Overcoming the loneliness epidemic

There is the faintest hint of crispness in the dawn these days, just a little teaser that alludes to autumn's approach. The seasons are shifting. A previously quick early-morning grocery run took 45 minutes transit time one way yesterday. Back-to-school traffic is a real thing, friends.

September is a season of gathering. Everywhere we go, it seems we are gathering in groups: in classrooms, on sidelines, in newly formed committees, on crowded planes and subway cars, on Braddock Road at 7:40 a.m. We are always together. And we are increasingly alone.

Last night, I read the text from a sweet teenaged girl barely into her first week of school: I just feel left out and lonely. My daughter - several years older than the message sender - got up, grabbed her keys and told me she was off to deliver a milkshake. On her way out, she paused a moment and glanced back at me over her shoulder.

"I don't know why we all think we are the only ones who are lonely," she said. "Actually, I think we're all lonely."

She's right. We are.

The go-to cure for loneliness in 2015 is to log-on. Flip open a laptop. Click open a smartphone app. There you go; you're now surrounded by oh-so-many people. And many, many times they will make you lonelier still. As we scroll through everyone's edited versions of themselves, it seems like all those faces are close to other faces. They have to be. They huddle together to fit in the frame and freeze the moment for publication, thereby ensuring a perfectly preserved testimony to togetherness.

Social media can make it seem like everyone has lots of friends and they are all doing spectacularly fabulous things together all the time. The illusion is achingly close to being real, and then it's not real at all. Those events are happening and there are connections in those moments, but all is not as it seems.

Away from the moment - away from the filters and the framing - people are lonely. Even in the midst of the crowds of people drinking lattes on stadium seats on Saturday afternoons and gathering on bus stop corners on Monday mornings, we are each in our own bubbles, yearning for connection. Increasingly, studies show that the more time we spend online, the more likely we are to use social media to displace sleep, exercise and face-to-face exchanges, leaving us vulnerable to loneliness, a sense of isolation and true depression.

If we are going to cure the loneliness epidemic, we have to reach into the personal spaces of the people we care about and offer something better that what the screen holds. Together, we have to engage in authentic opportunities for relationship. Together, we have to commit to face-to-face (or at least voiced and heard) conversations.

Relationships require risk. They ask us to put down the mask and to step out, unfiltered, into the presence of another person. More than hashtags, we are a people who yearn for authentic, honest conversation.

To move beyond loneliness, we need to be the person who sees the need for the real, genuine presence of warmth in the lives of people around us and decides to be that friend. We need to be the girl who shows up with a milkshake in real life at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night and says, "You feel that way? Me, too."

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015

@elizabethfoss