Pandemic of Loneliness

About a century ago, there was an Edenic community in Roseto, Pennsylvania. No crime. Little heart disease despite the fact that residents ate fried meats, smoked stogies, and drank wine like it was the last day on earth. People lived long and good lives. In the latter part of the 20th century, researchers took note of this community of Italian immigrants to study “the Roseto Effect.” Here is what they found:

Rosetans, regardless of income and education, expressed themselves in a family-centered social life. There was a total absence of ostentation among the wealthy, meaning that those who had more money didn’t flaunt it. There was nearly exclusive patronage of local businesses, even with nearby bigger shops and stores in other towns. The Italians intermarried in Roseto, from regional cities in Italy. Families were close knit, self-supportive and independent, but also relied… in bad times… on the greater community for well-defined assistance and friendly help. No one was alone in Roseto. No one seemed too unhappy or too stressed out. And the proof was a heart attack death rate almost half of everyone else around them. Wealthier towns suffered from heart disease though their medical facilities, diet and occupations were either better or at least equal than available in Roseto.

As the 20th century “progressed,” Rosetans began to adopt more “normal” social practices: consumerism and class differentiation rose, those three-generation households became nuclear families, where and from whom they bought goods and services widened. Were there gains? According to most of us, probably. But everything about the place and people began more and more to resemble “the real world.” Crime rose. Heart disease developed.

Why? Fundamentally, loneliness took up residence.

German sociologist Georg Simmel thought leaders must give people something important to fight about or they will fight over something picayunish. Or they might fight over something minor because they can’t set their faces to deal with a big issue. (I suspect every religious community and nation know that avoidance tactic: argue about the carpet because they can’t deal with the empty pews.) Simmel’s point is that conflict in human life is inevitable.

It is also true that people must belong to something bigger than themselves. If they don’t belong to a worthy someone or something in a good and real way, they may seek connection in ways that damage themselves or others.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, referring to an article written by Michael C. Bender in the Wall Street Journal, wrote:

Bender’s description of… Trump superfans… captures their pre-Trump loneliness. “Many were recently retired and had time on their hands and little to tie them to home,” writes Bender. “A handful never had children. Others were estranged from their families.” Throwing themselves into Trump’s movement, they found a community and a sense of purpose. “Saundra’s life had become bigger with Trump,” he says of a Michigan woman who did odd jobs on the road to fund her obsession. There are many causes for the overlapping dysfunctions that make contemporary American life feel so dystopian, but loneliness is a big one. Even before Covid, Americans were becoming more isolated. And as Damon Linker pointed out recently in The Week, citing Hannah Arendt, lonely people are drawn to totalitarian ideologies. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships,” Arendt concluded in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” describing those who gave themselves over to all-encompassing mass movements.

American loneliness is a problem. A big problem. It has been for a long time.

Loneliness is, of course, not just an American problem. A few years ago, England established a Ministry of Loneliness. But America’s core ethic, built on capitalism’s cultural fracking, rewards individuals free to work, buy, move, consume, and to pursue themselves. The U.S. also might be the world’s prime example of what sociologist Emile Durkheim predicted: a society infected with anomie, a rootlessness that issues in anti-social behaviors such as crime, violence, and suicide.

As the nation’s conflicting social, political, and religious responses to the pandemic make clear, the answers to the questions of whether or not we belong to the same nation and recognize our social ties are something between “it depends” and “no.”

We must belong to something greater than ourselves. Culturally, we get that message in nearly every Christmas movie, which are mostly about belonging to a family (from which someone in the movie was previously estranged). In The Lion King, Mufasa introduces Simba to the circle of life. People join cults and dive down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Religious communities should be experts both in belonging and in connecting people with someone bigger than themselves. Indeed, many, many religious communities do one or both of these reasonably well. Some do this core religious work extremely well.

That said, the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon of “spiritual but not religious,” claiming spirituality apart from religious institutions, grows. Religious communities are meaningful places of belonging for a smaller percentage of the population than was the case in recent past decades. Why is that?—and the answer should not simply name attractions elsewhere rather than looking square-shouldered at our own deficits.

Religious communities could do better in ameliorating the pandemic of loneliness.

There is a telling saying about belonging in Baptist circles that introduces the question of who and what any particular attendee actually belongs to. “Those that come on Sunday morning love the church. Those who come on Sunday night love the pastor. Those who come on Wednesday night love the Lord.” People belong for different reasons, and those reasons deserve assessment.

In our religious communities, to whom and what do we invite people to belong? Is that who or what sufficiently true, real, beautiful, and powerful to draw persons out of their loneliness and thaw their frozen hearts? Is there anything more and better we can do to diminish the public health crises growing from this nation’s deep-rooted loneliness?

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

Comments are closed.