What Are We Going To Do About Our Loneliness?
“It’s not a question of what side of politics you are on. It’s a question of what side of humanity you are on. If you are a person of faith, you are called to see the Face of God in every person you meet.” – Brené Brown
Last month, Dr. Brené Brown, a Texas researcher and author who studies shaming, vulnerability and empathy, spoke vividly and humorously at Washington National Cathedral about our crisis of national loneliness and rampant dehumanization.
I roared when she spoke of her Catholic upbringing and family's end-of-Mass routine, not unlike my family's in the 1970's: “Get the wafer and get straight to the car!”
Then poignantly, Brown discussed our human need for belonging and what few dispute – that we have “sorted ourselves by ideology into bunkers and factions, [… and] have very little interest in hanging out with people not like us.”
The numbers back her up. According to a Pew Research poll as reported in the Washington Post, “more than half of Republicans and Democrats … have only a few or no friends from the opposite party, [while] 14 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats report having no friends who vote with the other party.”
I understand this personally. Ten years ago, I had few close friends who were very liberal, minorities, poor or gay. It was easier to stay in my space, remain comfortable and sometimes judge, knowingly or unknowingly. It was challenging to listen deeply, without being offended or uncomfortable, much of this rooted in my childhood experiences.
I was isolated, even lonely, but unaware of its extent. This was my own uncivil war, of sorts. Maybe you’ve been there, too, or are there today, to some extent at least.
Dr. Brown concludes, “Loneliness rates have tracked with sorting, [and behind] the barricades of belief, there is no connection.” It gets worse.
“Loneliness is a greater predictor [of earlier death than] smoking, obesity and excessive drinking. Loneliness absolutely kills you, and we’re lonely.”
We are building these bunkers, but they also are constructed for us. When we unfriend someone, don’t offer or accept an invitation from people with different opinions, or don't acknowledge complexities and new information from “enemies,” we are sorting. When we scoff at or vilify news sources that offer information that is contrary to our firmly held beliefs, preferring cement shoes instead of cleats that might get us down the track, we are sorting. When we believe people who call everything from a source “fake news,” which the left started years ago before the term was co-opted by the president, we are sorting.
Technology also is sorting for us. Click this, get that, and more of it. Don’t click this, and we’ll never see it, or anything like it. We begin to believe falsely that what we are reading in our feed or what we comfortably bookmarked is reality or complete truth. The roots of certitude grow, hindering our natural curiosity and ability not to be offended by valuable information. We become soldiers, not scouts. Binaries are the norm.
Dangerously, we see good and bad values through a prism of us vs. them, says Dr. Brown, which we must reject: “If you’re offended when you look on your Facebook page, and you see someone call Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters the b-word or the c-word, you should be equally offended (emphasis mine) when you see someone call Ivanka Trump or Ann Coulter those words.”
How can we be better, both believers and non-believers? I like Brené Brown’s solution, a lot.
“Spirituality is the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to each other by something greater than us and something that is rooted in love and compassion. I call that God. The connection cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten, and we have forgotten we are inextricably connected to each other. Men and women … who maintain that belief in connection hold hands with strangers, find moments of collective joy and pain, and pass the peace with people you wanna frog in the arm. Come to the rail, sing, grieve together in community.
“Find ways to be in communion with people that you don’t know.”
In such a space, loving our enemies, collaboration and compromise no longer seem unlikely, but possible, and then real.