A friend of mine works at a health clinic in a medium-sized town in the Midwest. He told me about a peculiar kind of patient that comes in for treatment. They are young and old, rich and poor. They are men and women. It is safe to say they represent a cross section of America.
The curious thing about these particular patients is that they are not sick.
They are lonely. He informed me that doctors on the staff told him that an increasing number of patients come in with no illness at all. Although they disguised it, they simply want to talk to someone. They want the attention of someone who cares about them. And the doctors often find the best medicine is a good conversation. After their session, they leave the room happy with some general advice, until the next appointment.
It’s a lonely and depressing world out there. However, I cannot help but think that this story is indicative of something more profound that is happening in America. It stems from the fact that social relationships and the practice of virtue are broken, and it is becoming ever more difficult to repair them.
Loneliness: A Hidden Epidemic
The loneliness problem is very real. It has been called a “hidden epidemic” that threatens vast sectors of the American public. Well over 40 percent of adults in America report feeling lonely. While we live in the most technologically connected age in history, the rates of loneliness have doubled since the eighties.
Loneliness affects physical health, longevity, stress levels and mental health. It also leads people to look for escapes in drugs, opioids, excessive eating, drinking and … conversation.
Loneliness has many causes. One of these is the fact that many more people live alone. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that a third of Americans over 65 and half of those over 85 live alone. Falling marriage and fertility rates also contribute to being alone. More mobile lifestyles facilitate keeping friends and family farther apart than in past generations.
Being alone is the not the only cause of loneliness—or perhaps not even the most common cause. Loneliness can also strike when the person is surrounded by people. In this case, it is not the lack of relationships but the fact that these relationships lack depth and meaning.
Sociologists like Sherry Turkle have used powerful expressions like being “alone together” to describe this new loneliness. She finds that increasing numbers of people may live together but they mediate reality through their electronic devices. Far from increasing connectivity, these devices actually create distance between people by their speed, brevity and remoteness. Unlike face-to-face contact, people can easily hide from others via their virtual connections.
Author Robert Putnam claims in his landmark book, “Bowling Alone,” that a loss of civic involvement is destroying community even while living in the middle of it. Since the sixties, there has been a voluntary withdrawal from community that has left people disoriented and lonely.
Contributing to the problem, the places where people gather today are sterile and uninviting. Places like malls, shopping centers or airports, have become mere places of social collection, in which people congregate (often tethered to a mobile device) but do not speak to each other.
Hence, people are lonely.
Breaking of Communal Bonds
There is a third type of loneliness that is the most prevalent and profound of all. It consists of the loneliness that is caused by the breaking of old communal bonds. This isolation has always haunted modernity and is now taking on more radical forms.
The intense moral bonds of family, occupation, community and church are those that link a person to an identity firmly based in the reality of daily life. They envelop the person in a common life inside virtue. These bonds are the best remedies against loneliness.
Modernity is focused on individuals who construct identities from their surroundings. People look only after themselves. Thus, people are encouraged to engage in what Thomas Hobbes calls a “war of every man against every man,” which creates tension since everyone is looked upon suspiciously as a competitor.
With the waning of communal bonds, modern individuals have constructed some identity in vague memberships in abstract and impersonal groups—whether it be political parties, sport teams, business groups or social movements.
However, these shallow links cannot supply our passionate need for community. Instead, they encourage individualism, and leave people lonely.
This situation helps explain the present loneliness. Now, even these shallower social structures of liberal society are shattered and broken. Our problem, both on the left and the right, is an inability to find identity outside community and virtue. When we can’t find identity, we create it.
Thus, the shattering of community of all types has degenerated into the rise of identitarian politics in which people identify with a world as they imagine it should be. The frenetic intemperance of our days has led to the upending of all moral restraints, allowing people to identify as whatever they wish to be. Ideas and ideological systems can easily be twisted to conform to an imagined reality when there are no social anchors.
The result is that people do not know who they are. They are broken and lonely.
The Quest for Community Will Not Be Denied
What is the solution to this terrible loneliness that haunts our broken society? Most experts look to government. They will employ social workers to visit or call lonely people. They will try to activate volunteer networks to keep lonely people busy. They will look for ways to forge mechanical relationships with others. There will be mountains of studies on loneliness. In the United Kingdom, they even named a minister for loneliness.
However, such solutions only deal with symptoms, not causes.
Like the patients that go to the doctor with no illnesses, lonely people are not searching for mere connections. They are looking for deep relationships that express true concern and confer identity. They are looking for community.
“The quest for community will not be denied,” writes sociologist Robert Nisbet, “for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature – needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status and continuity.”
This powerful quest for true community is what is missing from efforts to overcome the loneliness epidemic. Present efforts do nothing to undermine the present hedonistic and individualistic culture that mass produces lonely people.
Someone might object that communal bonds are not easily re-established. This is true since all things of value require effort and sacrifice. However, these bonds, being natural, are accessible.
The family bond is the first and most fundamental of them all. To the extent that people maintain and strengthen this bond, it is an excellent means to avoid loneliness.
The most powerful and accessible of all these bonds is that of the individual with God through the Church. Anyone, no matter how lonely, can call upon God and be answered. When this bond is in order, all others can follow.
The only real solution to loneliness is a return to a moral order. Until then, we will be like patients asking for treatment for undefined ills that plague our broken and lonely society.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
With evidence of her son's alleged miraculous healing boxed and sealed in front of a portrait of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Bonnie Engstrom gives a reading at a 2011 Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, Ill. (Credit: Tom Dermody/The Catholic Post via CNS.)
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the fresco of the Eucharistic adoration of angels on the ceiling of the church Chiesa di Santo Tomaso, Turin, painted by N. Arduino (1938). (Photo credit: Shutterstock)