This is the most connected yet lonely generation: A message from the Bishop of London
Solitude is a condition best enjoyed in company.” So explains one of the main characters in Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker prizewinning The Luminaries. The character’s point is that whereas choosing to be alone can be therapeutic, being forced to be alone quickly turns into loneliness. And that is what the coronavirus has inflicted on many of us over the past few months.
One in three adults who were aware that their well-being had been affected during April and May last year said that feeling lonely was one of the factors, according to the government’s loneliness annual report released in January. Young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 are one of the groups at highest risk. Yet although Covid-19 has exacerbated loneliness, it did not create it. Our first minister for loneliness was in place years before the pandemic hit.
Eric Klinenberg argues that the fact that loneliness is rife in our world is simply a by-product of modern life. The emergence of networked technologies, going back as early as the telephone, have helped to make living alone possible. As technology has progressed, the problem has grown. Internet and social media simultaneously open us up to the world, while at the same time closing us off from it.
Whether you agree with Klinenberg’s thesis or not, it seems that one of the reasons why young adults are disproportionately affected by loneliness is that they find themselves in a period of transition. This is a time when they are working out who they are and where they are going to find community. At the same time, while they might be the most connected generation in history, having hundreds of friends on social media isn’t helping. Quite aside from the realities of our often toxic online world, numerous studies have shown that it is the quality of our relationships rather than the quantity that seems to be key.
The bottom line is that one epidemic has exposed the depth of another. And just as addressing Covid-19 has required a concerted community effort, so the same kind of effort will be needed to tackle loneliness. I loved hearing recently about the inventiveness of nursing students who are involved in a “letters against loneliness” study that links young people with isolated individuals in care homes. I am also delighted that the Diocese of London is partnering with the mental health service Shout. The team of volunteers at the end of the phone can provide instant access to a text message conversation to help support those who feel overwhelmed with anxiety, stress or depression.
Yet as helpful as such support can be, the connection and care that we are all looking for requires something more. In a recent survey by Harvard Graduate School, half of the young people said that no one in the past few weeks had taken more than a few minutes to ask them how they were in a way that genuinely showed that they cared. This is where the Christian community has something precious to offer.
Some 2,000 years ago, two friends walked home depressed and dejected in the light of a crisis that had rocked their community. When a stranger asked them what was wrong, they explained that the person that they thought would bring hope and freedom — God’s messiah — had been killed. And yet incredibly, a few hours later, that very stranger revealed himself to be the same man that they had been talking about, risen from the dead. It was that news that transformed dejected followers into a joy-filled people.
This encounter with the resurrected Jesus caused the hearts of these friends of Jesus to burn with joy and their heels to head back to Jerusalem. Their first thought was to rejoin the community that they had left in despair earlier that day. In other words, this encounter with Jesus didn’t just fill them with hope personally, it caused them to connect again with his community. Since that very first Easter, the community of Jesus has been so energised by him, that it has sought to look beyond itself to care for all those in need of compassion. It has founded schools, built hospitals, cared for the sick and shown hospitality to the hungry. It is the kind of community that is ready to welcome those feeling alienated and alone.
As Lent draws to a close, many will have been reflecting on these themes, some of which, with the help of my episcopal colleagues, have been laid out in more detail in our latest book, Rooted in Love. But how does this relate to the problem of loneliness? It relates because the invitation of Easter is more than an opportunity to reflect on the sacrificial suffering of a carpenter from Nazareth. It is more than wondering at the miracle that sparked a movement. It is an opportunity to connect with God and the community of love that the work of Jesus created. To experience first-hand the love that his love grows. I invite everyone, through churches across London and the country, to encounter it. A love that we so desperately need in a land of loneliness.
This message from the Bishop of London first appeared in The Times.