During a recent CNN interview, Ohio Governor John Kasich was asked, "What are some of the surprising things you've discovered out on the campaign trail?" Governor Kasich talked about a number of issues, but ended, for me, with an amazing compassionate discovery. He said, "There are a lot of people out there who are lonely, and they're looking for a place to tell people about their issues. I mean, could you believe that -- that young man?" He referred to a young man's conversation in a Town Hall Meeting.
Our time has been called "The Age of Loneliness." It's estimated by a number of studies that as many as 1 in 5 Americans suffer from persistent loneliness. Twenty-five percent claim that outside of family there is no one to share challenges and triumph with. If family is removed from the equation, the number of lonely people skyrockets to fifty percent.
Once during my many years in South Africa, a young Indian South African asked, "Is everyone happy in America?" My reply, "No, I don't think so. There seems to be a lot of unhappy, lonely people in America." His face showed astonishment. He replied, "That is very surprising. Americans have it all. I mean, opportunities, money, jobs, health care, recreation, and entertainment. There is so much for everyone in America. How can people be lonely?" I then asked him, "Are you happy?" He shot back, "Yes! Absolutely." Intrigued I continued my inquiry, "What makes your life happy?' His answers from a 3rd world perspective were intriguing.
Family Highest Priority
In the traditional South African Indian family, members live in community. It's not uncommon for four generations to live in the same home. When asked about the key to success of so many family members living under the same roof he smiled, "Because all of us is more important than one of us." In his South African Indian accent, it sounded astute and distinguished. Accomplishments by one were shared by all. Success belonged to the family, not the individual. Shame as well, reflected upon the entire family unit. Ultra-individualism found in much of the American culture fell far down his list of his priorities.
Less is More
Another mark of this family, and many others, was the family as a whole tended towards minimalism. Yes, they possessed cars, a house, technology, and other marks of wealth. However, the property belonged to the family, not the individual. In his family of 14 members living under one roof, they shared a community kitchen, each couple enjoyed a small bedroom, three cars, and shared everything else.
Relationship Highly Valued
Invited to a Hindu home in Ladysmith, South Africa for the Festival of Diwali, an Indian family received us warmly. Diwali, it was explained to me by the host family is, "Sort of like Christian's Christmas." The festival signifies for Hindus the victory of light over darkness in the world. For this reason, Diwali is often referred to as "Festival of Lights." The oldest son, sitting between his father and son in a crowded home of family and friends explained, "This is much better than running around looking for entertainment all over the show."
Whether among Zulu, Indian, Coloured, English, or Afrikaner in South Africa, family and relationship trumped other considerations most of the time! Life's highest priority was embedded in others.
Family Extended Beyond Nuclear
Extended family is a custom prevalent in most of Africa and Asia. Once a Zulu church member asked for prayer. Her father passed away the night before. Six months later she made the same request. My thinking, "Paternal and Maternal - father and father in law." Yet, three months later that same lady made another similar prayer request. Afterwards, one of our young Zulu pastors explained, "In Zulu culture all uncles are fathers. I have six uncles, a father, and my mother's father. I have eight fathers."
Whenever a tragedy occurred, the entire family unit pulled together and supported one another. Quite a contrast to a funeral I conducted while pastoring in the United States. An offended adult daughter refused to speak to her mother and father the last years of their lives. Refusing to attend her step-father's funeral, she appeared late for her mother's funeral just three weeks later. She left early complaining "the funeral was a dud."
While performing literally hundreds of funerals in South Africa among numerous people groups, never once did I witness an ugly scene, or caustic event. Yet, during my ten years of pastoring in Minnesota, fighting between family members proved a painful occurrence for which I was not prepared. Unkind words, hateful speech, irreverence, power jockeying, screaming, yelling, name calling, prohibiting attendance of some family members, and the list can go on, and on, and ........................ on. Obviously, not all funerals, but enough. More than enough. Believe me.
Detachment Rather than Attachment
In our age of Social Media, it becomes increasingly apparent that people don't verbally converse with each other as much. Don't get me wrong. I love social media! In fact, recently a young pastor told me, "You're pretty cool for an old guy!" lol Check my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Weebly, and others almost every day.
During our many conversations with family and friends, church and secular, pastors and missionaries, the phenomenon of people fixated to their smart phones is incredible. I've often noticed families in public settings glued to their smart phones sitting in silence with each other. Six young ladies sitting at the other table, right over there, no conversation, just six people conversing with unpeople in the cyber world.
Loss of Conversational Skills
Janet Sternberg, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York who is also a linguist says, "More students don't look her in the eye and have trouble with the basics of direct conversation — habits that, she says, will not serve them well as they enter a world where many of their elders still expect an in-person conversation, or at the very least a phone call."
Employers complain that when hiring, eye contact is rare. Of more concern is the text messaging language used in verbal conversations. The caustic text expressions on social media, are showing up more and more in verbal exchanges. The present Republic Debates sadly reinforce this. The debate platform for several candidates mirror their Twitter comments.
Stuff over Substance
Joshua Becker in his blogsite becoming a minimalist, makes several assertions in his blog 21 Surprising Statistics that Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own. Just a few:
Busyness over Margin
Coaching conversations with many, reveal an incredible lack of margin in most people's lives. High debt reduces financial margin and options. Social Media addiction reduces familial margin. Overly busy lifestyles effect many margins of life. One woman shared, "I'm so busy, there is no margin for anything or anyone in my life. Period!"
Crossway's infogram of Americans Busyness Epidemic illustrates the over-busyness of Americans. Yet, many Americans maintain their busyness offers fulfillment, significance, and helps them feel about themselves.
It makes sense that busyness reduces significant margin for relationships. There just isn't time for friendship investing. And, relationships is the point.
Loneliness - The Slide to Disengagement
Loneliness owes its existence in large part to lack of investment. Malls, money, stuff, social media, and the other things mentioned above provide no remedy for loneliness. The more we seem to possess as Americans, the lonelier we appear to become. Years ago in South Africa, a successful wealthy business man shared, "I am successful, but lonely." Working his way to the top cost him three marriages, and estrangement from family members. He took his own life. "Here's Johnny!" The successful late night entertainer and host of the Tonight Show enjoyed great success, wealth, and popularity. He left a Massive fortune to charity. Yet, he was a lonely man.
In our social media connected world, we are sliding towards disengagement and disconnectiveness. Social Media is not bringing us together. That is not Social Media's fault. It's our fault. Loneliness results from lack of social connection. In our fragmenting over busy over worked society, there is little time for the only remedy; relationship.
Social Connectivity is a Key to Healthier Happier People
There is now a clear consensus among medical researchers that social connection has powerful effects on health. Socially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses. Health and happiness, the two things we all say matter most, are certifiably linked to our social connectedness.
I like the old translation of Proverbs 18:24 in the Bible, "A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." Simply stated, "A person with a friend is a person who is a friend." Perhaps the reason loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in America society is due to our own friendlessness. And perhaps, just perhaps, friendlessness is a byproduct of not investing one's self as a friend to others. If you want a friend, be a friend.
If you want to leave personal loneliness in your rear view mirror, put down the smart phone, turn off the iPad, make some time, and invest friendship into people around you. Friendship investing is fraught with challenges, disappointments, and challenges too. But, friendship and relationship is worth the investment. For therein lies, health, happiness, and purpose.
Are you lonely? Go out and make a friend . . . go ahead. Try it. Invest into people. Spend some time with your Papa and Nana. Ask them about their stories of life.
Visit your parents. They are lonely in their old age because most of their friends are gone now.
Ask your children about their day, and then listen. Treat someone to a cup of coffee at the local coffee shop. Invest, invest, invest.
Spend time with a foster child, or special child, or an autistic child. Go ahead . . . you hold the cure for your loneliness. Look for individuals over large gatherings. Some of the loneliest sit among throngs of people. Find a person. Become a friend. Be a friend. And, hopefully you will make a friend as your loneliness vanishes away.
Just My Thoughts,
Don was born in North Minneapolis, Minnesota. Having served twenty-two years in South Africa as missionaries with his wife Kathy, and eight years pastoring in the United States, he shares unique perspectives about life, family, relationships, and ministry.