A Nation in Spiritual Pain

Loneliness and fragmentation are literally killing us.

Posted Dec 24, 2017

On this Christmas Eve, there is a deep well of suffering in America.

What we see on the surface is a country with a national emergency of opioid addiction, where loneliness is a greater threat to public health than obesity, and where an increasing number of middle-aged citizens, white people in particular, succumb to “deaths of despair,” suicide, accidental drug overdose, and alcohol-related liver disease.

Economic factors alone don’t account for the rising tide of deaths of despair. Non-white Americans, as well as immigrant citizens, experience the same economic pressures — low wages, high expenses — without the same rise in death rates. 

Perhaps it is in part their historical entitlement that makes white Americans particularly susceptible to today’s existential malaise. Fundamental attitudes toward success and failure may also play a role. According to the results of a recent survey from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, white Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on individual failings than Americans who have no religious affiliations. This is especially true for white evangelical Christians. Half of white Catholics attributed poverty to lack of effort: that is, laziness. Less than a third of African-American Christians agree.

Like the deaths of despair, the white supremacist ideology is a symptom of an ailing society. The illness is spiritual, infecting the soul of our national community. Middle-aged white people are dying prematurely, and white extremists are dominated by the fear of extinction. Their existential fear needs an explanation, so they come up with one: They believe they are doomed by the growth of the non-white population, manipulated by the Jews.

White supremacy on the right finds its reflection in a brand of identity politics on the political left with its own hateful rhetoric, including anti-Semitism, aka anti-Zionism. 

Politically and socially, we are defining ourselves into smaller and smaller subgroups, each looking out for itself. Where once a president inspired the nation with “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” we now feature the politics of resentment — “Look at what they’ve got — I’m entitled to mine!”

A spiritual disorder is one that causes fragmentation and alienation… it is a state of disconnection from one another, from our community, and from the larger whole. At the end of 2017, there are fewer and weaker marriages and families, and no robust institutions to take their place. The individual is isolated, literally dying of loneliness.

Loneliness - yes loneliness, at once a common experience and a deadly stream underlying so much of our social pathology.  Loneliness breeds fear and fury.  When we feel marginalized and disrespected, rejected and isolated, we turn to whatever will accept us and ease the pain...including drugs, cults, and exclusionary hate groups.

You can be lonely in a crowd or even in a relationship  One of the basic ingredients of a good life is having a confidant – someone to tell your troubles to, someone who “gets” you, who “sees” you, who is happy to listen to you. Yet one out of four of us have no confidant outside of the family.  Another one out of four have no confidant at all.

Think about that: half of all Americans have no close friendships.

You and I can begin to heal the nation today.  Look around: Is there someone you haven’t heard from in a while?  Give them a call.  Strike up a conversation with that neighbor who always seems to be alone. Reach out to connect.

If you are lonely right now, it is important to know that you are not alone.  Welcome to the club…and say hello to another member.

We will move forward and find our way through this national emergency, as we have through so many before. The experience will make us wiser, if we keep in mind some fundamental human truths that transcend the politics of the moment: that individuals have innate value, regardless of their productivity, achievement, wealth, or power; and we are in this together — our connections enrich us.  

With these truths in mind, we can move forward to create a whole America that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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