Life, Hope & Truth

From the November/December 2018 issue of Discern Magazine

Disconnection: 21st-Century Curse

In this age when so many feel alienated, we all need true connections. Here are three pillars of connection necessary for healthy living.

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“I feel so alone and discouraged,” sobbed a friend while we were talking on the phone. She had lost her job a few months earlier and was also experiencing some health challenges. On top of that she felt cut off by her social circle.

“Hardly anyone calls me to see how I’m doing,” my friend continued. “I haven’t had any visitors, or received any cards or even text messages. I’ve shared some about what I am going through on social media, but people rarely respond. No one has bothered to write, ‘Are you okay?’ or express any kind of real concern.”

My friend’s situation isn’t unique. We live in an increasingly disconnected world. Sadly, many people today go through life feeling lonely and disengaged from those around them, not really connecting with anyone or anything in a meaningful way. The prevalence of detachment is so widespread that many are calling our modern era the age of disconnection.

We can see disconnection all around us: Patrons at coffee shops and restaurants who plug into their phones rather than talk with each other. Cashiers who wear earbuds or headphones while they wait on customers. Nursing home residents sitting by themselves day after day, aching for their kids and grandkids to come by. Customers waiting in line at the supermarket, not making eye contact with anyone else. Homeowners who neither know the names of the people next door nor wave to them when they’re outside.

“Today, with so many demands on our time, so many distractions, and all the digital technology, we have more opportunities than ever to become disengaged,” observes Jacqueline Olds, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of The Lonely American (2010). “We often live our lives on autopilot, putting all our time and energy into things that don’t matter that much in the long run, and severing our connections with the things that really do matter.”

Often it’s the lack of contact with other people that comes to mind when the topic of disconnection is brought up. But that’s not the only type of connection that people are neglecting in today’s culture. Two others are a relationship with God—certainly the most essential connection of all—and contact with God’s creation.

What follows is a brief discussion of these three pillars of connection, including how they are being impacted by societal changes and why they are important for our physical, mental and spiritual health.

  1. Connections with other people

Loneliness can be a matter of feeling excluded or abandoned by others, or it can be something we inadvertently impose on ourselves because of our lifestyle choices. It might mean being physically isolated from other people, or we could be surrounded by acquaintances and feel emotionally detached from them.

This is hardly the way God intended people to live.

We are social beings and need warm, caring relationships with friends and family. Even having just casual, positive exchanges with strangers can make us feel happy. Lack of social contact can lead to depression, burnout, malaise or stress, and can contribute to physical health problems.

Social isolation is increasing globally, particularly in Western nations. In the United States, nearly half of adults are sometimes or always lonely, according to a 2018 survey conducted by health insurer Cigna.

AARP reported in 2010 that the number of American adults who were chronically lonely doubled since the 1980s, from 20 percent to 40 percent. Numerous health professionals have labeled loneliness as a global epidemic or pandemic.

Multiple factors are responsible for the rise in loneliness, but two of the biggest are the intrusion of communications and entertainment devices into our personal lives and our busier lifestyles.Multiple factors are responsible for the rise in loneliness, but two of the biggest are the intrusion of communications and entertainment devices into our personal lives and our busier lifestyles. “We’re often too preoccupied with our smartphones to make casual interactions with strangers or to build the deep relationships we need with family members and friends,” observes University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer.

If we’re waiting in line somewhere, we may pass the time looking at our phones rather than making small talk with people next to us. At home, family members often interact more with their phones, computers and video game consoles than with each other. We might communicate with friends primarily through social media, resulting in a façade of connectedness that can never replace face-to-face interactions.

The fact that most of us are overscheduled and pressed for time makes it even harder to keep relationships going. “After a long work day, housework, going to the gym and running errands, there may be no time left to call friends, meet the new neighbors, or visit someone in the hospital,” Dr. Olds says. “When we are around people, we may be emotionally checked out or standoffish, because we are too tired or stressed to really engage in a conversation.”

Ultimately, as people spend more time with their digital devices and pack more into their busy schedules, it’s creating a society that’s aloof, indifferent, uninvolved and unconcerned about the needs of others, warns Dr. Olds—the exact opposite of being connected.

  1. Contact with God’s creation

Probably we’ve all experienced times when we were feeling down or distraught and then took a walk through a park or other natural setting and felt better afterwards. Access to nature is “fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival,” states Richard Louv in The Nature Principle (2012, p. 3).

Countless studies have been conducted in recent years documenting the therapeutic benefits of nature—everything from controlling and relieving emotional pain and stress to lowering blood pressure, improving mental focus, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, and boosting immune system function.

In addition, contact with nature can point us to God and help strengthen our relationship with Him. When I go outside and observe the wonder of His handiwork, I can’t help but be awed. The swallows building a nest, squirrels gathering acorns, bees collecting pollen, the fig tree loaded with fruit—they all display God’s splendor, creativity, faithfulness and loving care.

And just as David felt humbled as he contemplated the creation (Psalm 8:3-4), we can be reminded that God is our provider and that without Him we are nothing.

But as beneficial as contact with nature is, it’s becoming ever more difficult to come by. In fact, a 2017 report by conservation marketing firm DJ Case and Associates warned that many people have lost a close connection with nature, and that it has become “increasingly normal” to spend little time outside.

The main causes are urbanization and technology. Today 55 percent of the global population lives in urban areas, up from 30 percent in 1950, according to United Nations statistics. Increasingly, people around the world are trading in their rural lifestyles for big-city living. They’re residing in high-rise apartment buildings or houses on very small lots, cut off from the land and having little contact with nature.

Most of their leisure time is spent with their gadgets—not doing outdoor activities or even having backyard gardens like past generations did. Practically everything they’re in contact with is man’s creation instead of God’s creation.

This is not to say that everything mankind has developed is harmful or bad, but rather that when we immerse ourselves in the man-made world, that’s what dominates our lives. The landscape of many American cities is dominated by shopping centers, entertainment venues, billboards, congested streets and concrete.

Much of what is seen, heard and experienced promotes materialism and secularism and brings out the worst in mankind (the “works of the flesh,” Galatians 5:19-21). If this is all we take in, day in and day out, the “cares of this world” (Mark 4:19) can become our focus. They can choke out those things that have eternal value—namely our relationship with God and our connections with other people.

  1. Relationship with God

The root cause of all the disconnection in our world is that society has turned its back on God and the Bible.

According to a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute study, 24 percent of Americans claim no formal religious identity (meaning they identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular”), compared to 6 percent of Americans in 1991. Globally, the Pew Research Center estimates that 16 percent of people in the world are nonreligious.

It’s not a stretch to see the correlation between society’s ailments—all of the violence, greed, division, hopelessness, hurt and anger—and its disconnection from God. Too many people feel empty at the core, with no real sense of purpose to their lives and nothing meaningful to connect to. Without God as their ultimate authority, many people live self-absorbed lives, believing and doing whatever they please.

But even among those who believe in God, many are often not seeking God like they should. Studies by Gallup, the Association of Religion Data Archives, Pew Research, and the Center for Bible Engagement report that Americans today who consider themselves Christians do not pray or read their Bibles nearly as much as previous generations did, nor do they all go to church every week.

Yet it’s our time with God through prayer, Bible study and attending church, along with meditation and fasting, that helps us maintain a strong connection with Him. Why would any Christian omit these vital spiritual tools? Once again, two big culprits are being overbusy and being overconnected to technology. The distractions in this life can crowd out our spiritual lives, just as they can weaken our relationships with other people.

If we make a habit of ignoring God, it won’t be long before we start seeing more of the “works of the flesh” in our lives than the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19-23). We’ll suffer, our relationships with those around us will suffer, and our connection with God will deteriorate.

It may be obvious by now that the three pillars of connection are interconnected. Having contact with the creation helps us draw close to God. When we’re connected to God, our relationships with other people improve.

We should always be on guard to make sure we don’t neglect any of these connections—even if that’s what the world around us is doing. We need to make sure we’re connecting with the things that have true value, that we’re not giving too much of our time to what doesn’t, and that we’re disconnecting ourselves from what is contrary to God’s way of life.

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