Last year, just before the holidays, I attended a hearing on the issue of hunger among older and disabled adults, hosted by the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. I was there in my role as the communications director of a non-profit organization devoted to the eradication of hunger. 

The hearing was not one of those made-for-X (formerly known as Twitter) brawls that have become the hallmark of U.S. political discourse. The issue of hunger rarely attracts those spectacles, thankfully. It was peaceful and civil. 

Because of this, I was lulled into daydreams about the flight home and my upcoming Christmas plans. But then, in a friendly exchange between committee chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) and ranking member Tim Scott (R-SC), my ears perked up.  

In his closing remarks, Senator Scott thanked everyone for their presentations and noted that hunger was a challenge we all must pay attention to. But then he added that he hopes another issue can get more coverage in the coming years the epidemic of loneliness among all Americans, including the aging and disabled. 

I have heard rumblings of this “loneliness epidemic” for some time, but Senator Scott’s comments were a tipping point for me. I wondered, why are we talking about this now?

My ambivalence toward the issue is rooted in cynicism. Of course, loneliness, wherever it is found, is an issue that needs to be addressed. 

But I suspect, and this is the cause of my cynicism, that the story of the “loneliness epidemic” rhymes with the story of the “opioid epidemic.” 

When substance addiction hits communities of people with fewer layers of privilege and darker-hued skin tones, we label our response a “War on Drugs” and approach it as a criminal justice issue. The public policy “solution” becomes more cops, more arrests and more prisons. 

But when the same issue, albeit with different drugs, begins to affect what has been coded as “Real America,” our response becomes a public health one. We devote resources to addiction recovery programs. The “War on Drugs” morphs into a “Call for Compassion and Understanding.” 

Is the same thing occurring with the “Loneliness Epidemic?” Perhaps. 

Again, none of this is to say that loneliness isn’t pervasive. Aside from the possibility that the “epidemic” is overblown, it is worth asking why we seem to care about it more now than we did before.

It is also worth asking whether or not our proposed solutions are helpful or complete.

The U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory on the subject earlier this year. The report, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” presented data on the trends around connection and isolation and warned against the dangers to health and communities if it persists. 

The advisory also made several recommendations it labeled as its “six pillars.” Among those pillars were strengthening social infrastructure, reforming digital environments and cultivating a culture of connection. 

But I found something conspicuously absent from the surgeon general’s list of suggestions. I find it missing from all public discourse around loneliness.

Why isn’t anyone suggesting that we find healthier and more meaningful ways to be alone? 

To be clear, I believe the surgeon general’s recommendations are helpful. My life is a testament to the power of social connection. 

From the church I worship in, the teams I support and the bars and coffee shops where I work and socialize, I find great meaning in being with others.

But is it possible that our pervasive loneliness is both a product of disconnection and an inability to function through sustained periods of social isolation?  

The leaders and prophets of every major faith tradition seem to understand the transformative power of connection and isolation. Luke tells us that Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness to pray (5:16).

In this instance, I’m a fan of the New International Version, which translates “wilderness” as “lonely places.”

Jesus deliberately withdrew to the lonely places. 

Of course, the two go hand in hand. Connection and the hope of reconnection make retreating into lonely places a more tenable practice. And isolation can help fuel and nurture our social connections. 

But isolation takes practice, which may be why we perceive the current state of loneliness as an “epidemic.” We are so out of practice that when situations force isolation on us, it hurts like the first time we start exercising again after a long absence. 

Is it possible that we’ve mistaken pain for sickness? 

During the early days of the pandemic, I often considered those who continued to gather in large crowds selfish. Couldn’t they see that their actions were keeping a virus circulating that, regardless of what it did to them, was killing thousands of people a day? Didn’t they care? 

Now, in the post-mortem evaluation of the pandemic, even among those who practiced utmost caution during those dark days, there seems to be a resigned sense of the inevitability of all the deaths.

“Well, we couldn’t expect people to stay in their houses alone forever,” I hear people say. And while that is certainly true, too many people were saying those words on day four. 

But I am moving away from seeing those mass gatherings as a product of selfishness and more as the failure of a culture that doesn’t practice the ancient art of being alone. Perhaps the surgeon general could add a “seventh pillar” to the recommendations for combating loneliness– cultivating a culture that practices strategic solitude and isolation. 

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