A wave of loneliness seems to be washing across America. Cigna surveyed 10,000 people 18 and older. Three out of five of these adults—that’s 61 percent—reported feeling lonely. Narrow the age range to 18 to 22 and the percentage of respondents feeling lonely jumps to 79 percent.

Cigna made its survey public in January of 2020. That’s right. January. Before coronavirus led to physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.

We were already a strikingly lonely people. Our pandemic-wrought isolation may have exacerbated our experience of personal disconnect. But many of us entered the shutdown feeling empty, isolated, or unwanted.

It’s widely recognized that being alone is not the same thing as being lonely. And you can feel desperately lonely in a crowd of people. Loneliness is a profound feeling of disconnect from other people.

In her book The Village Effect, Susan Pinker defines loneliness as more than mere physical separation. Being lonely is the feeling that we are being intentionally excluded—that others are keeping us at a social distance—along with the existential drain that comes with that feeling.

Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s research shows that we are organically wired to long for social connection. It’s one of our biological needs. When we’re deprived of it, our physical as well as our mental health declines. (See Julie Halpert’s “How to Manage Your Loneliness”)

We long for connection. To know and to be known. To love and to be loved. To belong. And yet, experiencing emotional, social, and spiritual disconnect is a recurring theme in human life. And I hate to say this to Cigna, but we could have told them this before they bothered with the survey.

Existentialist philosophers used the world “alienation” to refer to the tension felt by individuals between our longing to belong and our inability to form genuine, abiding connections. Even earlier, in his 18th Century essay “Perpetual Peace,” the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that humans are characterized by an “unsociable sociability.”

More recently, spiritual writers have underscored how our institutions include us and exclude us. In her book Healing Spiritual Wounds, Carol Howard Merritt names clearly how the Church at once offers safe spiritual harbor for some and a dangerous, wounding place for others.

Kaitlin Curtice’s Native confronts us—in an effective mix of stark boldness and nurturing grace—with the ongoing social, political, and economic erasure of indigenous cultures as a function of our national business as usual.

We all long for connection. To be on the inside. But even in our most sincere efforts to create a place of belonging we push somebody to the fringes. Perhaps that’s because deep within each of us is the nagging fear that somebody, someday, is going to elbow us into the outer darkness. To leave us crushingly disconnected.

Believe it our not, the most oddball story of the Jesus narrative—and the least glamorous major feast in the Church calendar—addresses our deep fear with a powerful hope. I mean the Ascension.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the disciples watch Jesus float skyward and disappear among the clouds. (1:9) This happens forty days after the resurrection and nine days before Pentecost. So churches celebrate the feast on a Thursday. And you’re right, few people remember the feast day and even fewer show up for worship.

And yet, the story of the Ascension tells us that loneliness or alienation is not our eternal fate. The meaning of the Ascension is that, in Jesus, all of humanity—each of us and all that makes us truly human—will be woven into the very life of God.

Our identity will not be erased. But our loneliness will be a thing of the past. Our destiny is seamless intimacy with God and with one another. Paradoxically, our earthly loneliness hints to us that we were made for an intimacy that we yearn for and dream of while we’re still walking this planet.

However, the Ascension does not teach us to wait passively for the ultimate divine fix for our individual loneliness and our social alienation.

It challenges us to dismantle the barriers that divide us and the systems that exclude some in order to privilege others. It encourages us to take up spiritual practices that make us increasingly open to Christ’s presence in ourselves and in those different from us.

We long to be connected. And as it turns out, our longing is a response to God’s longing to be connected with us and to connect us with each other.

Learn more about A Resurrection Shaped Life

7 Comments

  1. Do you think that connection to God or feelings of oneness with Universal Energy can heal the very real neurological responses that result from being disconnected, isolated, and excluded socially?

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    1. Yes, but I think of it as a process. One completed in eternity. That’s part of what it means for us to be finite. Nevertheless, I also believe in real, remarkable transformation

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  2. Thank you, Bishop Jake – for this particular article, which outlines the need of most of us for a ‘significant other’ with whom to share our lives. For those of us who in adulthood are able to find a loving partner – in conformity with the heterosexual norm – this is comparatively easy. However, for those who are not part of the majority, who for no fault of their own find themselves able only attracted to someone of their own gender; this can be an insurmountable problem. This is why the Church needs to better understand the deep needs of LGBT+ people to find their life-partner – without the condemnation of fellow members of the Christian community. All human loving, after all, is but a pale shadow of the Love God has for each one of us.

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  3. I would like to share something I wrote many years ago when I felt that way most of the time. I do not feel lonely anymore. I hope this encourages deeper connections to oneself. The story just begins there. In Loving Kindness Patricia Marie Babin UNCOVERING TRUTH–LONELINESS WAS NOT THE FOE

    Feeling alone most of my days
    From birth to middle years
    Depths and widths
    I walked in it’s veil.

    What crisis is this?
    A second look.
    I have uncovered truths
    Unending and constant

    Suddenly lonely was not the foe
    I opened my heart and
    Became it’s friend
    Loneliness and I

    Days on days
    Endless and vast
    Loneliness beside me
    Loneliness abides me

    Tonight I see through
    A tiny ray of light
    More substantial inside
    Crowding my “friend” out

    The new friend is me
    With definition
    With shadows of goals
    With soothings of Peace

    My friend is not gone
    But resting aside
    Tired from energy
    Constantly spent

    My loneliness wants peace

    And so….

    I have risen like the phoenix
    From some kind of hell
    From life
    A life
    Of tidal rhythms

    I have wandered through
    And peered at
    The inner walls
    Of my soul

    I have laid bare
    My shortcomings
    My block
    My lacks

    Unto myself I revealed
    And others
    My discoveries
    Of truth

    I journeyed into that darkness
    And the journey brought the light

    I released my own imprisonment
    Of fears and delight

    To find my own soul

    In blessed times it unfolds
    In earnest I proceedTo set it free

    Then I see the openings
    My reason for life
    My creativity
    In my own rights

    My life of bliss
    Is free and calm
    Is full in the middle
    Exansive and boundless

    My journey never over
    Has brought me back to life
    Has opened my mind
    My heart
    My eyes

    I still hunger for clarity
    Freedom and joy
    I seek peace
    And more peace

    And peace some more

    I journey to beauty
    An eloquence there
    A Knowing
    A center
    Of Grace
    Calmly held secured

    It is of Grace I want to walk
    In Grace I seek to be.

    Of my burgeoning soul’s worth
    To be free

    Grounded, anchored, solid
    In its source
    Is it nothing, is it all?
    It is hunger no more

    For it resides in me
    The love of life
    A power unleashed
    In its peace

    It Rambles through
    It settles and Homes
    It rests and aches
    It Relinquishes forces

    Power of the Divine
    Of light
    Of love and Peace
    It Spirals out
    And collects magnetically

    It Wheels around
    It pushes toward
    Its vortex
    Is infusing
    Permeating
    Blanketing

    It hones in essence
    It balms and soothes
    Its force is bewildering
    Inside of empty muse

    It beckons at the pain
    By tugging at its core
    Revealing the hurts
    By wake of their absence

    It is endless
    It is more than endless
    It is bursting in its
    Gentle rhythms a wash

    Permeated
    A tangible force
    it is unrelenting
    It is Home
    It is ALL

    AND

    I want to learn
    to live there

    Patricia Marie Babin 1990”s

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  4. I read this after choking on tears reading tonight’s evening prayer scripture from Matthew 8, Jesus has come down from the mountain with great crowds following him after being astounded that he taught with such authority. Obviously, He was on a roll, with so many looking up to Him and listening to Him. One of the ”important people’ – the ones we expect to brush by those of us on the margins,those of us not so attractive or charismatic or well-off or well-read – fill in your own not so thoughts here. So one of us ‘not-so’ people slides in and asks him for something. We all know how this goes, right? He will be brushed off with disdain, or platitudes, flat out ignored or pushed aside by the important followers. But not Jesus. He SEES him – he stretches out his hand and touches the untouchable. He says “I do choose.” He connects. And that brought me to tears. Which is a bit awkward when you are the one reading the scripture aloud! Jesus does chose us – you,me, the CEO Christians, the meth-head walking down the street with her backpack, every one of us. And the even more awesome thing is that connectedness is with us even unto the end of time. Thanks for helping me see why those simple words “I do chose” brought me to tears.

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