The Cost of Loneliness

Photo by Brock Wegner / Unsplash

“In the short term if I feel loneliness, it’s like any other biological signals. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s alerting me that something that’s critical for my survival is missing. ” —Vivek Murthy

I suppose it was inevitable. I thought I was past the possibility. We were done with Covid—a story to tell our grandchildren when we’re very old. And it’s summer when we are outside, breezes blowing viruses away. But no. The dreaded virus was not yet done with us. We gathered together as family in two condos for summer play and reuniting—22 of us. Although everyone was vaccinated and boosted, one by one we were struck. Texts were traded. Tested Positive. Yup, positive. Still negative. Now it’s my turn. OMG. Among us we had all the symptoms—but like family resemblances, it took a different turn for different people. The days of glad gathering led us to days of isolation.

I was thrust back into the sense of dread, remembering those early weeks of the pandemic shut down. Alone. Aware of the danger of contact. Contaminated—like wearing a Scarlet “C.” I canceled ten days of activities and withdrew from the public commons.

On top of that, I was sick. I felt lousy. Fatigue slowed my days. Coughing invaded my sleep. Kindness gave way to crankiness. Nothing was appealing.

Well, I thought, this is like a retreat, time to withdraw and reflect. One of my friends had a better word—house arrest. Isolation.

While five-ten days of isolation was an annoyance for me, it was important for the good of those to whom I might have spread it.

As I came to terms with this disruption, I had to share time with a number of nagging emotions. There was Connie the Critic who demanded to know what I had done to make this happen. Then there was Barry the Blamer looking for a scapegoat on whom I could load all my anger and resentment. Gretta the Grumbler is my perpetual victim. She felt very sorry for herself. Why do bad things always happen to me? Let’s look for someone to save me. Eventually Jenny the Judge stopped by to assess how others were treating me. Was I getting enough attention? Was I missed? Did they understand how wretched this was?

I find my emotional companions all have something important to tell me—and while I give them their moment, I cannot let them dominate my thinking.

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Once I quieted my fleet of feelings, I settled into isolation. It brought back memories of early Covid time—the haunted empty streets, the silent neighborhoods, the masked smiles. I recalled how I missed the simple exchanges at the grocery store, in-person conversations, the chatter of children.

We are not meant to be alone.Isolation and loneliness continue to be problems for many of us, and are, in fact, a serious health threat. Our Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, describes an epidemic of loneliness. It isn’t just Covid. We were getting lonelier before the pandemic as well. The ramifications are serious. In an April New York Times opinion piece, Murthy says, “When people are socially disconnected, their risk of anxiety and depression increases. So does their risk of heart disease (29 percent), dementia (50 percent), and stroke (32 percent).” Many of us are aware of the rapid increase in deaths from despair. Our social networks are fraying.

Murthy names three areas that need to be addressed. “First, we must strengthen social infrastructure — the programs, policies, and structures that aid the development of healthy relationships. That means supporting school-based programs that teach children about building healthy relationships, workplace design that fosters social connection, and community programs that bring people together.

“Second, we have to renegotiate our relationship with technology, creating space in our lives without our devices so we can be more present with one another. That also means choosing not to take part in online dialogues that amplify judgment and hate instead of understanding.

“Finally, we have to take steps in our personal lives to rebuild our connection to one another.”

The second and third suggestions are things we can address in our everyday lives. We can take an honest look at how we use and misuse technology. I find that at the least temptation of boredom I pull out my phone. It is easier to check the news than it is to think about my own challenges. We sit by the people with whom we live as we scan the electronic landscape. We expect instantaneous news, immediate updates, the latest happenings. Meanwhile we lose the slow delights of enjoying each other’s company.

I listened to an interview with Sheila Liming who was discussing her new book, Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. She builds a convincing case for simply spending time together, not to accomplish something, simply to get to know someone, listen to their stories, share your own. We used to do that, stop over at another’s house without an appointment just to shoot the breeze. Children do it—make new friends at the playground, collect neighbors for an impromptu game, form ever changing alliances. As I listened to her, I longed for that easy flow of time without an agenda, unproductive and unstructured time.

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My weekly walking friend and I used to simply meet between our two houses. I have moved and now one of us drives to meet the other. We have extended our allotted time to allow us to sit with a glass of water afterward, to “hang out” rather than rush to the next thing.

The Surgeon General’s urgency isn’t just about the health of individuals. Our increasing isolation is not good for our democracy either. “When we are less invested in one another, we are more susceptible to polarization and less able to pull together to face the challenges that we cannot solve alone — from climate change and gun violence to economic inequality and future pandemics. As it has built for decades, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our country apart.”

I know that I cannot solve all of this, but I can do something. I can support programs that build and sustain community. I can discipline my usage of electronics. I can forge and maintain connections with people, both those dear to me and those I encounter in the comings and goings of my day.

We are social animals. We are not meant to be alone. Let’s be a community together.

Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Direction in the Twin Cities. You can reach her at

Last Updated on September 4, 2023

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