A few years ago, Vancouver asked its residents to name the city’s most pressing social problems. Everyone expected that the primary concerns would be Vancouver’s notoriously high cost of housing. Or the downtown east side’s equally notorious problems of poverty, mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.
“Surprisingly,” writes Gary Paterson, moderator of the United Church of Canada and minister of St. Andrews Wesley church in downtown Vancouver, “it was loneliness and isolation.”
And yet this happens in a time when almost everyone, it seems, has a cell phone. When anyone can be in touch with everyone, anywhere in the world, anytime.
I’m old enough to remember when my mother’s handwritten letters took a month to reach her sisters in Ireland. And it took another month for their replies to get back to her. Yet she could pour out her heart in those letters in a way that simply isn’t possible on Twitter or Instagram.
Sure, you can tell the world that you cooked sausages for supper last night. Or changed your underwear this morning.
But what do you do when your young child has just been diagnosed with a genetic malfunction that could result in permanent paralysis, or even death? Who do you turn to when your life partner has just walked out on you?
That’s when loneliness and isolation envelop you like a thick fog.
It seems to me that most of our modern connections are, if I may coin a phrase, one dimensional. We have contact with people only at a single level. Through work. Or the bridge club. Or the stream rehabilitation project.
Extended families and small towns used to provide multi-dimensional connections. Sometimes they had too many points of contact! Still, even if you didn’t get along with your parents or siblings, there was always an aunt or uncle, a cousin or coach, a lodge buddy or a boss, willing to listen and to care.
But when friends know you only in a single dimension, how can they relate to the wholeness of your life?
Who does a young mom working for a fast-food chain turn to? Her temp co-workers change weekly. Her parents live in another city. The folks at the photo club know nothing but f-stops.
I believe that we need at least three dimensions to create community. Time is one of them, of course. Old friends matter. But just golfing with someone won’t create a new friend. You also need to work beside her at the Food Bank. Or sing with him in a choir. Or share confessions in AA.
A Facebook “friend” in San Francisco isn’t quite the same thing.
By analogy, it’s hard to balance on a one-legged stool. Even on a two-legged stool. A stool needs at least three legs to be stable. Four is better, and most office chairs now have five casters, for even greater stability.
I’d like to think that churches can still offer the kind of multi-layered community that could provide support and encouragement to people who need it. But my generation’s children gave up up on the church years. They’re not likely to look to the church for support. Any church.
So they continue balancing their emotional lives precariously on one-legged stools.