I just finished reading a fine article in Maclean’s by Scott Gilmour, entitled Donald Trump and our Crisis of Loneliness. It offers food for thought, and I recommend it.
Gilmour makes an extraordinary link, one that, at first glance, might be considered suspect: he connects the increasing isolation and loneliness experienced by many people in Western society with the sudden rise of far-right politics in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
Gilmour writes, “According to researchers around the world, there is an epidemic of isolation. The new normal is loneliness.” He continues, “There is a very good chance you feel lonely, too. Statistics Canada calculates that approximately six million Canadians ‘live an isolated existence.’ Several surveys report that up to 45 per cent of Americans, 60 per cent of Australians, and 66 per cent of the British report feeling regularly or frequently lonely.”
All of us feel lonely from time to time; in and of itself that may not be completely negative (it may create a longing to connect, for example). But it’s those words “regularly” and “frequently” that grab my attention.
Gilmour carries on: “It is also likely you are lonelier today than you were yesterday. As individuals, the number of close personal connections we have declines every year after university or college. And each succeeding generation is making fewer meaningful friends than the previous one. In Canada, the number of us who live alone has quadrupled since the 1950s.” In the same vein, “A Duke University study found the number of people who have no confidants at all tripled in recent decades.”
Chronic loneliness has profound personal implications: “[Loneliness] has a significant impact on our health—[it] increases the odds of an early death by 26 per cent. Some research suggests it is as harmful as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and is twice as deadly as obesity.” The more lonely you are, the more alienated you feel, the more aggressive you become, and “the more you see other people as threatening. You even get dumber, vocabulary drops and you find it harder to focus.”
But here is the connecting point to today’s politics, and this is what really gets my attention: the demographic most affected by today’s loneliness epidemic is older white men. I have written elsewhere about the alarming statistic that, in mainstream society, older white men are more at risk of suicide than any other group of people—and 8 times more likely than women of that age group. And it is that demographic that has been especially powerful in launching the far-right political agenda espoused by Donald Trump in the U.S., Marie le Pen in France, the AfD Party in Germany, Geert Wilders in Holland, and others.
Could it be then that the answer, the antidote to our politically troubled times is community? Could it be that turning around today’s perilous, militarist posture in the United States and elsewhere requires us to build relationships, friendships, connectedness?
If so, then the dangerousness of our time makes all the more necessary approaches like Shalem’s restorative practice, where the focus is on creating safe spaces for real conversations that deepen relationship and build stronger, more connected communities. Indeed, developing relationships, including healthy relationships with people with whom we disagree, may be the central feature of God’s political calling in our time. Otherwise, we may face the calamitous consequences of an isolation that has taken us too far down the path of alienation and fear.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is the Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network. He is coauthor of Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, Foreword by Desmund Tutu (Baker, 2008).