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Social Distancing and the Underlying Condition of Loneliness

By March 18, 2020Church, Leadership

Social distancing.

Now that’s a phrase that has catapulted into everyday conversations. In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has asked people to gather in smaller and smaller groups while maintaining six feet of separation. Since the virus spreads from person-to-person, creating the appropriate distance reduces the likelihood of infection and slows the spread of transmission.

People who have underlying medical conditions such as chronic lung disease or asthma, diabetes, or recent cancer treatments are most at-risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19.

Social distancing is intended to create a safe environment for the most vulnerable among us. Medically-speaking it’s an effective response to a new, unknown virus.

A few days ago, I hosted a Facebook Live session to talk with people about how to remain steady under pressure. During the event, I was asked about how to handle the social isolation that social distancing has created. It was a great question.

My initial response was that, in some ways, social media has already created a social distance between people and that the current guidelines may only be exasperating the problem. In other words, our culture has an underlying condition called loneliness. In fact, in an article from January of 2019 the Health Resources and Services Administration called it the “loneliness epidemic.”

Here are a few key points from the article:

  • Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • One in five Americans say they feel lonely or socially isolated.
  • 28 percent of older adults live by themselves.
  • Friendships reduce the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases and can speed recovery in those who fall ill.
  • As a force in shaping our health, medical care pales in comparison with the circumstances of the communities in which we live.

For many elderly people with limited social networks, many of the places where they had regular connections have been shutdown or cancelled — church services, cafeterias, gyms, and card clubs. For a demographic with an underlying condition of loneliness, this can be devastating.

Regardless of age, for people who already feel lonely, social distancing quickly becomes social isolation. While introverts might enjoy it for a day or two, even they are at-risk of eventually feeling isolated and disconnected. For all of us, prolonged periods of social isolation is not emotionally healthy.

Simply put, we were created to be relational beings and need human contact. While social media allows us to stay “connected” during times when we must be separated, there is no substitute for real, live, person-to-person contact. There are times when the best response to a grieving friend is not a text message but a hand on the shoulder.

When a friend is struggling, the ministry of presence is most effective when we are able to be physically present. Even without speaking (and often it’s best to not speak), our simple presence communicates care, love, and compassion.

How can we practice social distancing without increasing the severity of our social isolation?

Let me start by saying, I’m a pastor, not an infectious disease expert (though I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express one time). For the best medical guidelines to follow, stick with the CDC and other experts. But here are a few things we can do to increase our human connection while practicing social distance.

  • Use your phone to make a phone call. I know that sounds novel and even weird to some people, but there is something powerful about hearing the human voice.
  • When possible, use Facetime or Google Hangout to do a video call. Many work teams are doing this by default. You might have to give your parents or grandparents a quick tutorial, but it will be worth the effort.
  • Take a walk with a friend or family member.
  • Send a note through the mail. The written word communicates intention and thoughtfulness.
  • Ask a circle of friends to all do the same thing at the same time – where ever they may be. For example, you might set a daily alarm for 3 pm to pause for 5 minutes and pray for each other.
  • Create a watch party on Facebook and invite friends to watch a video with you. You can comment in real-time with each other and have a shared experience.

We will survive coronavirus and emerge on the other side. In the meantime, let’s not further isolate ourselves from each other and emerge with more disconnection, isolation, and loneliness.

Let’s step and be human.

Experience and Background

  • 25+ years of senior leadership experience
  • masters in management and leadership
  • presenter at the WFX National Conference
  • former president, Church Planters of the Rockies
  • helped start 2 for-profit tech companies

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