Just this month, a video of a dog “missing” his human went viral.
The clip accumulated over 112,000 views. The dog was captured carrying his owner’s shoe onto the couch and curling up with the treasured footwear.
Now, the footage assumes the dog is lonely (maybe he just likes a good shoe to chew). But the number of video views suggests that the dog’s loneliness is speaking to people. It is meeting them in their present struggle.
Consequently, many trending, current articles highlight the negative implications of loneliness imparted by social isolation and quarantine.
But what exactly is loneliness in a pandemic?
Is it the resulting emotion from physically being alone, or is it rooted in something deeper?
A temporal perspective?
The elderly and those at the highest risk of catching COVID-19 are the focus of much discussion surrounding mental and emotional well-being. Research suggests negative correlations between loneliness and cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and cognitive health. Medical studies list depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances as some of the major implications of social isolation.
Some even point to the potential for lasting negative impacts on our youth.
The wealth of data that highlights the detrimental impacts of loneliness cannot be ignored. As humans, there is a substantial and harmful relationship between feeling alone and physical health. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) is now treating loneliness as a health priority.
And while social isolation and lack of community most certainly leave us craving intimate human connection, this article left me to consider what lessons we might reap during this pause for solitude.
Is this plague of loneliness, at least in part, due to a perspective rooted in the temporal?
Called to gather but commanded to stay home
Community is good.
In fact, we are called to gather. Psalm 133:1 says: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”
There is no doubt about the value of worshiping and communing with fellow believers. Hebrews 10:24–25 reminds us: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
But we are also called to obey the government: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).
So then, given directives to limit exposure to those around us, are we destined to loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety, and the host of other ailments associated with social isolation? Or does quarantine offer a situation in which physical interaction is restricted but community does not have to be wiped clear?
Is the social isolation from the novel coronavirus simply perceived?
Can we combat it with a shift in perspective, a sharpened toolbelt, and the mental armor of our Father?
Loneliness is a disease that spans generations
YoungMinds, an organization aimed at empowering young people to speak up for their mental health, conducted a study of parents and caregivers finding that 67 percent were concerned about the long-term impact of coronavirus on their children’s mental well-being.
But it isn’t just COVID-19 that has sparked isolation. A study before the pandemic estimated that isolation impacted over eight million older adults.
In “How to avoid elderly loneliness during COVID,” eighty-six-year-old therapist Katharine Esty explained: “Aging well is really all about connections and being socially active.” A study conducted in New Zealand supports Esty’s viewpoint, pointing to remaining socially engaged as one of two integral factors to health in the centenarian populace, with abstaining from cigarettes listed right alongside it.
And the young adult population isn’t at any advantage. Named the loneliest generation before quarantine, it seems that those aged eighteen to twenty-nine struggle with factors such as an overwhelming exposure to social media and lack of person-to-person interaction.
A 2020 silver lining
Isolation and loneliness continue to be two real hurdles to present-day health, and the pandemic hasn’t helped.
The first begets the second. But does it have to? Or rather, does it always?
In “Loneliness Hasn’t Increased Despite Pandemic, Research Finds. What Helped?,” Joanne Silberner paints the picture of quarantine and social isolation in a very interesting light. Silberner describes several studies that point to the halt of the social-media-coined ailment “fear of missing out.” She also describes the camaraderie that a joint human struggle has established and how it has lifted the weightiness of loneliness rather than adding to the issue.
Psychologist Jonathan Kanter of Washington University stated: “That sense of solidarity that people are feeling when they are collectively under some threat together—when they are collectively going through a challenge together—seems to be a real strong protective factor.”
“Protective factor”—Kanter’s words struck me.
If we can find protection and comfort in a joint fight against a novel virus, can we not find that much more protection and comfort in our joint fight against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:12)?
Silberner’s article references the silver lining to quarantine. To quote Kanter again: “If there is any silver lining to this [pandemic]—and it’s really hard to speak of silver linings—it is that so many people are finding ways to connect and finding ways to keep relationships.”
People are discovering mechanisms to combat loneliness, even when they are alone. They are finding ways to be content in the still, quiet, and maybe lonely confines of their homes. They are understanding the means by which they might connect and maintain relationships despite a lack of physical proximity.
And they are uncovering strength in facing a struggle with the rest of the human race.
Shields, helmets, and swords
Some are even getting creative with ways to lower risk while still gathering with a select few. “Quarantine bubbles” and “quaranteams” are new buzzwords founded on the premise of physically interacting within a group who remain isolated from people outside one’s quaranteam.
Videoconferencing church meetings via Zoom have become popular. Volunteers from a high school in Colorado are equipping their local elderly community with the skills to navigate online video resources and other technological avenues for engagement. One participant of the program humorously offered: “You now have to get dressed to come to church on Sunday. You can’t come in your pajamas anymore.”
Is loneliness a real threat in these unprecedented times?
I believe the answer is yes.
But I also believe there is hope for an enlightened perspective and a shift in our point of view.
While we may be alone, there is space to build new relationships and maintain present ones—if we are willing and able to take advantage of technology and the reduced risk its protocols offer.
And the evidence of strength discovered in a shared struggle positions churches and Christian communities to remind Christ followers that we are fighting something much larger than a crown-shaped virus.
We are fighting Satan and the temptations of a fallen world—together.
So let us put on the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and pray hard for whatever the second half of 2020 holds (Ephesians 6:16–18).
We might be the only people in our homes, but we are never alone, for he is with us—always.