NOTE: This is part of a series about heart health, based on the premise that “what’s good the heart (physical) is good for the heart (spiritual). I’m going through Christopher Bergland’s list of practices prove to help one’s physical heart health, especially as measure by heart rate variability. This post focuses on face to fact social connectedness, as a key practice for heart health.
"By this all people will know that you are my disciples... if you love one another" Jesus Christ
I just enjoyed another birthday last week and spent a little time thinking about social connections I’ve been privileged to enjoy over the course of this past year. There have been deep and intimate conversations with young leaders, many of whom find their way to our house in the mountains for food, exercise, cold plunges, coaching, conversation, meditation, and prayer. I’ve continued to travel and teach in other countries, which has meant rich times of fellowship over food and drink, or in the outdoors (or food and drink in the outdoors) with friends I’ve known for decades in Germany, Austria, and Canada. The small group of couples that met monthly for about 20 years (and are now scattered and living elsewhere) continues to meet at least annually if not a bit more. It’s a treat to often feel is if we pick up ‘just where we left off’ because of the depth of relationship that had been laid over the previous years. When I’m California, I also have the chance to catch up with old friends from high school or my days in Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. My birthday was quiet, but filled with gratitude for the breadth and depth of relationships in my life.
Health study after health study (including the famous “Blue Zones” material, now viewable on Netflix) shows that social connectedness is an important tonic, contributing to the reduction of anxiety, depression, and fear. That all these maladies are on the rise at the same time we’re seeing an epidemic of loneliness should come as no surprise. The World Health Organization has named the problem, equating the health risks of social isolation to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And the Bible is filled with exhortations and invitations to social connections for many reasons.
Most of us know this. And yet, as Jesus says, “if you know these things, you’re blessed if you do them.” In spite of the epidemic; in spite of knowing that relationships are good for us; in spite of the ache that often comes from our lack of meaningful social connections, the reality is that many, as shocking as it sounds, choose loneliness. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that it’s often not a direct choice - rather, loneliness is frequently a byproduct of other choices we make.
We choose screens over reality. The average American touches his phone 2617 times a day ad spends 2 hours ad 30 minutes staring at the screen. Toss in TV and other screens, and the average American now spends eleven hours and six minutes a day on digital media! The emotional, social, and physiological consequences of this are large enough to be well beyond this small post. Suffice it to say though, that when we're gathered together with others, one of the very best things we can do for everyone's health is to put those little computers in a drawer somewhere, on silence, and pay attention to each other, and to whatever it is you're doing together.
We choose convenience over covenant. Sustained relationships require checking in, reaching out, meeting. In my experience, it’s not always been at the most convenient time. The commitments of daily living make life seem “full enough,” so that when we face the options of staying home or meeting up, choosing entertainment or choosing conversation, reaching out to encourage, or withdrawing it’s often easy to choose the less engaging option. We’re tired already. Who needs more interaction? Thus, in the name of convenience, relationships slowly drift away.
We choose pleasant over authentic. Our deepest relationships need authenticity, vulnerability, truth telling, and creating enough trust and safety for this takes time. For lots of us, those are awkward, painful, perhaps even scary places to be, often because relationships in our past that stepped over the line of pleasantries into that level of honesty didn’t end well. This level of authenticity begins to look like a hot stove, always exuding the message: “don’t touch or you’ll get burned.” So, some of us learned to be nice, adaptable, “always positive.” Others, committed to “honesty,” pour it all out without laying the foundation of trust, and wonder why nobody wants to be around them. Either way, the kind of life giving intimacy that is needed in order to continue growing in life eludes us.
It’s the normalizing of these isolating choices that’s at the heart of our loneliness epidemic, and it’s 1) more prevalent for men than women, and 2) carries a trend line into the future that, if unaddressed, will weaken the already compromised fabric of our culture to what many fear will be a breaking point. Militias, online conspiracy theorist clubs, and radicalized faith and political groups are all on the rise, in part because the institutions fostering relationships are all weakening, which creates fertile ground of recruitment for the myriads of lonely people.
My next step:
R.E.D. : “Remember, Encourage, Daily”
I remember every day because in my Forest Faith daily meditation practice one of the truths I repeat is “Christ around me I’m connected.” And then at the end of my meditation time, I wrote down a few of the names that came to mind while meditating on that reality. These, then, become the people that I’m often able to encourage on that day, with a short text, a note, a phone call, or sometimes a face to face conversation. Letting people know their value, know that they have gifts and a calling, is far more encouraging than most of us realize.
I realize it, though, because when I entered Cal Poly to study architecture, a fellow student rained encouragement and affirmation down on me. I’d entered depressed and withdrawn, dealing with health issues, and the affect of this single person’s investment in encouraging me changed my life forever. I began to get involved in a Bible study by playing piano for it. My health issues improved dramatically. The changes in me were, apparently, so dramatic, that when I went home and visited the place of my summer job, two people said, “you look so much happier, and healthier. What happened??”
I know what happened. Social connection. Encouragement. Affirmation. Christ showed up for me through a red bearded fellow student. I’m still trying to pay it forward, and (mostly) loving the fruit of it.
What’s your next step? Consider encouraging and connecting with one person a day. Watch what happens! Your friend, and your own heart will both thank you!