The End of Loneliness

This Thanksgiving, I had the privilege of sharing quality time with family and friends. Throughout the afternoon, our home was filled with the sounds of friendly banter and the laughter of children, including twin baby girls who toddled, smiled, and graced us all with their vibrant newness. My son and I snuck in a hike in the redwoods with a close friend and her son, and by sundown, we were surrounded by friends at a holiday potluck, complete with bountiful food and the comforts of home.

To be sure, Thanksgiving celebrations often obscure or omit recognition of the genocide wrought by European settlers upon our Native American brothers and sisters, but the ethic of gratitude and spirit of togetherness embodied in the occasion makes it worth observing. At its best, it’s a time for reflection, acknowledgment of the blessings we have, and an opportunity to share the fruits of the harvest.

Unfortunately, not all share in the bounty, especially those who find themselves alone, isolated, unhoused, or otherwise cut off from society’s increasingly restricted benefits. Less than a mile from our home in Oakland, California, scores of homeless people spent the day in cold, damp tents or make-shift shelters. As rents have skyrocketed, such encampments have sprung up all over town — and across much of America — serving as a shameful reminder of our collective failure to provide basic human dignity to our fellow citizens.

Of course, homelessness is but one example of a much broader social tragedy: the growing sense of loneliness and disconnection people now experience in modern life. A 2018 Cigna health survey of 20,000 adults found that nearly half of Americans suffer from feelings of loneliness, while barely more than half have daily, face-to-face interactions with friends or quality time with family. In place of meaningful, soul-enriching relationships, more of our time and energies are devoted to work, material consumption, digital entertainment, and so-called “social” media. According to a 2017 American Journal of Preventive Medicine study, people who spent the most time on social media were twice as likely to feel socially isolated.

Humans are inherently social beings. Our mental and physical well-being is nourished by the quality of our relationships and the sense of belonging we feel in community. Our planet and our essential nature are crying out for better ways of living that can restore connection and harmony.

Thankfully, the crises of our times are forcing us to reconsider our dying economic order. That system is trying desperately to turn every human relationship and every natural process into something for sale to the highest bidder. But it’s running out of both, veering headlong into the unprofitable chaos of our fraying social order and the hard limits of our planet’s delicate ecological balance.

It’s during this transitional moment in our history that we can and should be creating new and exciting ways of being with each other and reconnecting with the earth. Easier said than done, of course, especially given the tantalizing temptations of commercialism and electronic distraction. But future generations will thank those of us willing to live and love more boldly and with purpose. A return to community will not only end our loneliness and disconnection, it may just be the key to saving our world.

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