All the Lonely People: Holiday Blues and the Epidemic of Isolation

I didn’t expect to experience Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air as a holiday parable, but that is how it turned out. Rootless and isolated, the slick but fragile George Clooney character has no home for the holidays: he realizes too late in life that his prized non-attachment is not of the healthy Buddhist variety—that it’s a kind living death.

This season—the holiday season—has long been a much-feared red zone for lonely people and those who worry about and study them. And the reasons for worry are not hard to fathom: lonely individuals, already lacking strong social connections, tend to feel their isolation much more keenly during a time characterized by heavy socialization and “cheer.” The run of Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s holidays also occur during the time of least available daylight in North America, which means that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) also plays a role in making Yuletide anything but bright for those whom Herman Melville appropriately labeled isolatoes.

And now we know, thanks to new research, that loneliness is growing more widespread—indeed, that loneliness is contagious. According to a paper published by James Fowler, Nicholas Christakis, and John Cacioppio in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, lonely people tend to spread it around. They alienate others and weird them out, making those others in turn feel more isolated and lonely.

Gregory Rodriguez, a fine op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times, spotted this research paper and wrote about it, which in turn got me to thinking.

Isolation and loneliness are bad for the isolated and lonely, obviously, but as Robert Putnam and many others have observed, they are also bad news for the democratic experiment. Human beings need to interact frequently in order to test and correct their own thinking about matters both personal and public. They need to be susceptible to persuasion by friends who have other ideas. They need to be able to generate some passion about what they believe should be done about social challenges, and that passion often comes from a sense of shared mission.

Isolated people can and do take part in limited forms of social networking, of course. Text messaging reached an unbelievably high level this past year, with something like 740 billion text messages sent in the first half of 2009 in the United States alone. But also spiking ominously is nearsightedness among the young—a contagion of myopia that experts think may be triggered by the amount of time kids and teens spend (you guessed it) texting each other, but also glued to other screens, both small and large.

Poisonous Hyperspace?

We are raising a generation of kids who may have hundreds or even thousands of MySpace “friends,” though the question remains: Are they really connected? As for the adults who live almost exclusively online, we already know that a good many are absorbing ideas and passions that are relatively abstract, somewhat strange, and sometimes even poisonously antisocial.

Back in the day, union members who would boom out the verses to “Solidarity Forever!” knew what they were singing about. They enjoyed an organic solidarity growing from the soil of living associations and real friendships with other working people. But the kind of solidarity that fearful and isolated persons tend to acquire online isn’t likely to be informed and enriched by friendship and shared struggle. Their “solidarity” is more likely to be fueled by exclusivist, even paranoid passions: send the immigrants back, stop Obama’s “socialist” juggernaut, kill faggots, wage Christian war on infidels everywhere.

The three scholars who wrote about contagious loneliness did not suggest what might be done about the spreading contagion, apart from proposing “interventions.” But it is not easy to imagine what kinds of interventions might be able to counter a trend that has so many things going for it: alienating workplaces with more and more temp workers drifting in an out on variable shifts, the economic stress that drives more and more people into such socially bleak workplaces, the dissolution of strong family ties, the solipsistic lure of online living.

Religiously literate and religiously committed people could help here. They know, in the first instance, that humans were made for community—that there is no “I” unless there is also a “Thou”—indeed that, according to some creation accounts, we ended up here because (a) God was lonely, and (b) God saw that Adam was lonely. They know that there is no godly gift quite like the living, breathing presence of another person

Healthy religion can also help to create the kinds of communities that are inviting but not intrusive—communities where one is accepted but not interrogated or manipulated. I have long argued that in view of the labor movement’s severe decline, congregations should step up their efforts to create healthy and free social spaces in which people can talk (or not talk) about their struggles, dreams, and hopes. They should be opening their doors especially to the many millions made anxious and desperate and depressed by the collapsing economy. And they should keep religion out of it except insofar as their hospitality expresses basic friendship toward others. A few congregations affiliated with my organization in Southern California are doing exactly this: they are creating “safe space in tough times” where people can simply come and talk about real things and be heard, respected, and not manipulated.

A Theology of Friendship

But healthy religion can offer even more. The significantly underappreciated theologian, pastor, and mystic Howard Thurman maintained that social isolation lies at the root of conflict, war, and racism. In books like Jesus and the Disinherited, The Luminous Darkness, and The Search for Common Ground, Thurman wrote of God’s invitation to grow into the fullness of life by paying attention to and engaging other human beings at both the micro and macro levels.

Over the course of his life and ministry, Howard Thurman fashioned a theology of friendship that would serve us well today as we hunker down into our isolation cells and consort only with those who are on the same “page” as we are politically. Not that Thurman was in any way naïve about the barriers to forging friendships across high barriers of race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. He remained soberly realistic: “In the conflicts between man and man, group and group, nation and nation, the loneliness of the seeker for community is sometimes unendurable.”

There will be a lot of preaching this coming week on the theme of the angels’ proclamation, “peace on Earth—good will toward humankind!” A lot of it will be empty blather, but we can hope that at least some of America’s pastors will help us think about what showing good will toward all of God’s children actually requires—and (speaking of angels) about how the better angels of our nature can actually be awakened.

In that spirit, we and those preachers might well consider the import of this passage from a lovely prayer by Howard Thurman:

“Give me the listening ear. I seek this day the disciplined mind, the disciplined heart, the disciplined life that makes my ear the focus of attention through which I may become mindful of expressions of life foreign to my own.”