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Loneliness in the time of Covid-19

May 2020 | by Alan Thomas

‘It is not good for man to be alone’ declared the Lord when considering the plight of Adam in the garden of Eden. So he created Eve to be his companion and to relieve his loneliness. Adam, like all his descendants, was God’s image bearer and since God himself is not alone but exists eternally as three persons in relationship then it followed that Adam would need another person to be complete. And so it is for all of us. We are not designed to live alone, we need relationships with other people to be comfortable, to be fulfilled as humans.

The current Covid-19 epidemic has highlighted the loneliness problem in our society, hasn’t it? Longstanding societal changes have created large numbers of people who live alone and with the sudden emergence of restrictions on movement and interaction, such people are now more isolated than ever. The very term ‘self-isolation’ is a painful one, isn’t it? It suggests we are being asked to do something voluntarily which is against nature: to choose to cut ourselves off. Again, ‘social distancing’ has a slightly Orwellian feel to it since by deliberately keeping a good eight feet from others we are engaging in a kind of anti-social act, aren’t we?

I understand the medical rationale for such changes and recognise their necessity at this time, but my point is they involve us all forcing ourselves to do what is anti-natural, what pushes against our ‘imageness’ as social creatures. It is not good for man in these days to isolate and keep our distance.

The difficulty in going against our human nature as God’s image bearers is exacerbated by having to do so in a time of national distress. It has often been observed in recent days that we haven’t experienced anything like this as a nation since the Second World War, and of course very few of us can remember that experience since Victory in Europe Day was 75 years ago.

Now I hope the current crisis is reasonably short-lived and that we don’t experience the level of death and destruction of that war, but there is one way at least in which the Covid-19 epidemic is worse than the Second World War, isn’t there? Loneliness. In war there is camaraderie, a pulling together and a forging of relationships. But in this epidemic we are driven apart, forced into isolation and so have to bear the stresses more alone than ever. Many feel the uncertainty of trying to combat an invisible foe, one which stalks silently and strikes quickly, and they have to do it alone.

Reasons to be thankful

However, we do have much to be grateful to God for, don’t we? We may have been told not to gather for our Sunday services but many of us have been able to take advantage of internet-based video conferencing systems to create a new kind of Sunday service. Whilst these can never be a proper replacement for congregational worship, they are a lot better than no services or just listening to pre-recorded sermons (though even the latter is better than nothing, of course).

Using Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, YouTube, and other such software, Christians have been able to communicate and support each other in ways which would not have been possible until recently. Again, it is not the same as physical meetings (you can’t hug or kiss or shake hands over the internet) but it does enable loneliness to be relieved and encouragement to be given.

And then there is the good old-fashioned audio-only telephone! This seems to have made something of a comeback too and it remains good to talk. As we reflected when thinking about language last month, communication using words is a key element of our imageness and doing so by phone therefore helps combat the Covid-imposed problems of isolation.

Family opportunities

By taking advantage of such blessings our church families can develop and foster relationships with each other, can’t we? With more time on our hands at home we have more time to contact each other using these technologies and to learn how to support each other. We learn of each other’s concerns and needs and so gain more fuel to pray for each other. With a greater knowledge of each other’s needs we can pray with greater accuracy.

Younger people who are free to get out now have new opportunities to visit older members in order to bring them shopping and have a face-to-face interaction (albeit at 8 feet). These are opportunities for relationships between age-groups to form and mature so that perhaps, by God’s grace, at the end our church families may find we have stronger bonds than before all this began. We have the opportunity to demonstrate our love for one another in practical ways which we would never have had otherwise. And we pray that the onlooking world would be caused to say: ‘See how they love one another’ and want to know Christ who has brought us together (John 13:34; 17:21).

And while such kindness begins with the household of God, it can overflow to others. We become more conscious of the plight of older neighbours or the isolated disabled and now perhaps are more free to approach and offer help. We see this happening with non-Christians, but may we be those who not only do the same but more, and by persistence in such good deeds when they flag, by continuing contact when they withdraw, distinguish ourselves to the honour of God.

May the Lord give us all eyes to see opportunities for service in this crisis and grace to seize them, to the honour of his name.

Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.