Epidemic of Loneliness

The more things change the more they stay the same

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Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us, “Nothing is new under the sun!” This verse came to mind not too long ago when I was paging through a very intense advisory from the surgeon general who declared that loneliness is of epidemic proportions in America. The advisory entitled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” seemed shocking to many who had a hard time understanding how loneliness could be as serious a health risk as heart disease or diabetes, but that is just one of the many conclusions given by the surgeon general.

Among other things, the advisory found:

— Living in isolation reduces our chances of survival, and social isolation increases the risk of premature mortality by 29%.

— Poor social relationships, social isolation and loneliness can increase your risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%.

— Among older adults, loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of developing dementia by 50%.

The report, close to a hundred pages long, could be considered overwhelming and depressing given the fact that isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic only added insult to injury when it came to an already serious problem in society. But at the end of the day, for people of faith, the report is a stark reminder that what we do matters and that belief in God celebrated in the community, as the advisory also indicated, is part of the solution to solving this ongoing problem.

“Religious or faith-based groups can be a source for regular social contact, serve as a community of support, provide meaning and purpose, create a sense of belonging around shared values and beliefs, and are associated with reduced risk-taking behaviors,” the report said.

It also placed faith-based organizations in the same category as sports groups, volunteer organizations and member associations; efforts that bring people together such as these types of communities result in participants being more connected and better able to handle problems and challenges.

Nothing new under the sun indeed. As a matter of fact, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy’s suggestions on how to address loneliness would be very familiar to those of us in ministry, including diaconate couples, often involved at the parish level and beyond in efforts to reach those, as Pope Francis says, who are on the peripheries. Murthy insists we must move toward more “social connection.” That’s what he calls it. As Christians, we would refer to it as loving one another and doing unto others knowing that no matter how advanced we become, no matter how much we move forward with artificial intelligence, nothing replaces the real thing as in relating to one another. He suggests:

— Answering a phone call from a friend.

— Inviting someone over to share a meal.

— Listening and being present during conversation.

— Seeking out opportunities to serve others.

It’s stunning to think that such basic commonsense steps in human kindness and decency are so lost on society that they must be front and center in a major advisory from the top medical official in the country. But that’s where we find ourselves. It may be sad, but there is a silver lining. Whenever we feel we’re not making a difference; whenever we get frustrated or believe that we have to develop a new program, a more exciting parish event, remember that old Catholic hymn, “They’ll Know We Are Christians.”

As one of our diaconate instructors told us early on in our formation process, if you want to be a good Christian, start by just showing up. The surgeon general’s advisory affirms this and it should additionally affirm us as we continue to serve God and his people in the ministry of the diaconate.

TERESA TOMEO is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio, and the author of “Beyond Sunday: Becoming a 24/7 Catholic” (OSV, $14.95). She is married to Deacon Dom Pastore, an ordained deacon in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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