In the spring of 2004 during my freshman year of college, I sat on the bottom bunk inside a friend’s dorm room scratching my head. Despite her best efforts to explain the merits of an exciting new website, her enthusiasm only caused greater befuddlement.
“You post a photo of yourself and then list out things you like, where you’re going to school, and what you’re up to . . . stuff like that.”
“Okay, and then what?”
“Well, then you friend request other people on their profile so you both are friends.”
“Okay, then you meet up with them? Or, start chatting with them?”
“Not really, no. You just sort of have them as a friend online. You can read what they like and learn about their interests.”
“Okay . . . why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“I mean, why would you do this? Why not just have coffee and ask them about their interests. What’s the point of collecting online friends like virtual acquaintance baseball cards?“
“It’s a way to connect with more people. You can see their friends, and their friend’s friends, and then you will be more connected with people.”
“Okay . . . why?”
Nineteen years later and I am still not sure I understand the point of Facebook. One thing is for sure, they did promise us that we would be in a more connected world. In fact, that has been the promise of so many technological advancements over the last twenty years. Facebook promised us “to bring people closer together and build relationships.” Instagram wanted to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Twitter asserted that they “serve the public conversation.” Apple gave us FaceTime and gifs in our text messaging. Google gave us gigabytes of data to send instantaneous electronic communications. And, Al Gore gave us the internet (kidding) to connect with people all over the world. If you had told me during my freshman year of college about these promises from technological companies, I probably would have imagined a utopia of connectedness, relationships, encouraging dialogue, and an eradication of loneliness. After all, with smartphones, affordable personal computers, and big technological companies whose mission statements seem to want the best for human flourishing, genuine connectedness should only be one click away. Right?
Why then are Americans in particular suffering under what many sociologists are calling “an epidemic of loneliness?” Maybe technology overpromised and under delivered.
Connected but Lonely
Harvard’s Graduate School of Education recently conducted a study on loneliness in the post-Covid 19 pandemic era. Their findings should rattle doctors, insurance companies, and hopefully Christians who eagerly desire good for their neighbor. According to the authors of the study, 61% of young people (18-25) and 51% of mothers with young children report miserable degrees of loneliness. In this case, misery would quite literally love some company. Unsurprisingly, in young people who reported high levels of loneliness, they also experienced increased levels of anxiety and depression. Lest you think that social distancing due to Covid was the culprit and therefore this problem can easily be remedied, even earlier studies showed this harrowing trend of isolation and its devastating ramifications. In 2018 Cigna—a health insurance company—partnered with UCLA to do a study on loneliness in America. They discovered one in four Americans “rarely or never feel as though there are people that really understand them.” Perhaps most surprisingly, despite all the technological wizardry and opportunity available to them, Gen Z (born 1997-2012) reported the highest levels of loneliness compared to Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and even the Greatest Generation. Cigna and Harvard are putting data to what most of us probably could articulate anecdotally. Take a moment and look around you. How often do you see the azure glow from a cell phone distracting a parent at a child’s baseball game? How often do you drive past nursing homes with empty parking lots from the lack of visitors? How often do we zip through our days attending to the next buzz in our pocket, curating a false sense of identity to project onto social media, and consuming the next show. When was the last time you stopped to look another embodied soul in the eyes and genuinely ask, “How are you?” When was the last time someone asked you that?
If the epidemic of loneliness has reached such alarming rates, what exactly is broken? Clearly Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix do not have the solution. For that we must stop scrolling and instead start tilling.
More specifically, we must return to Eden to figure out God’s design for humanity and why we have careened off the rails regarding relational connectedness. Genesis 1 opens with an introduction to the God who created the world and everything in it. Rather than a God who created through chaos which led to rivalry and strife among the Titans like Hesiod or created through battling other gods to make humans slaves to the deities like Marduk, the God of Genesis created ex nihilo without rivalry, division, or evil. Instead, with the words of his mouth God spoke and it was so. He breathed out waterfalls, giraffes, pomegranates, and the Milky Way galaxy. All that God created was good–no strife, no division, no destruction. You might think to yourself, “Well, yeah, of course there was no strife, there was only one God . . . no one for God to fight against for supremacy.” However, peer a little deeper into Eden and you will encounter three persons participating in creation. God the Father authors creation in verse one, and God the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep in verse two. Then, John in his Gospel retells the creation story and declares the Word—Jesus—was there in the beginning, too. From before “in the beginning” God eternally existed three persons with one shared essence.
What does this mean about our God? It means that from God’s first introduction to humanity through his Scriptures, he let us know that he always existed in community. The Father, Son, and Spirit eternally existed in a triune fellowship of unbroken love, goodness, beauty, and truth. They lacked nothing. God created out of an overflow of love, not from a deficit or from rivalry. Rather than strife, feuding, and subservience, the trinitarian God of Christianity created for the sake of love, goodness, and human flourishing.
After creating the world and then filling it, the camera zooms in on an intra-trinitarian conversation about humans. “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” While Christians worship one God, our God exists in three persons. Plurality of persons. And it’s that plurality of personhood in which God fashions male and female to image. In other words, humans will never experience wholeness and goodness if they live in isolation. God made us to represent him on earth. God is love, we should love. God is just, we should live justly. God is good, we should pursue goodness. And, God is relational, we should live relationally. No human can live a whole, happy, and flourishing life in isolation. We have the data, we have the anecdotes, and we have the Scriptures to prove it.
What does all this mean for us? It means that while careers, entertainment, and hobbies are all wonderful gifts from God, if you do not live in self-donating loving relationships, you will ultimately feel the grip of isolation choking out your peace, joy, and contentment. A longitudinal study that tracked Harvard students for over eighty years came to the unsurprising conclusion that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what kept people happy throughout their lives.” It’s almost as if God from page one of the Scriptures was trying to tell us what Harvard, Cigna, and our own lives have discovered: relationships bring life and isolation kills. God loves you; he wants you to flourish. What if your loneliness is an invitation from God to find relationships that will bring you love, joy, and goodness? What if our inability to be comfortable in isolation is because God wants to nudge us toward wholeness in relationships? What if God wired us for relationship because God wants us to represent him on earth as his agents of love to lonely souls? What if we took God seriously in the garden of Eden? What if we actually believed it’s not good for us to be alone?