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The silent epidemic

The silent epidemic

The silent epidemic

30 April 2019

Photo:Priscilla Du Preez

By Catherine Philpot

The Australian Psychological Society, on the back of recent research it conducted with Swinburne University of Technology, has suggested that loneliness is Australia’s next epidemic.

The 2018 survey of 1678 people found that one in four Australians report feeling lonely three or more days per week; one in three Australians never or only rarely feel like they belong to a group of friends; and half of all Australians report feeling lonely at least one day per week. Loneliness hurts mentally and physically.

The Australian Psychological Society’s data shows that loneliness increases the likelihood of experiencing depression by 15 per cent and anxiety by 13 per cent. Loneliness also increases blood pressure, heightening the risk of stroke and heart disease.

As an immune suppressant, loneliness increases susceptibility to disease and shortens lifespans. Current psychological thought is dominated by evolutionary approaches that argue that social isolation is damaging and distressing simply because, historically, the isolated individual had less chance of surviving and passing on genes to the next generation.

But what if we apply a theological lens to the problem of loneliness and its solution? Our origin stories as Christians sow the seed that loneliness is not part of God’s design. In a narrative where the phrase “It was good” is echoed over each creative effort, the first declaration that “It was not good” is applied to the human living alone in the garden.

Importantly, God’s answer to this ‘not-goodness’ is not an adaption to the human psyche, but the creation of more humans. In God’s worldview it is a fellow human being that is the suitable help to the person living alone.

Fast forward through the millennia and a humble carpenter emerges in a climate where religious leaders already acknowledge that loving your neighbour as yourself is the second principle upon which a good life is based.

Jesus, that humble Jew, pushes the concept further with his teaching that we remain in God when we love each other as he loves. Jesus then makes clear the extent of his love, by laying down his life for love. The importance of love among his followers has been written about for centuries. But I wonder whether we can act upon it better.

What effect could every Christian loving their neighbour as themselves have on an epidemic of loneliness? If love for others is the second command, is it our second priority in our church services, church activities or individual actions as Christians? If speech in the tongues of men and angels without love is like a clanging gong, what are the noises that we are making in our worship services?

If knowledge without love is nothing, what do we talk about in our messages? If giving to the poor without love is nothing, what is our main focus in our community welfare centres? Little things, like prayer times for others’ needs, encouragement and sharing times, and big morning teas, can transform church services into communions. Remembering a name can transform an encounter into a meaningful connection. Celebrating a birthday at a Family Store can turn a customer into a friend.

Because loneliness is affected more by the quality of our relationships than by their quantity, sharing our own vulnerability can go a long way in communicating to others that they are not alone. Telling our own stories of loss can help us connect to another who is lost and hurting too. We teach prayer and Bible study as pathways to connecting with God.

Let us not forget that Jesus taught connecting with others in love as a pathway to remaining connected to love divine. The apostle John puts it this way: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12).

Auxiliary-Lieutenant Catherine Philpot is the South Brisbane Community Project Officer and Corps Officer at Centenary Corps.

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