For many, 2021 has been a year of emerging from the unexpected conditions of the pandemic. Nearly everyone has a vivid experience of reconnecting, of taking delight in seeing people and interacting with them in more normal ways. This is unsurprising: Catholic tradition clearly teaches that we are made for relationship. We are social creatures to the core. Some researchers even go so far as to call us the “ultra-social” species.
Yet as we reemerge, we might reflect on what experts have termed a crisis of loneliness in our society that predates the pandemic but the conditions of which have been made real and more extreme by stay-at-home orders and social distancing. What exactly does a crisis of loneliness mean? And what does it have to do with larger social issues?
Answering the second question first, we can say this: It has everything to do with the whole range of social issues. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (On Integral Human Development), begins a key chapter by writing, “One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love.”
This shouldn’t be read as something sentimental. We all recognize the deep wounds suffered by children who are not loved and the terrible impoverishment of the abandoned elderly. And it’s not just near the cradle or grave that this disease of isolation afflicts us. People have fewer close friends, invite one another into their homes less frequently, and change jobs more frequently. As Robert D. Putnam put it vividly more than 20 years ago, they now bowl alone (instead of in organized leagues). And we are all too aware of how systemic racism fosters isolation of groups to the detriment of solidarity.
But what exactly do all these various signals mean? What do we mean by isolation or loneliness? Different people, whether by nature or nurture, are more extroverted or introverted. It’s not that everyone needs to be a social butterfly. Let’s pay attention to three particular things.
The first is time.
To know someone well is to know them over time, to have a sense that the other person is a stable presence in one’s life. We all benefit from having new people and experiences come into our lives, but deeper giving and receiving is something that is born from the soil of stability. The belonging experienced in the old assembly line and softball team is lost when work disappears and civic life declines.
This stability further requires the mutual giving of attention. Meetings on Zoom often feel like a free pass to browse on other windows. More importantly, we don’t have the time before and after, the time where we linger and chat. Sometimes it’s just about the weather, but sometimes it’s getting a sense of how a person is feeling and hearing a bit about their life that we might not know.
Political commentators note how legislators used to live in Washington, D.C. and share social lives with one another’s families. These events were nonpartisan, and many believe it helped the two parties work together to craft legislation that could satisfy everyone. Today many legislators fly home every week, and their spare time in Washington is spent in an endless cycle of calls to raise money for the next campaign. We have to relearn how to take the time for relationship.
The second aspect is being able to share difficulties.
When we appear at the office or the store and get a friendly “How are you?” we know the answer is supposed to be positive. Awkwardness creeps in when people know someone is going through difficulty. You may stand up at work and announce the arrival of your new child, but your family tragedies may be passed over silently.
None of this is a problem in itself—it’s not for the grocery clerk to enter into your struggles—but it becomes an overall tendency to keep one’s problems to oneself or to only show them in authorized, choreographed ways. People may lack the kinds of relationships Pope Francis identifies with the image of “accompaniment” in his 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Who is accompanying us in our struggles? Who listens, stays, and helps when we aren’t in the best shape? If we do so for others, Pope Francis promises that we will “know the power of tenderness” and our lives will “become wonderfully complicated.”
The third aspect is bodily presence.
To really know someone is to be bodily present with them. Electronic forms of communication, for all their benefits, cannot produce the same familiarity. Indeed, as some experts warn, they may foster greater isolation. We appear to be in contact with people, but it is a “curated” contact. On the one hand, we see others posting all sorts of great highlights and positive messages, and we may then feel sad ourselves. On the other hand, the indirect contact of the internet seems to allow people to say unfeeling, harsh things that they likely would never say in a face-to-face meeting or conversation.
Author and political commentator Yuval Levin recently made a helpful distinction between communication and communion. When we are speaking in a group, there’s an element of information exchange and another element of being together. What we’ve seen in the pandemic is an extreme example of what the internet age has brought us: a lot of communication but no communion. The end product may be many bits of information and memorable memes but a lack of genuine connection.
All these examples, of course, are genuinely personal. We need to consider our own daily habits in relation to all these examples. Often, we find ourselves slipping into patterns that foster isolation. Almost no one seeks real loneliness. Instead, we seek other things and—preoccupied with those things—lose the thing that we most need: other people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been heartening stories of people stuck at home who have found digital ways to renew communication with people with whom they’ve lost touch. That’s a great thing. But now, after the pandemic, we need to find something else: the time, presence, and courage to build real communion with others—especially communion with others who are not “like” us. When we do so, we may find ourselves cultivating the means to address the heart of bigger social problems too.
This article also appears in the August 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 7, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.