On Singleness: It’s Culturally Isolating

Apparently, a few people read the last blog post and liked it! Shout out to my mom, who read it and said, “There were two typos,” and to my wonderful aunts, who are probably wondering if it’s okay to ask me if there’s a special boy in my life over the holidays. It’s okay. No boy though.

 

This week, I’m zooming out of Christian subculture to see how American culture at large affects singleness as a state of being. I need you to know that I wrote about eleven pages of historical analysis concerning the fragmentation of community in the United States, and then I turned that eleven pages into about three, and then I realized most people probably came to read about Christian singleness and not about how the introduction of refrigeration in the 19th century transformed women’s labor and therefore family life. So I reigned in the feral English major in me and cut it down. You’re welcome!

 

A handful of days ago, a dear friend I lived with in college surprised me with a call. “How are you?” she asked me, with intention, her voice bright and sharp.

 

I sighed dramatically and said, “I never quite know how to answer this question. Most of what happens to me is internal. I’m alone most days, thinking, so almost everything significant happens in my head.” She laughed and agreed. I summarized my current musings, and then asked her, “How are you?

 

“My roommate is never home,” she said plainly. “I’m lonely.”

 

“Me too!” I exclaimed, with relief.

 

The truth is this: even though she has a cool roommate and I live with my parents, we rarely get the chance to spend meaningful time with the people we live with. Nearly all of our close friends are long-distance. Her grad student fiance lives about two hours away and can only visit occasionally.

 

This loneliness is not uncommon.

 

This past year, researchers and scientists exploded into pop culture and announced a “loneliness epidemic.” It sounds extreme. I did the leg work for you; long story short, it’s a great headline, but it’s also true. According to recent statistics, it’s projected that about half of all Americans sometimes or always feel alone or left out. There’s startling medical information accompanying these statistics. Alongside increased rates of anxiety and depression, professors at Brigham Young University discovered that loneliness does increase an individual’s risk for an early death. Social scientist Neil Howe, who coined the term “Millennial”, notes that social isolation causes chronic inflammation, which predisposes lonely people “to serious physical conditions like heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease” (2019). While we’ve known for a long time that social isolation contributes to mental illness, scientists are now discovering loneliness can destroy the physical body.

 

In an interview with Rosaria Butterfield for Desiring God, Monica Geyen writes,

 

“Single women,” [Butterfield] says, “are doing a kind of deep-sea diving that married women are not. When you are married, you have somebody holding your ankles when you’re dangling over the cliff. We’ve got these single women, and nobody is there. Who’s going to hold their ankles?” This is a powerful illustration of what Rosaria calls the ‘crisis of loneliness.’ “We [the church] have created the problem, and now we are asking singles to come up with the solution,” says Rosaria. “To tell a single woman who is already lonely to make it her responsibility to set boundaries in relationships” misses the issue. “We need to do something about this culture of loneliness and lack of family of God in the church.’ She says, ‘Desperate people make idols.’ If we defeat the desperation, perhaps the church can be in the business not only of idol destruction, but idol prevention” (2019).

As Butterfield points out, there are external, systematic factors that contribute to the way we treat each other in the American church. But often, single people are told that it’s largely their fault for their loneliness: “Ask to sit next to someone! Say hello to someone during the greeting time in church! Ask to join a small group! Invite people over!” Often the work is placed on singles to create relationships, and Butterfield argues that loneliness fosters an environment for illness and sin to grow.

What caused this loneliness epidemic? And why is it in the church and Christian culture too?

The answer lies partly in American cultural history, in technological and economic advancement.

The United States became a nation because oppressed Protestants left Europe and came to make a new life, meaning that in many ways Christianity oriented and determined American social life. For decades — centuries, even — culture revolved around church functions and traditions. If you left the church or the church ostracized you, you lost most of if not your entire community, and you might even die without crucial resources the community provided, like healthcare and food.

But in the 19th and 20th century, scientific innovation transformed the world and became the new god. Trains, cars, airplanes, refrigerators, medicine, vacuums, and factories changed the social fabric of the United States: you didn’t need to rely on neighbors for your physical needs anymore. You didn’t need to trade your homemade sweaters for the local farmer’s milk; you just needed money to buy sweaters and milk from the store. In the Western world, people believed (and still believe) technological advancement is the evidence that human beings create their own salvation. This decrease in interdependence created more physical space between Americans; family units became more distinct and separate from each other because they could be more self-sufficient.

 

Then — and this is where the loneliness really begins to tie in — in the 20th and 21st centuries, solitary living became more common. In an excellent Forbes article, Neil Howe explains the increase in solitary living through the generations. The G.I. Generation, who lived through the Great Depression and fought World War II, banked on the post-war economic prosperity by raising their standards of living, padding their savings accounts, and expanding social insurance for senior citizens. The financial prosperity enabled some young Americans to leave their earlier in life home and some elderly Americans to live separately and maintain autonomy.

 

“The retirement of the G.I. Generation coincided with Boomers coming of age. It was the peak of the “generation gap,” and Boomers were as eager to leave their parents as their parents were to leave their kids. The 1970s saw the sharpest decline of any decade in the 20th century in the average number of persons per household. As they’ve aged, Boomers have continued to drive up rates of solo living in each age bracket they’ve occupied” (Howe, 2019).

 

Through this century and about six generations, from 1900 to 2019, living alone became culturally encouraged and celebrated as a signifier of adulthood.

 

So what does this mean for American singles, Christian culture, and the church?

 

Quite simply, more Americans — Christian and non-Christian — live alone than ever before, and as discussed earlier, solo living is associated with serious mental and physical health risks. Neuroscience and theology agree that human beings are social creatures and require a complex, in-person social network in their physical home as well as in their work and recreation.

 

This includes physical touch as well as meaningful conversations. The United States is not a particularly touchy culture, and a very understudied part of social health is the role of physical affection. The lack of physical touch is interchangeably called touch deprivation, touch starvation, and skin hunger, and it’s important to separate the need for physical affection from sexual desire. Personally, I believe touch deprivation is a part of the reason relationships, marriage, and sex are so idolized in both mainstream American culture and Christian culture. Christians see marriage as a solution to the physical craving for touch and the emotional ache of loneliness. Social isolation and touch starvation cripple a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, and single people are especially at risk.

 

In her book The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, Butterfield describes what it was like for her and her husband, Kent, when they were singles:

We remember what it was like to be lonely. We remember the odd contradiction: to be told on the Lord’s Day that you are a part of the family of God but then to limp along throughout the rest of the long week like an orphan begging for bread. We know that chronic loneliness can kill people and destroy their hope and faith. We believe that the Bible’s high calling for singleness compels us to live communally when we can and to feast nightly on meals and Scripture and prayer with doors wide open (34).

Butterfield’s answer to the loneliness epidemic is to break down the physical and emotional barriers we’ve erected as a culture and largely accepted within church culture. Her solution is hospitality.

 

In his book 7 Myths About Singleness, Sam Allberry pushes this concept, saying,

 

“In many other relatively prosperous parts of the West, the assumption is that nuclear families are the basic unit in which we are meant to do life…But the self-sufficient nuclear family is not a concept we see in the Bible. Instead, we see that our spiritual family needs our biological family, and our biological family needs our spiritual family. If the church is our family, then the boundary of our physical family life should be porous and flexible rather than fixed and inviolable” (70).

 

Allberry goes on to state that often, the American version of hospitality is more about entertaining: offering a picturesque dinner in a clean home on a weekend evening instead of opening the house to others with the understanding that they’ll see your dirty laundry, hear you snap at family members, and share the whole of life, which is the truth that none of us are truly self-sufficient in a physical or emotional sense. Allberry calls for everyone to initiate: for marrieds to extend invitations as much as possible, and for singles to be willing to join marrieds in bearing their burdens.

 

This kind of hospitality requires near-constant humility and vulnerability.

 

On February 5th of this year, when I was living off-campus and fighting through the hardest semester of my academic career, I wrote a journal entry about a terrible argument I had that morning with someone close to me, someone I saw every day. I wrote that I almost canceled that evening’s dinner plans with my dear friend Savannah because of it. I didn’t want to be honest with her. I didn’t want her to see me on a bad day.

But I kept the plans because I felt deep in my spirit that I needed to share my wounds. While I chopped red potatoes and fried yellow onion and she grated mozzarella cheese, she asked me how I was, and I answered honestly and disclosed some general information.

 

“I’m sorry,” Savannah said, her voice overflowing with compassion. I could feel her glacier blue eyes burning into me, but I couldn’t meet her gaze.

 

“It’s alright,” I said, cracking eggs into a pan, which is what we all say when we don’t know how to accept sympathy, and we both let it rest.

 

I asked her to pray over our dinner, and this is what I wrote in my journal about that:

 

Listening to Savannah pray is a privilege. First, she becomes quiet and instills a peaceful pause into the moment, ushering in a sense of God’s nearness. This presence settles onto you, but it is a gentle, welcome weight. She signs happily. Then:

 

“Dear Father, we… are thankful. I ask that you would bless this house, and that clear communication would happen in it.”

 

She pores over the words, speaks them slowly, presses tenderness into them. There is so much intimacy in the weight of her care for me that for a moment, while I write this I could have sworn she took my hand. I know she didn’t but the love was so tangible that her words became material.

 

Even though I was the one lending a house and sharing a meal, I felt like she was hosting me. Hospitality is as much about lending a listening ear and sharing your pain as it is giving a hug, providing a bed, and cooking a warm meal.

 

Ask for more hugs. Listen so well it becomes an act of love. Do other people’s dishes. Ask for someone to listen to your pain. Look for lonely people and find out what makes them feel loved instead of only loving them in the way that works best for you. Instead of withdrawing into yourself, take small steps to reach out.

The point of this post is mostly to validate singles who are struggling within the church and Christian community: the loneliness is not your fault. But I don’t think we should give up on the church and our own subculture either. In a global society that’s becoming increasingly fragmented and isolated, the local church is the blueprint for creating a fulfilling and holistically nurturing social network, and that network is the heart, arteries, and vessels for the lifeblood of the Gospel.

…if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday (Isaiah 58:10, ESV).

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27, ESV).

 

Bibliography:

 

Allberry, S. (2019). 7 Myths About Singleness, Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway.

 

Butterfield, R (2018). The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.

 

Geyen, M. (2019, April 17). Is the Church Breeding Loneliness? Interview with Rosaria Butterfield. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/is-the-church-breeding-loneliness.

 

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on psychological science, 10(2), 227-237.

 

Howe, N. (2019, May 3). Millennials And The Loneliness Epidemic. Retrieved November 14, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/neilhowe/2019/05/03/millennials-and-the-loneliness-epidemic/#45

d314c87676.

 

Narvaez, D. (2010, November 26). Are You or Your Child on a (Touch) Starvation Diet? Retrieved November 21, 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/moral-landscapes/201009/are-you-or-your-child-touch-starvation-diet

 

New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America. (2018, May 1). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from

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