“The new survival unit is no longer the individual nation; it’s the entire human race and its environment. This newfound oneness is only a rediscovery of an ancient religious truth. Unity is not something we are called to create; it is something we are called to recognize.”
-William Sloan Coffin
Before Covid-19, doctors and researchers identified another pandemic: loneliness. According to a recent survey of more than 20,000 US adults conducted by Cigna and Ipsos, loneliness has more than doubled in the past few decades. Dr. Frank J. Ninivaggi writes, “Those feeling lonely at any age perceive others are not listening to them, taking them seriously, or making eye contact, and either explicitly or implicitly dismissing them. This perception, whether or not it is reflective of reality, reinforces feeling disconnected, dismissed, and uncomfortably isolated.” Loneliness springs from the perception of isolation and the impact of this perception on physical health is staggering. From heart health to life expectancy to compromising the immune system, the impact of loneliness is profound. The critical nature of connection and loneliness makes sense both theologically and evolutionarily.
Theologically because we are created in the image of a Triune God. We’ve been created to reflect the eternal relational dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Evolutionarily because we are mammals, we are hard-wired as pack animals and made for connection and interdependence. The spread of Covid-19 has the potential to inflame the already existing pandemic of loneliness all the more. Or, it could be the very gateway to healing our deeply isolated world and reawaken us to our already existing connection with God, one another, and all of creation. In other words, while Covid-19 is not a blessing, many blessing can flow through it into the world. What if social distancing, this change of pace, this new environment we find ourselves in could be the very cure for loneliness? What if we took full advantage of this new landscape to reach out and connect in ways that healed the perception of isolation?
Even on the surface, the Coronavirus has revealed how utterly connected we all are. Even as we close borders, shut down airports and socially distance, this virus spreads. The illusion of separation and independence has evaporated in the reality of our interconnectedness. We are deeply dependent on one another and immersed in a symbiotic system. But often times it takes suffering to wake us from the delusion of separation and isolation. When the Anglican poet John Dunne laid sick (and he believed to be dying) in bed, unable to tend to even his most basic needs and relying on others for his very survival, he suddenly realized the interconnectedness of all life and penned the famous line:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less.”
We are not isolated islands, we are parts of the whole. And our current suffering can wake us up out of the delusion of our isolation. It can invigorate us to live with a fresh energy for connection. Just this morning my 83 year old mother shared a story with me that a high school friend, from Lamoni, Iowa, a person she had not talked to since graduation, called her to say hello! These two had not connected in decades but the space created by Coronavirus inspired her to reach out and reconnect with my mom. She was grinning ear to ear as she told me the story! On NPR,a trucker shared that he was working over-time as an essential employee, sometimes 70 hours a week or more. His ex-wife, with whom he did not have a great relationship, reached out and offered to go to the grocery store to make sure he was taken care of. When he got home, his fridge was stocked with all his needs. He called his ex-wife to pay her for the groceries and a little extra for her time but she refused any payment. She simply said she wanted to make sure he was alright in the middle of all the craziness. Suffering can call us to “appeal to the better angels of our nature.”
As Pat has mentioned, members of the clergy, vestry, and care team have been calling all our parishioners. Every person I’ve talked with felt genuine appreciation for the call and many would become tearful as we prayed on the phone. What I have known in the past but is landing presently in much deeper ways, is that each of us is radically connected with everyone else. We have an incredible capacity to influence our world. And even the smallest act of compassion, like a phone call or buying groceries can help cure the pandemic of loneliness. So let’s view this season of social distancing and physical isolation as an opportunity to impact lives through fresh connection and kindness. In other words, while Covid-19 is not a blessing, many blessings can flow through it to heal our lonely world.
Rev. Greg Farrand