This most recent December terrified me.
Moving to Toronto in the first year of the pandemic and certain events since mean I haven’t made many social connections in this city.
My few good friends here all had major life changes recently. Family and most friends live elsewhere, and persistent health issues have reduced my resilience. I expected to feel very lonely this Christmas.
Loneliness has reached epic proportions, according to social scientists and health professionals. The World Health Organization recently initiated a Commission on Social Connection. Loneliness is a global issue, not just a “first world problem.”
Last year, the United States Surgeon General released a report on loneliness. In the United Kingdom, the prime minister appointed a federal minister with responsibility for the issue in 2018, with the intention that it remain a parliamentary priority.
Loneliness can be defined as social disconnection. It is not the same as being alone or in solitude. It can be isolation, deliberate exclusion (such as racism), simple failure to be included, or even fearing to, or not allowing oneself to, engage with others, even though one wants to.
Knowing the travail of the holidays was coming, I put in place some things that I hoped would help: events to attend, the shared lament of “Blue Christmas” services, and a deal with a friend who also struggles with the season that we would support each other.
It felt like scattering life preservers.
A couple things happened that made the period harder. Fortunately, on at least three occasions, it seemed like God tossed me an extra lifeline.
Every one of those lifelines involved other people and being included by them. One example was the simple invitation to an online birthday party, which happened to come right on one of the darker days.
Loneliness can have immense impact on one’s health. It increases heart disease, strokes and mortality by 30 percent. Dementia is 40 percent more likely among those who describe themselves as lonely, and Type 2 diabetes is 50 percent more prevalent.
Men might be at greater risk for loneliness. Research has shown that for about 50 percent of men, their only significant relationship is with a spouse or partner.
The U.S. report concluded that loneliness has health effects comparable to smoking approximately 15 cigarettes a day.
There are many reasons why loneliness is on the rise in society. Some blame social media for facilitating superficial rather than “authentic” connections. That is hasty.
Social media was one of those lifelines I alluded to. Seeing other’s posts provoked remembrances of times with them. Then, in one of my deepest moments of loneliness, I scrolled my Facebook contacts and managed to connect with someone.
The next day, I posted to Facebook about the difficulties I was having. The number of people who responded was astonishing, even from casual friends. Too often, social media consists mostly of happy posts. Maybe we need greater honesty about the genuine ups and downs of life.
As someone who is generally outgoing, most people probably don’t suspect that I have these inner struggles. There is a stigma attached to things like loneliness and mental health. There are many ways to be marginal.
Sociologically, faith communities have the potential for significant social interaction, hopefully of the kind that includes people on the fringes.
But I believe the church is unlike other forms of social association. I believe there is a mystical body of Christ, and we are knitted together by the Holy Spirit.
As the saying goes, God’s hands are our hands.
Nowhere would God working directly through other people be clearer than in addressing the epidemic of loneliness.
Randy Haluza-DeLay lives in Toronto and can be reached at email@example.com.