 2013

The Plague of Loneliness

Today’s bubonic plague is not caused by a pathogen. Instead, it is caused by the absence of an “intruder.” However, loneliness can be every bit as destructive as the plague, and it has become as epidemic. Theologian Jerram Barrs writes:

  • In the polls taken of our contemporaries, people say over and over again that their primary personal difficulty is personal loneliness. That is extraordinary. You think of all the contact we have with people in this culture, but people’s number one identified problem is personal loneliness. People simply do not know how to make close relationships.

Indeed, this growing social isolation is even more remarkable in view of the many new ways that we now have to connect – Facebook, Skype, cell phones, meet-ups, dating services…

These findings tally with a survey that came out three years ago, indicating that 25% of respondents indicated that they lacked a personal confidante. The same survey had been conducted 15 years earlier, but found that only 10% lacked a confidante.

This parallels the findings of Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam who observed:

  • A broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement…began a quarter-century ago.

  • Voting, political knowledge, political trust, and grassroots political activism are all down. Americans sign 30 per cent fewer petitions and are 40 per cent less likely to join a consumer boycott, as compared to just a decade or two ago. The declines are equally visible in non-political community life: membership and activity in all sorts of local clubs and civic and religious organizations have been falling at an accelerating pace. In the mid-1970s the average American attended some club meeting every month, by 1998 that rate of attendance had been cut by nearly 60 per cent.

  • In 1975 the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure (1998) is now barely half that. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining.

Many cite greater tolerance as a positive relational development of our increasingly secular society. However, Putnam found that, meanwhile, the trust level was taking a hit:   

  • Although Americans are more tolerant of one another than were previous generations, they trust one another less. Survey data provide one measure of the growth of dishonesty and distrust, but there are other indicators. For example, employment opportunities for police, lawyers, and security personnel were stagnant for most of this…In the last quarter century these occupations boomed, as people have increasingly turned to the courts and the police.

As Putnam suggests, social isolation or loneliness might have multiple causes. I would like to focus on one thing that has made relationships more difficult – the growing failure to accept ourselves as we truly are!

Without self-acceptance, we distance ourselves from others. The self that we are unwilling to accept is the same self that we want to hide from others. Rather than showing this self, we cloth ourselves with a façade – a front or a covering. This requires a lot of psychic energy and internal struggle. We engage in habitual, self-obsessed image-management, refusing to let the other into our world – the world we cannot accept.

Why is it difficult to accept this world? We feel ashamed of it and feel certain that if others saw us as we are, they would reject us. Consequently, we condemn ourselves to an endless quest to prove ourselves through accomplishments, carefully manicured appearances, money, power, whatever! However, this just pushes others further away. They feel a pressure to match the image that we put forth.

Besides, when we can’t be real with ourselves, we can’t be real with others. This makes any connection difficult and uncomfortable. To connect, two people need to share a common reality, at least to some extent. However, if we are consumed by managing our image, we do not put forth a true picture of ourselves. What we offer is something that doesn’t line up with what others see about us. This dissonance tends to push us apart. This problem is maximized by our secular culture, which tells us to build our self-trust and self-esteem at the expense of truth - who we truly are - further alienating us from ourselves!

I know a little about this because I had experienced intense isolation. I too had felt ashamed of myself, and no amount of accomplishments, positive affirmations, or psychotherapists were able to make dent into my shame. I was convinced that in order to be loved, I had to become someone else, and for many years, this is exactly what I tried to do. However, nothing would ease my social discomfort.

So what made the difference? Knowing Christ and His love and acceptance of me! As I grew in the certainty that He accepted me thoroughly, I found that I could begin to accept myself, even laugh at myself, and admit my personal failures. Before, I was unable to confront them. They threatened the little sense of personhood and value that I had managed to retain.

Christ has been liberating (John 8:31-32)! He is also an ongoing comfort to me. Prior to this, I was unable to face my faults and guilt and could not resolve interpersonal conflict. I always had to be right. To be wrong was just too deflating and humiliating – something I couldn’t endure. I had been psychologically trapped and lacked the flexibility to relate to others.

Why didn’t anything else work for me? I certainly wanted my psychotherapists and my various lifestyle changes to work, but they couldn’t deliver. Only my Savior could!

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