Modern life does not tend towards the cultivation of a connected community. Boxed into small – but fully wired – apartments, or living in suburbs where we need a car just to go for litre of milk, we tend to live in our own little world. We do not sit on the porch to watch children playing in the street, take casual walks around the neighborhood or find ourselves at a nearby park bench visiting with neighbors. Our lives feel too busy for such time-consuming activities. However, the result of these increasingly connected but individualistic lifestyles is loneliness.
The Vancouver Sun has highlighted the negative impact that loneliness has on mental and physical health. Recently, one article noted that according to statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service, British Columbians 70 and older account for about 12 per cent of suicides in the province. The key factors contributing to this are increased health problems concurrent with a shrinking social support system, which might otherwise help seniors to surmount those challenges by staying active and engaged.
In an article from Live Science, Stephanie Pappas discusses recent research that shows how long-term social isolation – and the resulting loneliness – tends to negatively impact the body’s immune system. And only this week, the United Way announced cuts to its services for seniors due to donation shortfalls.
So what is the answer? It’s not as simple as just “getting out there and being involved.” It’s more about those one-on-one moments of connection that feed us in important ways.
A recent example of how a community can take specific steps to address the problem happened not too long ago in a Victoria BC neighborhood. It was inspired by a group of residents who wanted a more connected community. They had a street party to build several small street-library book boxes, offering them to other streets around town. The original idea was that, whether you are a local resident or not, you would be welcome to borrow or exchange a book. And, this exchange of books would make anyone who participated feel more connected to others.
What the communities found was that these little boxes became meeting places in the neighborhood. People congregated there for longer and longer periods, chatted, shared ideas and became friends.
But for many, there is a deeper loneliness that needs to be addressed, and requires more than a human connection.
Understanding this from her own experience of loneliness, 19th century writer and Christian healer Mary Baker Eddy, wrote: “The sweet and sacred sense of the permanence of man’s unity with his Maker can illumine our present being with a continual presence and power of good, opening wide the portal from death into Life.”
Each of us has the opportunity to explore and find a sacred and permanent sense of spiritual unity, and with this comes the power to fill any sense of loneliness or isolation as well as open doors to an increased social life and wellbeing. Out of this often grows also a natural desire to be connected to each other. When we come to know, trust and care for each other, loneliness melts and, with it, those feelings of isolation that lead to ill health.
An example of this connection of the human expressing the divine was the Amish community of Nickel Mines, PA, who forgave the non-Amish man who gunned down ten young girls, killing five before killing himself. Their attendance at his funeral, and the hugs they gave his wife and family, made their community stronger during the long road to healing that each of the impacted individuals and families traveled in the aftermath.
HealthyFamiliesBC is a government-sponsored website that is working to encourage people to become more healthily engaged in their community. While acknowledging that local and provincial governments have a role to play with policies that promote healthy living, the site goes on to encourage us as individuals to also take some responsibility for this. The website asks the question:
“Does your community encourage opportunities for people to connect with others through shared activities and interests? Connection to school, family and community contributes to good mental health and is the foundation for overall health and well-being.”
Healthy communities come about not just with more money, healthier food and lifestyles, education or government services, but also with a strong sense of connectedness, compassion and inclusivity. It can start as simply as building a book box on the street; but as the Amish community shows us, when it grows out of an unconditional spiritual love, it can reach deep into the human heart in ways that heal.