Mother Teresa once said the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible form of poverty. She also described loneliness as the leprosy of the modern world. She piercingly put to words what nearly 40 percent of American adults admitted to feeling in a 2010 survey, up from 20 percent in the 1980s. Our culture is increasingly becoming one of isolation, anonymity and a sinking feeling of being unloved and unknown.
Connie Kinder, a Christian therapist in Nashville, says 85 to 90 percent of her clients wrestle with loneliness. She works at a local counseling center that offers affordable services at a sliding-scale rate, while also running her own private practice. No matter her clients’ socioeconomic status, loneliness is something that touches all people, she says. “Oftentimes, the symptoms can be anxiety, depression, or anger, but as I narrow it down to the core issue, it usually centers around the pain of not being connected relationally.”
The Prevalence of Lonely People
Although loneliness is something the vast majority of people wrestle with, hardly anyone wants to openly address it, says John Ortberg, a Christian author and pastor of the multi-site Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area. “People will readily acknowledge being too busy because that makes them sound important,” he says. “But to say ‘I’m lonely’ is kind of like saying ‘I’m a loser,’ and nobody’s going to like a loser.”
In his most recent book, Soul Keeping, Ortberg examines what it means to have a healthy soul connected to God and to others amid a culture starved by busyness and the pursuit of status and wealth. The loneliness so many people experience has intensified as the forces that used to keep individuals bonded have disintegrated, he says.
“People are much more transient and mobile now, so they move more often,” he explains. “Family strength is much weaker than it used to be and divorce rates are much higher. Beyond that, the sense of belonging to a clan—such as children living in close proximity to their grandparents—also has lessened, as has the presence of church in many peoples’ lives.”
Referencing Robert D. Putman’s well-known book, Bowling Alone, Ortberg points out that connectedness among Americans has steadily declined with every generation since World War II. And according to renowned psychologist Martin Seligman, this has resulted in the meaning of life being narrowed down to the self. The self, Ortberg believes, is way too small a unit to be able to bear the weight of a life alone.