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Distracting Ourselves from Loneliness

Lou Phillips

Have you ever tried to have an important conversation with someone who was distracted? Not only is it frustrating, but you also feel devalued because apparently you were not “worth” their attention.  Distraction is the antithesis of presence, which is essential for community and relationship. Presence demands attention and concentrated listening.

What happens when we are distracted listeners but convince ourselves and others we are present? We are left in a world where we are always communicating but never being heard, subconsciously growing jaded toward real conversations that are required for lasting community.

In his book The Shallows, Nicolas Carr writes:

The [inter]net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention, and we willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.[i]

Carr argues that we are a society addicted to distraction. We have trained our minds to be restless, constantly moving from one thing to another, never fulling registering anything. Even while readin­­­­g this article, you might find yourself wanting to look at social media, check an email, or answer a text. That’s just the nature of how we operate today.

Is it possible that this subconscious tick has significantly changed our understanding of community and how we relate to one another? If we truly are addicted to distraction, does this shed light on why, in an age of supposed interconnectedness, there is an epidemic of loneliness lurking under the surface?[ii]

Habitually Distracted

The world is becoming increasingly smaller. Technology has made communication with anyone around the world possible in an instant, and yet loneliness is steadily growing. A few years ago, a Barna-World Vision partnership surveyed 15,000 18-35-year-olds from 25 countries, and the results were fascinating to say the least[iii]:

  • 77% of respondents said events around the world matter to them.
  • 57% said they feel connected to people around the world.
  • And yet, 66% said they don’t feel cared for by those around them.

Is social media to blame for this epidemic? Some experts say yes, but according to a 2018 survey by Cigna of over 20,000 people, social media can’t be the real problem. Respondents labeled as heavy social media users had a loneliness score of only 43.5 compared to those who never use social media with a score of 41.7.[iv]

Perhaps a better question for us to ask is “Why are we addicted to something as odd as distraction in the first place?” Coffee makes sense; it wakes you up and has an amazing aroma. Sugar tastes good and gives you energy. But distraction? What is alluring about distraction?

Distraction from Pain

When I was a kid, I didn’t like going to the doctor’s. I was a healthy kid, but even the healthiest of us had to get the annual, much-dreaded, shot. It didn’t matter how nice the doctor appeared to be; I knew that eventually the syringe would find its way into my arm.

The best physicians were those who had mastered the art of distraction. Some would sing a song, give us a toy, or point to a painting on the wall, and then ever-so-stealthily administer the needle. When done well, we never noticed the pain. Was it because there was no pain? No—the needle still broke the skin. However, because our minds were so heavily distracted, the pain went unregistered.

While this may seem cute and ridiculous, have we moved passed such childish things? I wonder if the reason we are so addicted to distraction is because it helps us to avoid focusing on the pain of not knowing if our lives even matter, if we will ever measure up, or if we will ever see that loved one again.

Maybe one of the reasons we are so lonely is because we live in a vicious cycle of distraction in an effort to avoid this kind of pain. Consider the cycle that ensnares so many young people today:

While you feel deeply connected to the world around you, you feel profoundly isolated from the people closest to you. So, you seek human connection on social media only to try to actually connect with real people. Then reality sets in. While the world is offering you its most photoshopped version of itself, and everyone seems to be living their best lives, you realize how alone you really are. You are nothing like the images you see on the screen. So, you stop for a moment, only to then go back to where you “connect” because the intoxication of distraction numbs the ache of loneliness. This cycle goes on and on until we don’t even remember why we were distracting ourselves in the first place. It just becomes the rhythm of life.

All we are left with is ourselves, but we aren’t enough—we need real connection, real vulnerability, real relationships with other people. Social media isn’t the problem; it’s just the song, toy, or painting on the wall that we are using for distraction. If it’s not social media, something else will try to fill the vacuum loneliness creates.

The Christian Perspective on Loneliness

From a Christian standpoint, loneliness should make us feel off because it is an indicator that something isn’t right. God created humans in His image for community because He Himself (the Triune being) is community; therefore, loneliness would be outside of His design.

When sin entered the cosmos, it fractured our relationship with not only God but also other people. Even in the Garden, the first thing humans did after they sinned was hide themselves because of guilt and shame. We have been hiding ourselves from God ever since, not knowing in doing so we inadvertently hide ourselves from others for the same reasons. As we see from the original sin, we subconsciously and sometimes consciously choose a false sense of autonomy rather than real communion with God.

One of the rawest passages of scripture in all of the Bible comes from Psalm 88, where the psalmist takes his anger and loneliness to God. He doesn’t hold any punches. He finishes his rant with “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18). The thought that often plagues us in our loneliness is “Does anyone really care about me?” It makes sense that the heart of Christianity is God’s relentless pursuit of those who are outcasted, alienated and lost—those far from Him. Psalm 88 reveals that the God of Christianity acknowledges our loneliness and yet doesn’t patronizingly tell us to “Get over it.”

Much to the contrary, God comes low, listens, and shows us that He too knows what it’s like to battle loneliness. Hours before the cross, all of Jesus’s disciples, His best friends, deserted him. Not only was He alone in a physical sense, but also spiritually. In Mark 15:33-34, it says, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. At the ninth hour, Jesus cried in a loud voice, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’” Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, who had always been in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, was cut off. He was utterly alone, the ultimate outcast. While hanging alone on the cross, Jesus took on true alienation. He understands—from firsthand experience—its agonizing heartache.

Christianity doesn’t say we won’t ever feel lonely; it says when we do, we have something better to do than distract ourselves from the pain. By going to God as the psalmist did, being honest with how we feel, we are able to commune with a God who experienced isolation so that we no longer need to. We discover, even in the midst of our deepest loneliness, that we are never truly alone.

Jesus took on our distance from God so that we might take on His closeness to the Father. A God who has experienced cosmic loneliness is a God you can trust with your loneliness. Our assured hope is that even loneliness will have its end. When we struggle to believe this truth in the midst of the pain of loneliness, we can cling to truths like Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139:7-12

[i] Nicholas Carr. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

[ii] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden

[iii] https://www.worldvision.org/about-us/media-center/barna-world-vision-partner-to-create-largest-study-of-its-kind-offering-new-insights-into-millennials-gen-z-worldwide-2

[iv] https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/