Loneliness: The Pandemic Inside the Pandemic

image source: nalc.gov.uk

Loneliness is a big problem, and the pandemic is making it worse. Here’s how an article on Vox puts it:

The coronavirus pandemic has created a loneliness epidemic. Social distancing, while necessary from a public health standpoint, has caused a collapse in social contact among family, friends, and entire communities — one that is particularly hard on populations already most vulnerable to isolation.

But Americans were experiencing a loneliness crisis long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. In a 2018 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 percent of all adults in the US — almost 60 million Americans — said they often or always felt lonely or socially isolated. The problem is even more concentrated among older adults: A major National Academies of Sciences report from February found that a little more than a third of adults over the age of 45, and 43 percent of adults over 60, felt lonely (other surveys have returned similar results).

Loneliness isn’t simply painful; it can be lethal. Several meta-analyses have found the mortality risk associated with chronic loneliness is higher than that of obesity and equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

The article goes on to interview former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Murthy’s new book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, is about this loneliness epidemic that has taken hold across much of the Western world.

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The One Thing You Cannot Afford to Lose

“To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”

― Stephen R. Covey

“What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

― Rabih Alameddine

“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.”

― Chuck Palahniuk

Much of what we focus on, in the ultimate scheme of things, doesn’t really matter. But there is one thing we must cultivate, and take care to never lose. It’s not often talked about, but its absence makes life especially hard today. Our world is confusing enough as it is — and without this quality, it becomes a nightmare.

What I’m talking about is a sense of proportion … a sense of perspective. I was reminded of this while reading James Allen’s book “Light on Life’s Difficulties.” Allen lived in England around the turn of the 20th century, and wrote many books, including the classic “As a Man Thinketh.” Don’t let the sexist, King-James-language title put you off: this is one of the all-time classic self-help books. It’s still in print, and well worth the read. “Light on Life’s Difficulties” has more of a focus on moral and spiritual teaching. It was the last book Allen wrote, and published in 1912, the year of his death.

What follows is what I call a remix of his chapter “Light on the Sense of Proportion.” By “remix” I mean it’s a combination of extended quote and revised and updated language. I include my own thoughts mixed in with the original author’s, as well as updating the language for today. Since Allen is long dead and the book is no longer in print, I don’t think he or his publishers will mind. Listen to what he has to say. I think you’ll find — as I did — how relevant these words from 1912 are for today:

In a nightmare there is no relation of one thing to another; all things are haphazard, and there is general confusion and misery. Wise people have likened the self-absorbed life to a nightmare; and there is a close resemblance between a selfish life, in which the sense of proportion is so far lost that things are only seen as they affect one’s own, self-absorbed aims, and in which there are feverish excitements and overwhelming troubles and disasters, and that state of troubled sleep known as nightmare.

In a nightmare too, the controlling will and perceiving intelligence are asleep; and in a self-absorbed life the better nature and spiritual perceptions are also locked in a kind of unconscious slumber.

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We need support now more than ever … and it’s getting harder to find

“Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.”
– Stanley Hauerwas  

“To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” – Bell Hooks  

“There are people who are shocked and appalled to find out that there are other people in their congregation that have completely different views on the best way to handle a pandemic.” – Pastor Trevin Wax  

Several years ago, the journalist Aaron Gell decided to write an article about a small, annual men’s gathering in upstate New York. So he went to the gathering, and got involved in the relationship network being created by it. He was impressed by their desire to not simply create an event, but an ongoing community. And he realized how rare that kind of community really is.  

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Meditation and Contemplation for Christians

Contemplation by Oleg Zhivetin

It’s time to rescue the practice of meditation for Christians today. It’s time to be clear that meditation is not only for practitioners of Eastern religions — it’s something Christians have been doing for centuries.

Scientific articles seem to be coming out daily that demonstrate the benefits of meditation, and it makes sense why people are so interested in this practice today. We live in a stressful, media-saturated, anxiety-producing world! We need to learn how to still the mind and “find rest for our souls” if we are going to survive — let alone thrive in — our over-crowded lives. And meditation helps us to do that.

The good news is the Bible — and historical Christian practice — shows us exactly how to establish habits like meditation, contemplation, and what Christians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition call “the prayer of the heart.” The bad news is that these practices seem to have been abandoned by the Western church in the past several hundred years. Now we have a situation where contemplative practices have almost exclusive associations with Eastern religions, and many Western Christians seem suspicious of them.

This is a tragedy. And it poses a huge danger for the well-being of the Church — and its members — today.

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10 Things Mentally Strong People Do During a Pandemic Crisis

“Longer than an earthquake, a pandemic shakes your life and living.”
― P.S. Jagadeesh Kumar

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
— Marcus Aurelius

“Hope begins in the dark. The stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
– Anne Lamott

A mental health crisis in our country is brewing during the current pandemic. I’ve not seen many studies yet that verify this with data, but they are coming. Many people are struggling. Even before the coronavirus exploded around the world, experts were talking about a mental health crisis in our country. I use the acronym ADA to identify today’s three-headed mental-health monster: addiction, depression, and anxiety-related mental health challenges. The pandemic is making them worse.

Here are some numbers from recent reports:

  • Alcohol sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to the research firm Nielsen. Online alcohol sales were up by 243% in the seven-week period ending April 18 over the same period a year ago, and brick-and-mortar alcohol sales were up by 21% for the same period. (source)
  • The most robust recent nation-wide study I’ve seen so far shows evidence of “unprecedented trauma from the pandemic.” The whole article is worth reading, but here’s a synopsis: Researchers interviewed 808 adults from 27 states. 90% of respondents had one or more “traumatic stress symptoms.” 27% met the diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To put that in context, the national estimate is normally 5.3% of the population with PTSD. In fact, for service men and women who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s 7.6%. (source)

Just to be clear, the National Institute for Mental Health defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This ‘fight-or-flight’ response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger.”

An article in “The Hill,” a politically oriented, public policy news magazine, sums up our current situation this way:

Experts warn that the United States is ill prepared for a coming mental health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic….The problem is expected to get worse in the coming months as people begin to reckon with the emotional impacts of the pandemic, and experts say there may not be enough resources to help them.

(source)

So what can we do about all this? What can we do to protect our mental health during these hard times? I’m going to offer you a plan … 10 practices that mentally strong people do during crisis times like these.

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“Sir, Please Step Back From the Computer”

Have you noticed how much of our lives are being shaped by the barrage of news and social media we encounter? Especially lately! I’ve written about this in the past, but right now, there’s another element that we need to think about: we’re not just weary, we’re traumatized. Daily news about COVID19, the stress of lockdowns and job losses, horrific footage of police brutality, mass protests, riots, and looting … all of this has become a form of trauma for many of us.

In March, when news about COVID19 was exploding, and states were first issuing “stay at home” orders, I spent hours reading articles, surfing social media, and watching news videos, trying to understand what was going on. Then, weeks later, when the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests and riots happened, I had the same experience. I told myself I was doing this so I could preach and teach others, and also help lead our church in its response to these events.

But something else was going on too: my overdosing on news was like when you drive past a horrific car accident, and you find yourself unable to look away. We’re drawn to terrible stuff, and some part of us overrides our own good judgement and makes us look.

But here’s what I know: these kinds of events are traumatizing to many of us. We feel heightened levels of sadness, anger, and anxiety about what we are seeing and experiencing. A phrase I’ve heard people using over and over in the past few months is: “I can’t believe this is happening.”

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Lament in a Time of Rage and Despair

“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Martin Luther King

“This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos.”  – Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

“I understand having anger and grief during this time. But this is not that. This is wanton destruction and violence.” – Minnesota Governor Tim Walls

“This is what it looks like when justice has been denied for a long time.” – Ben Jealous (former NAACP president)

Our nation is now dealing with two crises: the ongoing COVID19 pandemic (current death toll in US is 109,000 at the time of this writing) has been eclipsed by civil unrest in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police. Peaceful protests across the nation have turned into violent clashes with police and National Guard, along with a rampage of looting and destruction.

There is a simmering rage in our cities, like the dry tinder of a forest just waiting for some spark to be lit and explode into a raging fire. The horrific murder of George Floyd — in broad daylight, at the hands of callous police officers, who knew they were being filmed, with bystanders begging them to stop — has proved to be that spark.

As a white pastor living in a predominantly white community just North of Minneapolis, with many friends in the areas affected, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening. I know that many voices are weighing in on this situation. I’m adding to that cacophany today because I think that members of my congregation should hear my perspective on this, and I offer it in the hope that it might help them, and maybe some others, as we think, pray, and work together on this.

1. The explosion of violence and looting we are seeing is not just about racial tensions. *

*After several days have passed, and new events have emerged, I’ve changed my mind about this point somewhat. Rather than erase it, I’m just going to leave it as is, but add some “clarifications and second thoughts” at the end of this section.

In addition to a powerful wave of rage in response to yet another killing of an unarmed black person (more on that later), there are two things going on — one is getting lots of attention, and the other not enough.

What’s getting lots of attention is that there are different kinds of people doing different kinds of things — there are legitimate protesters and callous opportunists. We keep being reminded that there are “bad apples” swooping in on lawful protests, and their goal is to incite violence, steal, and destroy. It’s a progression: First there are peaceful demonstrations. Then comes the violence, property destruction, and looting. In nearly every press conference with officials around the US, they’ve tried to push the narrative that the violent protesters were “not people from our city (or state) … they’re trouble-makers or anarchists who are coming in from somewhere else.”

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but it can’t be the whole story. There are now protests happening all across the nation. Do all the anarchists have a “not in my neighborhood” rule? Are they all just getting in their cars and driving to a different state to do their looting and destruction?

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Spiritual Perspectives on the Coronavirus Pandemic

We are living in the midst of a shocking world-wide crisis. At this point, we don’t know how long it will last, how much physical suffering and economic devastation it will create, or how many lives it will take. At a time like this, when people are reeling with job losses, fears about the future, fears about their health, and fears about loved ones … what we need most of all is the comfort and encouragement of community.

And that’s where this crisis is so perverse: the requirements of “social distancing” are cutting us off from the connections we so desperately need.

With physical presence restricted, we’re having to be creative and find ways of supporting each other through phone calls, emails, and video chatting. In our churches, we’re exchanging face to face small group gatherings and worship services with video conferences and virtual worship services. It’s weird.

In the midst of it all, there are spiritual questions to wrestle with, and mental health struggles — especially depression, loneliness, and anxiety — to work through.

Like many of you, I’ve been following the news closely — probably more than is good for me. I’ve been reading a variety of articles from authors of various stripes in an effort to understand better for myself what’s happening around me, so I can hopefully offer support and encouragement to others.

Here’s what what we need to remember: While we’re in the midst of a crisis, it’s nearly impossible to understand it. Insight and wisdom come later. Right now we have to muddle through, putting one step in front of the other.

Don’t get me wrong: There is important wisdom being shared. Amidst the deluge of blog posts, magazine articles, and social media updates, there are many helpful things being written.

In that spirit, I thought it might be helpful this week to draw your attention to four different articles that have been helpful to me, in hopes that you might find something for yourself too. For each, I give a short synopsis, some quotes, and a link to the original article. I hope this helps!

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Report on Teaching in Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand … population 9.7 million

Recently, my wife Charlene and I traveled to Thailand, teaching about addiction, recovery, self-care, and healthy leadership. We flew out of Minneapolis on February 25, and got back home on March 14. What a trip it was! Since we’ve asked for people’s prayers and contributions to support this trip — and many of you stepped up to provide this — I want to give you report of what happened, what it was like, and what we learned.

The Leadup … questions about COVID-19

In the days leading up to our trip, news about the spread of the COVID-19 virus beyond China were starting to be heard. We wrestled about whether or not to cancel the trip and the events there. I was hesitant to do so for a variety of reasons. One important reason was that we had already put this trip off once (we were originally scheduled to go in 2019, but felt at that time it was too early in my ministry at Bethel Church to take a trip like this).

As you can imagine, the days leading up to our departure were full of preparations, packing, and tying up loose ends with church responsibilities. I was also checking in daily with our Thai host, evaluating the current state of virus concerns in Thailand (Are workshop participants still planning to attend? Should we cancel? etc.). Through prayer and conversations with our YWAM host, we made the decision to proceed with our trip as planned.

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