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.