Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit single “Heartbreak Hotel” included the famous line, delivered with pulsating, melodramatic energy, “I get so lonely I could die.” The King’s eventual demise was the result of factors more complex than a failed romance, but it turns out there was some truth in his grim assessment of the effect loneliness can have on us. A 2019 report in the Scientific American found that loneliness can reduce our lifespan by 15 years — the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

And it’s not only tortured rockers who are feeling the sting of relational emptiness these days. Experts in the field say we are facing a loneliness epidemic. A report into loneliness among Australians released this month adds weight to that alarming idea. The findings — which were commissioned by Telstra in partnership with YouGov, and working with psychologist Dr Michelle H. Lim — reveal that the pandemic has merely accentuated an already existing problem. Today, 40 per cent of Australians have never felt lonelier. One in four say they don’t have people they can regularly talk with or turn to. Three in ten say they never or rarely feel close to people. More than a third of those surveyed say they rarely feel like they are part of a group of friends. Half of us feel too embarrassed to admit to others that we are lonely, which no doubt exacerbates the issue.

Notions of people languishing in nursing homes being the ones most likely to be feeling left out don’t stack up either. The loneliest of all the generations are Gen Z and Millennials. Young people are more “connected” than ever before and have never felt more alone.

What is it about contemporary life that is creating this malaise? That’s a very complex story and entire books are needed to untangle the mess. But it does seem that late modernity, with its obsessive focus on individualism and personal “freedom”, is less suited to true community than previous eras.

Pared-back lives

In light of the loneliness data, it was intriguing to me to learn about some recent fashions that are reflective of a deeper strain within our culture.

So, writing for The GuardianSarah Logan identifies an influential group of young YouTubers who are decluttering, not only their apartments, but their relationships as well. Shedding excess and inconvenient friendships and unnecessary emotional baggage is a natural extension of the Marie Kondo minimalist push, and, according to these twenty-somethings, a pathway to peace. They refuse to be bogged down by people in their social circles who might be demanding or needy or difficult. “For where I am right now, a relationship is not my priority”, says James Sweetland, a YouTuber in his late twenties. “I have limited time and energy, and I can only allocate so much of it each day. I am trying to get rid of everything that doesn’t give me true satisfaction.” 25-year-old Kelly Stamps feels similarly. She has whittled her social circle of friends down to four, so as to avoid “insecure friendships”.

It’s not new to hear life coaches and self-help gurus talking about casting off negative relationships and surrounding yourself with positive life-giving people. There is no doubt some wisdom in decluttering your life. My garage would be a good place to start. And, for sure, there are certain friendships that, if they were the only ones you had, could become a drain and a suffocating burden. But what about when you are the one feeling down, needing support, wanting to be listened to in your pain, requiring a lift and encouragement? What do the relationship de-clutterers do then? Or do they presume they will never have to be that person? Could our self-focus be costing us in ways we don’t realise?

A focus on self-advancement and constant “optimising” can preserve our individuality. And yet leave us profoundly alone.

In the New York TimesLara Bazelon recently defended her decision to leave her marriage to a loving husband whom she still loved, in order to fulfill her career ambitions that she felt would be irretrievably damaged by staying with him. “I divorced my husband not because I didn’t love him”, she writes. “I divorced him because I loved myself more.”

Again, such a focus is not entirely new. Gustave Flaubert’s mid-nineteenth-century novel Madame Bovary describes his eponymous protagonist Emma in this way: “From everything she had to extract some kind of personal profit; and she discarded as useless anything that did not lend itself to her heart’s immediate satisfaction …” Emma Bovary would fit neatly into a modern paradigm where a focus on self-advancement and constant “optimising”, can preserve our individuality. And yet leave us profoundly alone.

Connecting to something bigger

We are, of course, profoundly affected by the point we happen to find ourselves in history and the accompanying social forces that come with it. Johann Hari’s Lost Connections identifies the isolating nature of modern life:

The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing — Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world. The comedian Marc Maron once wrote that “every status update is a just a variation on a single request: ‘Would someone please acknowledge me?’”

Jillian Richardson, author of Un-lonely Planet, became interested in the subject of loneliness when she started an e-newsletter to help link up lonely people at events in New York. Richardson discovered commonalities in what she came to call community healing spaces — think 12-step meeting, or any number of different support groups. In coming together to unburden themselves of something, very often to strangers, Richardson saw people transformed. They left looking lighter. And she recognised that even the very secular versions of these meetings mimicked more traditional forms of a religious gathering, even if they didn’t appeal to anything overtly spiritual.

Might faith communities have something surprising and unique to offer us as we seek relationships of depth and meaning?

Her research highlighted the fact that, especially for young people, loneliness figures have gone up at the same time as attendance figures for organised religion have plummeted. She wondered about the correlation. Not a conventionally religious person herself, she told The Sacred podcast that she couldn’t help but notice something significant in religious adherents with whom she spoke:

They seemed to have something that I wanted for myself, and that the world could use more of — that through their faith they seemed more connected to these values of love, and community and connection because there is … something bigger that is calling them to invest in those values every day.

The longing for community

A modern Westerner faces a complex paradox to navigate. On the one hand, we have come to elevate the individual to the ultimate position, and alongside that we’ve adopted a narrow definition of “freedom” that revolves around unlimited choice. On the other hand, we are lonely and crave what only community can offer us. The problem is true community is costly. It’s hard work and inconvenient and involves time and selflessness and care for people we might otherwise choose not to be around. It’s where we learn patience and kindness and humility and hospitality. It’s where we can be a support to others while they support us. Sporting clubs and book groups and various associations — gatherings of like-minded people — offer some of these qualities for sure.

Might faith communities have something surprising and unique to offer us as we seek relationships of depth and meaning? As we seek connection?

Despite the impression that religion in the West is taking its last gasps, it’s still the case that (pre-COVID-19) around 15 per cent of Australians were finding their way to church once a month. That’s a lot of people. What do they find there? A mixed bag for sure. But at its best, a community of faith can situate someone within a story that is much larger than themselves. It can draw them towards service and compassion and acts of mercy for those in need. It can help them to offer and be offered friendship and support and love when its needed. It can, and frequently does, impel people towards a more generous, less trivial, more forgiving, and kinder version of themselves. As the philosopher-priest Tomáš Halík writes in Night of the Confessor:

Faith, if it is a living faith, provides permanent prevention against and therapy for the disease of self-deification — that disease whose perniciousness is often overlooked for the sole reason that we live in a culture that is not only permeated with the disease but often proclaims it as a virtue: the summit and fulfilment of human life — as “self-fulfilment”.

He adds later: “when we give up our fictitious post of commander of the universe, we feel enormous relief. Humility and truth liberate and heal.”

The American writer Anne Lamott, whose searingly honest meditations on faith and ordinary life have made her widely popular, describes her journey towards a faith community in her book Travelling Mercies. An alcoholic and heavy drug user, she found herself living on a boat across the bay from San Francisco. She was drawn, by the singing, to a church across the road from a flea market she’d go to on Sundays. Staunchly resistant to the offers of welcome from the tiny congregation of the ramshackle, run-down building, she would awkwardly stand there at the door, listening, “as frozen and stiff as Richard Nixon”. The message being preached initially made no sense to her. “But the church smelled wonderful, like the air had nourishment in it, or like it was composed of these people’s exhalations, of warmth and faith and peace”, she writes. Her life was changed when she joined that community — the warmth became irresistible:

There was no sense of performance or judgement … Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life …

For several decades we have experimented with self-fulfilment as our primary goal, and it’s not working. We are lonely. We need to find ways to connect in more than superficial ways. It won’t be easy. But there are deep and lasting rewards for those willing to commit to a community of imperfect fellow travellers in a shared enterprise, with work to do for the common good.

Simon Smart is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics