Social Isolation Is a Silent Killer. Here’s Why.
Several months ago, I visited a friend in ICU. Because of certain life choices, no one else had visited him. And since he was expressing his pain in harsh words, the nurses also didn’t spend any extra time at his bedside. But I’m stubborn. And I know his outbursts are only an overflow of the pain he’s hiding inside. So I showed up, and my friend started crying. “No one else is crazy enough to visit me. Not even my wife.”
Our visit was typical: jokes, sarcasm, and a few tears. I always use humor with this old bird, because it softens him enough to let love sneak in and blindside him. A few days later, I received a handwritten note of gratitude. What pierced my heart was this:
They’d given me medicine and saved my life. But I was numb... isolated on an island of my own misery. And you’re sure not a doctor. You couldn’t do anything for my medical condition. You’re also not a psychiatrist, so you couldn’t treat my mood. But what you offered me—what you always offer me—is the gift of non-judgmental connection. And when you showed up the other day in ICU, it’s like a switch flipped on in both my brain and my heart. What I need most in the world is to stop feeling so alone.
I know a little something about loneliness, because eight years ago, loneliness nearly killed me.
A Deadly Cocktail
I was away from the usual comforts of home, separated from my wife and baby boy, working a two-week contract job. I already had severe depression; the loneliness compounded that to a dangerous degree. It was the darkest two weeks of my life. I believed my only way out was suicide.
My friend, Robert Vore, a mental health professional in Atlanta, says that loneliness and depression can be deadly. And he’s right. Studies show that prolonged loneliness and social isolation are not only associated with depression and a decreased sense of well-being, but also anxiety, cognitive decline, schizophrenia, suicide, dementia, cardiovascular illness, and even cancer.
Kind of makes you wonder what we’re in for, now that social distancing has become our key to survival.
For some reason, in the grip of pandemic panic and seeking comfort the other day, I found myself flipping through the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Picture him, knowing the fate that lies before him. Expecting to be arrested and eventually killed by those who hate him and his message, Jesus kneels in exhaustion and prays, begging God to take away the pain. Then he turns to his friends; he’d already told them that sorrow was crushing his life out. But they’re asleep, every last one of them, in his greatest hour of need.
And how tempting it must have been then, to give into the lie that we are all alone. That God has turned his back on us, and so have those we love most. This is how loneliness seeps into our already fragile state and suffocates us, taking not only our breath, but worse—our hope. Despair is no respecter of persons. When loneliness mixes with deep sadness, it’s a cocktail that can destroy everything.
Strangely enough, it is here in the despair of Jesus that I find the most comfort during this pandemic. Jesus understands my loneliness. He understands what it is like to desperately want connection, only to be faced with separation.
Jesus understands crisis and loneliness. Here's how... #coronavirus #graceismessy #mentalhealth
Why Gethsemane Matters
Look, I can’t answer the eternal question of “Why does a good God allow suffering?” I also don’t know why God doesn’t snap his cosmic fingers and obliterate this virus in an instant. Those questions are above my pay grade. But what I do know is this: in the midst of deep woundedness, sorrow, anxiety, and loneliness, the presence and compassion of others can heal us.
In the midst of deep woundedness, sorrow, anxiety, and loneliness, the presence and compassion of others can heal us. #coronavirus #mentalhealth #compassion
During this pandemic, when major metropolitan cities are completely shut down, we may not be able to visit each other in person. Easter services may be canceled. There likely won’t be a big meal at Grandma’s house. But there are things we can do to ease our—and others’—loneliness.
Research clearly shows that connecting with people socially, speaking regularly with family or friends, and even playing games with others can help reduce loneliness. Sure, in a day and age of social distancing, this requires creativity and effort; but each time we pick up the phone, send an encouraging message on social media, or connect over video chat, we are becoming the very presence of God to one another.
Why do I still have this hope as the anchor of my soul? Because God not only knows about my experience but actually chose to enter into it. Christ meets us in our separation, and we meet each other in it. And in doing so, we give and receive what we all need most: to stop feeling so alone.
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