Two years ago I heard some remarkable comments by a senator in Nebraska who was addressing how as a culture, America has become socially disconnected. He explained that we are becoming a society lacking the social rootedness of earlier times due to the fast-paced, ever-shifting way we now live. Sen. Ben Sasse’s book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal,” goes far deeper into the problems of social isolation than its title conveys. The message of the book focuses on the urgency to build relationship and connection in ways that result in grounding us as members in community.
As a person who offers peer support to individuals with mental health challenges, I so much appreciate his message. In my years at GreenTree Peer Center I have seen how the participation of people in relationships that validate them as individuals with unique qualities and potential has been so healing and so beneficial for their mental and their physical health. It is my firm belief that through real connection and shared experiences, we increase the relatability, the common ground we have, together. For many readers, this relatability is something taken for granted. Yet for our elderly and for the many groups of socially marginalized individuals in our own community, disconnection is dangerously real.
In recent years, several studies have revealed that social isolation and even an individual’s perception of his/her isolation can have significant consequences to not only mental health, but physical health. Ironically, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the consequences of social isolation have a high human cost and a financial burden that we have not adequately addressed.
And now, we are hit by the biggest social disrupter in our time. The pandemic has caused us to physically distance ourselves, interrupting our usual social routines that might have included employment, education, play, shopping and health care appointments. This has impacted all of us.
In spite of the benefits of technology and our relative nimbleness to undertake some necessary operations through online networks, we have to question the quality of virtually based relating versus communication in person, individual to individual, where attention and privacy create the truest, simplest social connections. Further, the fact remains that even in our affluent society, many either have no access to these technologies or they do not know how to access and use them.
The impact of the pandemic and other significant social struggles has consequences for us all. But the already vulnerable socially isolated individuals may sense that the little rug they sit upon is being pulled out from under them.
So here is a challenge for our local community: What if we each chose to reach out and connect two or three times per week with five individuals whom we know may be at higher risk of the harm caused by social isolation?
What would this really demand of us? Moreover, what might be gained if a person who has experienced isolation sensed that he or she was less alone during this world crisis?
A periodic check-in and conversation from someone who becomes even just a little consistent in a person’s life can help him or her feel connected to the larger community, can help that person sense that some of what is being experienced is universal, that he is part of our local community and that we will help each other get through this. What if ongoing contact with another were the one thing that helps a person re-frame what he is experiencing with hope instead of despair?
There has never been a more crucial time for us to look around at the faces and circumstances in our community and to reach out to individuals, throw them a lifeline, and find how enriched our own lives can be by connecting and relating to others in our world.