Tag: Loneliness and mortality

The Compartment Conundrum

I’ve been thinking lately about community and human connectivity. It’s becoming more and more dear to my heart as I see the divisive nature of our public discourse and the dismissive attitude so many have toward those whose lives differ from their own. Indeed, I realize I’m as guilty in these tendencies as any of the folks I’d target for my ire. At the same time, I remind myself that in my work here at UAB, with Support Teams, with The Wholeness Project, and with the emerging Loneliness Project, the unifying force in all of them is the need for meaningful human connectivity. What if our population became skillful at nurturing meaningful connections between people?

First, The Compartment Conundrum —

The pedestrian bridge spanning the space over 18th Street S. between the North Pavilion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital and the Women and Infants Center.

The pedestrian bridge spanning the space over 18th Street S. between the North Pavilion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital and the Women and Infants Center.

There was a small traffic jam on the crosswalk from the North Pavilion to the Women and Infants Center (WIC) yesterday. A pedestrian traffic jam. Normally, twelve people walking shoulder to shoulder could stride comfortably along that crosswalk, which spans the space over a very busy street. Yesterday, though, a group of visiting physicians had stopped on one side of the corridor for their tour guide to explain the various campus buildings which are visible from that vista. Simultaneously, a woman in a wheel chair had stopped on the other side of the corridor directly across from the visiting physicians. Her daughter had been pushing her IV pole while her husband pushed the wheel chair. Other folks going in both directions funneled into the space between the wheel chair entourage and the huddled physicians. The daughter had grabbed the IV pole and tubes so as to shield them from accidental collision. I had to stop right behind the wheel chair family.

The daughter saw that I’d stopped and realized I was waiting. Three nurses stopped and stood beside me. She and her dad looked at us sheepishly. The daughter looked anguished. “Oh! We’re so sorry! We’re just blocking up everything.” She indicated to her father that they should squeeze over to the side.

I said, “Oh! Take your time! No problem!”

The nurses with me expressed the same sentiment. “We can wait! Take your time!”

After all, each of us – I, the chaplain, the three nurses on their way to the WIC – could see the scarf around the woman’s head, the billiard ball smoothness of her skull beneath the scarf’s hem, the absence of eyebrows and lashes. It was obvious to me, as I’m sure it was to the RNs, that here was a family taking their beloved mom/wife for a little excursion away from the confines of her room. For a few steps, we walked along slowly behind them. I said, “Out for some fresh air?”

The woman in the wheel chair turned her face toward the light streaming in through the crosswalk windows. “Yes! It feels so good to get out of that room and feel the sun on my face.”

“Where’re you from,” inquired one of the nurses.

The 18th Street Crosswalk at a much less busy time.

The 18th Street Crosswalk at a much less busy time.

“Oxford, Mississippi,” said the daughter.

“I’m from Oxford,” cried one of the other nurses.

“Y’all pull for Ol’ Miss?” The question came from a physician who’d slowed to walk behind us.

“Oh yeah,” answered the father, speaking for the first time. He pumped his fist.

Then the group of visiting physicians across the hall moved on. The corridor opened up. People spaced themselves evenly again. The nurses, the physician behind us, and I walked around the trio and each of us wished them well as we passed. We were rewarded with a bright smile from the woman in the chair who said, “Thank you. Bless you!”

We walked a few more steps before one of the nurses said, “Isn’t it interesting how patient we can be when we’re walking? If you’d come across someone going that slow on the interstate, there’d have been a long line of tailgaters. People would’ve been blasting around them, probably flipping them off,” and she made motions with her arms.

That made me smile. I said, “It’s difficult to be rude when there isn’t anything separating you from the other person and you can see what they’re up against.”

I thought of that again as I made my way home yesterday afternoon. Our cars are compartments that shield us from wind as they whisk us along to our destination, but they also make it impossible to know the human beings riding along beside us. In our moving compartments, zipping from the cubicles where many of us work, to the houses where many of us collapse after a hard day’s labor, we’re largely separated from the stories that animate the lives of those around us. We don’t know them. And when a vehicle slows in front of us, many of us feel irritation at the object that has interrupted our pace. It’s certainly not easy for ME to remember that a human being sits in that car, a human being with a story which could be as compelling as the trio on the crosswalk. (Sure, they also might be distracted by their cell phone, but that isn’t true of everyone.)

Our compartments lull us into a sort of dazed forgetfulness. Of course, this isn’t just true for car commuters. I’ve commuted in cities with public transport, sitting on the Metro in Washington, D.C., for example, with hundreds of other people. Many tuck themselves behind books, or their Kindles, or studiously avoid eye contact listening to their ear buds which emit a sound like a small belt sander is in their head. Though automobiles serve as very concrete compartments, we can also construct compartments in our hearts. It takes a certain discipline to remember that we’re surrounded by hundreds of stories.

I know some people who possess this virtue which I have not yet nurtured to maturity in my own character. They don’t feel irritation when they have to slow in traffic, or wait for a car to merge, or get all twisted out of shape because someone up ahead didn’t respond quickly enough to the light changing from red to green. I’ve ridden with people who seem to see past the barrier of their mobile compartment, who remember that a human with a history rides in that other compartment, and they may be dealing heroically with challenges that would crush me.

That’s why I was so glad for the pedestrian traffic jam. It reminded me that I need to get past my compartments, whether the literal compartment of my automobile, or the more psychological/spiritual compartment of my preoccupation with my own issues. When I do that, and lean into the relationships across which I stumble everyday, I’ll see the particularity of people and experience the warming of the heart I experienced with the trio from Oxford.

This is one of the major advantages that occur when we organize support teams for folks we know and care about. Putting together and participating in a support team obliterates our compartments and gives us the privilege of playing a small but crucial role in a friend’s heroic story.

That’s what happens when we “lean into relationships.”

In the next post, more on “leaning into relationships.”

Loneliness – Our Very Real “Matrix”

Laurence Fishburne as "Morpheus" in the 90's movie "The Matrix."

Laurence Fishburne as “Morpheus” in the 90’s movie “The Matrix.”

“Let me tell you why you’re here,” said Morpheus. Neo looks on with skepticism and we hear the ambient sound of thunder and rain. Morpheus continues:

“You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.”

When I read a recent article on loneliness (the article I featured in last week’s blog), I thought of this iconic scene from the movie “The Matrix.” For those who haven’t seen this almost cult classic, the movie posits a future in which humans have been hard-wired into a giant computer program so that everything they experience is really just part of an elaborate computer program projected into their brains by AI overlords. The machines keep the bodies of the whole human population in huge, subterranean silos where their biological energy powers the machines. The vast majority of humans remain unaware of the reality in which they actually live.

How many friends do we make this way?

How many friends do we make this way?

Loneliness, according to this article, surrounds us so closely that many of us remain unaware of its increasing ubiquity.  It’s true that loneliness has been with us ever since the human race first emerged, but I have the feeling that it’s a bit like “The Matrix:” it’s crept up on us so gradually and with such huge dimensions that we don’t realize the damage that it’s doing. In fact, much in our contemporary lifestyles that we take for granted encourages isolation over community. (More on that in later posts.)

The hero of the film, “Neo,” played by Keanu Reeves, happens to be one of the few humans who’ve begun to detect flaws in the program. It takes one of the other protagonists, “Morpheus,” played by Laurence Fishburne, to alert him to the elaborate charade.

The article to which I referred last week is our “Morpheus” when it comes to the phenomenon of loneliness in our society. I’ll quote again one of the lines from the conclusion of that article. It said, “loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken (Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, in Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2015, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 227-237).” I can imagine that many of us have felt this. We’ve felt it our entire lives, that there’s something wrong with the way our world isolates people, that loneliness isn’t a good thing. But this? Researched evidence that we’ve got an epidemic on our hands that’s actually killing people? Wow!

In “The Matrix,” Morpheus offers Neo a choice. In a much-quoted scene, he says:

Neo's options - blue pill or red pill?

Neo’s options – blue pill or red pill?

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

This article shows us how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Now, we could consider the findings of these researchers who offer us evidence of the tremendous damage loneliness is doing to our society, shrug our shoulders and continue business as usual. We can take a “blue pill.” Or, we can hear that deceptively blasé phrase for the giant and necessary challenge it is: “Unless action is taken.” We can take the red pill. We can decide that we’ll do what each of us can with the people whom we know to take this responsibility seriously. This well researched article bears an implicit plea that we all do what we can to address the issue of loneliness.

Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.

Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.

All kinds of questions need to be asked:

  • How do our work lives encourage or discourage human connection?
  • How well do our faith congregates welcome people and take initiative toward those who my be suffering isolation?
  • How do the physical designs of our communities, neighborhoods, and cities help or hinder human connection and what can we reasonably do about that?
  • How do our attitudes toward success and failure in life affect how we spend our time nurturing relationships?

The Support Team Network continues to address this challenge by training teams of volunteers to organize themselves intentionally to disrupt the isolation of a friend and family in need. It’s our way of acknowledging that there’s something wrong with the world. It’s also our way of doing something to make it right.

Your choice: blue pill or red pill?

Loneliness Can Kill You! No, Really . . . It Can Kill You!

Remember the movie “Crocodile Dundee?” A recent medical journal article with a very dry title made me think of a scene in that movie.

Paul Hogan as "Crocodile Dundee" from the 80's hit film by that name.

Paul Hogan as “Crocodile Dundee” from the 80’s hit film by that name.

Here’s the scene: Crocodile Dundee, himself has gone to a party with his New York girlfriend. Across the crowded room, she points out that her mother has arrived among the revelers accompanied by a distinguished looking man. Dundee asks, “Is that her husband with her,” to which the girlfriend responds, “No. That’s her therapist.”

“Therapist?” Dundee says.

“You know,” says his girlfriend, “Someone to tell her problems to.”

Dundee looks perplexed then says, “Doesn’t she have any mates?” (It’s probably not necessary to say this, but just to be on the safe side, for those of you who don’t know, “mates” is Australian for “friends.”)

Here’s the very dry title that made me think of that movie scene: “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.”  (Click on the title to access the article yourself.) If some real observant, smart people hadn’t boiled it down and reported on it, and a dear friend of mine hadn’t seen the summary and called it to my attention, I’m sure I never would have read the article for myself. However, my friend alerted me to the article and I read it. The article dramatically underlines that there are very real dangers in not having any “mates.”

Here’s one of the more jarring sentences in the article:

“Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity . . . with the risk from social isolation and loneliness (controlling for multiple other factors) being equivalent to the risk associated with Grades 2 and 3 obesity.”

In other words, gaining weight isn’t as dangerous as losing friends! More to the point, Loneliness Can Kill You!

Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.

Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.

The authors of this article are serious research scholars and the “Meta-Analytic Review” they did came from a study of 70 other reports comprising a human case population of over 3 million people. This is no joke. Social isolation is as great a risk (if not greater) than two types of obesity. In fact, after the researchers report that “loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken,” they conclude this way:

Although living alone can offer conveniences and advantages for an individual . . . this meta-analysis indicates that physical health is not among them, particularly for adults younger than 65 years of age. Further research is needed to address the complexities of social interactions, interdependence, and isolation . . . but current evidence certainly justifies raising a warning.

Did you catch that? “Unless action is taken,” we’ll see epidemic levels of loneliness in another 15 years.

The authors don’t propose what form that action might take. They ARE implying that the various actions now being taken by congregations, affinity groups, clubs, families – whatever – apparently aren’t doing enough to stem what they perceive as a rising tide of persons with weak to non-existent social ties.

As I do frequently in my job as Support Team Network Manager here in the Department of Pastoral Care at UAB Hospital, I met with a group of people recently who are in the process of organizing themselves into a support team for a friend facing a health care challenge. This team plans to support this friend and his family for a protracted period of time. As I listened to them discuss among themselves how they would share the caring, one man said, “Relationships are worth more than money, you know. Relationships will heal you when all else fails.” Later, when I spoke with the friend’s primary care giver and told her about the team, I could hear the relief and gratitude in her voice. Already she felt better. And when she told her son about the efforts and the smile spread across his face, HE felt better, too, even in the midst of his disease.

That’s why I work with folks organizing support teams. They reconnect us to our most basic selves, selves that were created to thrive in community. When folks organize themselves to care intentionally for someone, love grows, relationships deepen, and everyone experiences a mysterious wholeness. That kind of “action,” if taken en masse, will serve to stem that epidemic of loneliness.

I would love to see this kind of intentional organization happening on a mass scale in our faith congregations everywhere. We have the tools, the know-how, and the people who could nip this rising tide of loneliness in the bud. It all boils down to helping each other build a circle of “mates.”

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