Scott Benhase: Faux intimacy

Loneliness is becoming a public health crisis.

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” is the provocative title of the cover story in May’s “Atlantic Monthly.” Author Stephen Marche’s answer is: sort of, but only because it perpetuates a trend that has been present in our culture for some time.

He contends that Facebook offers an illusion of connection, “faux intimacy” if you will, without actual human connection.

Marche reports on the growing data about loneliness. According to one prominent study, about 20 percent of us report that we’re lonely most of the time, and concurrently, doctors are beginning to talk with some alarm about an “epidemic of loneliness.” One such doctor, John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, is a leading expert on loneliness. In his aptly titled book, “Loneliness,” Cacioppo shows how loneliness impacts our physical health. He reports: “When we drew blood from older adults and analyzed their white cells, we found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed.”

Loneliness then isn’t only an emotion. Our whole bodies are lonely. And the data shows loneliness makes us sicker. It is becoming a public health crisis.

Ten years ago I remember reading Robert Putnam’s compelling book, “Bowling Alone,” where he documents the rise of suburbia’s isolation, media’s omnipresence and the instant gratification of technology, all of which makes our separation from one another more possible. Combined with the decline of traditional associative institutions like unions, community groups and churches, we see the result: greater loneliness.

Marche argues we’ve done this to ourselves willfully, but without a conscious awareness of the consequences. As he writes: “We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely.”

I can hear Screwtape and Wormwood laughing out loud right now.

Marche quotes Sherry Turkle, from her book “Alone Together”: “These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time…The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.”

We Christians know about the “ties that bind,” as in the hymn: “Bless be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” I recall the Episcopal Church Ad Project poster from a few years ago that showed a television set with a corporal, paten and chalice atop it with the caption: “Can your TV set give you Holy Communion?”

This growing data on loneliness offers an insightful description of our current mission field. We need to find gospel ways to address people’s loneliness at its core and not superficially -- and by that I mean, only socially.

That probably means more church bowling nights or other group activities are not the answer, although they certainly might help. We need to go deeper and somehow convey the biblical truth from the Genesis creation story that it is “not good” for us to be alone; that God has created us for one another; that St. Augustine was right, “Our hearts are ever restless until they rest in thee, O Lord”; that “there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

God has a mission for us.

Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.