Go Together: Healing in the Epidemic of Loneliness

Spiritual Formation for Wounded Healers – Part 2

In 2018, I was wrapping up a manuscript on what became Deep Roots, Wild Branches. I was pastoring a group of people, while trying to describe this impending sense that societally we were living through a heightening crisis of isolation and loneliness. In a network society, while we are hyperconnected all the time, never have we been more alone. Isolation is the great soul wound of our time. I was pointing out how in a digitally mediated, distanced-contact world, trapped in the individualism of the modern condition, we were lonely.[1] 

Somehow, I have weaved this theme into all of my work. For over a decade now I’ve advocated for “fresh expressions of church” or what I call in Painting with Ashes “church in the wild.” For me, this is a way of joining God’s disruptive cause amid the fragmentation and isolation of society. God’s answer to isolation is communion. That communion manifests in an authentic but imperfect community where people can find healing.[2]

In 2021, various people helping professionals began to use the language of “the epidemic of loneliness.”[3] Contrary to popular belief, Covid did not create this phenomenon, rather it accelerated a storm that had been brewing for at least decades. GLOO is an organization that serves the church by “supporting it with powerful technology.”[4] In a recent presentation I attended a GLOO representative shared that the most popular search topics in 2022 were “sadness, relationships, and loneliness.” In the last 30 days the three major internet searches were: “loss, anxiety, and prayers.”

How can we help individuals, communities, and the world heal from these wounds?

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk psychiatrist, researcher, educator, and author of The New York Times best seller The Body Keeps the Score, writes, “Traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships.”[5]

While spiritual formation is often thought of in an individualistic way in the West, this is a journey in which it’s best to have company. Or as the often-quoted African proverb states,

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

One of the key ideas in Painting with Ashes is the African anthropological framework of ubuntu: a person is a person through other persons. Ubuntu highlights the interdependency of humanity. All individuals are woven together in a single interconnected organism. We are harmed in community, a bundle of relationships, and we can only be truly healed in community.

As Fred Rogers was fond of saying, there are a lot of people who “loved us into being.” We often think of healing as an individual enterprise. We go to the specialist, therapist, or spiritual director, who helps us form a healthy sense of self. But we cannot fully have a healthy sense of self that is not integrated in community. That kind of healing is illusory at worst, fleeting at best.

Regarding healing in the context of relationships, families, loved ones, AA meetings, veterans organizations, religious communities, or professional therapists, Dr. Kolk shows, “The role of those relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety, including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged, and to bolster the courage to tolerate, face and process the reality of what has happened.”[6]

My hope is that you would find a couple of close friends, co-workers, family, or church members, and work through this series as a team. Additionally, the guidance of a spiritual director, therapist, or counselor can also be helpful. Or—find an anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul, and cara is the word for friend. A soul friend is a safe person who acts as a teacher, companion, sponsor, or spiritual guide. The origin of a soul friend is grounded in the idea of confession. This is a confidant to whom you confess and reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.

People share healing when they invite others to touch their wounds.

As an abandoned street kid, in and out of juvenile detention facilities, experiencing a healing church community that was accessible, safe, and real, changed the trajectory of my life. Let me unpack what I mean by those words:

Accessible: close, contextual, and speaks a shared common language.

Safe: an environment of grace and inclusion, a place of healing not harm.

Real: authentic, transparent, where people are honest about their real wounds, and real healing is taking place.

Weakness is transformed into superpower in a communal atmosphere of grace where people are free to be vulnerable.

Communities that are accessible, safe, and real, can allow people to process their trauma in an unfiltered way. Cultivating these healing communities, where people can paint with ashes, can help heal the world. This can happen in individual, religious, and organizational contexts.

I have seen teams apply these concepts even in the context of for-profit businesses. There is often an “elephant in the room.” The great weakness or challenge that organizations often can’t see or ignore because they are blinded by the confining contours of the accepted mental model. But when teams can become aware of these “organizational wounds” they begin a journey of helping their organization heal and become more resilient.

I am a Christian, and so I designed this series to lean into the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, but that is not a pre-requisite for this to work.

This blog series is meant to function in compliment with a bundle of resources:

I hope that you will find these simple tools helpful in introducing a group of people to the idea that spiritual formation can heal our wounds. In the following posts I’ll introduce a framework that can help us move through…
• Loss
• Surrender
• Restoration
• Flourishing
Let’s “go together” on a journey towards healing amid an epidemic of loneliness.

[1] Beck, Deep Roots, Wild Branches https://www.amazon.com/Deep-Roots-Wild-Branches-Revitalizing/dp/1628246227/

[2] Beck, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions https://www.amazon.com/dp/1501899090/

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-new-discontents/202111/the-epidemic-loneliness

[4] https://www.gloo.us/

[5] Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York, New York: Viking, 2014), 251.

[6] Kolk, 251.

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