Lonely In Our Age of Communication

If you think a lot of people seem lonely these days, it’s because they are.

According to a recent study, one in three Americans over the age of 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago.

Many of us don’t cope well with our loneliness. When our phone breaks down, we panic. When our email-inbox does not load, we fidget. When our text messages are ignored, we become upset. When our Facebook post goes unnoticed, we take it personally. When we are left alone, we become distracted.

We may be increasingly lonely, but we are busy.  A new research reveals that the average American spends 23 hours a week emailing, texting and using social media networks and communicating in other ways on line. This number represents an estimate of one full day in our week!

So why do we feel so isolated in an era of unprecedented togetherness? Why are we so lonely in this age of incessant communication? And why are we incapable of finding peace and tranquility in those few moments of solitude?

Communication vs. Connection

“It is not good for man to be alone,” exclaims the Biblical verse in the book of Genesis (2:18). From the beginning of time, human beings have been endowed with a dependence on others. From the moment we are born, we need each other and we yearn for one another. But the way we choose to come together often determines the success, or failure, of our relationships.

There are two classic ways to relate to others. One is through communication; the other, via connection. Sadly, we oftentimes lead ourselves to believe that if we just communicate feelings and occurrences, we will create friendships. If we just communicate updates via texting, Facebooking and Twittering, we will generate “friends” and “followers”. If we just communicate ‘likes’ and positive face expressions, personally or virtually, we will succeed in maintaining lifetime companionships.  But we forget that communication alone is not enough to form a sustainable relationship. Rather, true connection, must also be sought.

The differences between these two means are distinct: Communication is achieved with signals, words, pictures, videos and other external expressions; Connection is achieved with deep emotions, and genuine sentiments. Communication is conveyed with the body and with gestures; Connection is conveyed through the heart and with the soul. Communication is accomplished by sharing yourself and your life experiences; Connection is accomplished by giving of yourself and of your life experiences. Communication, no matter how great in quantity and quality, is limited; Connection is transcendent.

Two Types of Communities

The same also holds true for communities. As long as a community consists of individuals who come together around their common interests, its future is doubtful.  This type of community will only last as long as the interests of its members are relevant and communicable to one another.

But when a community consists of individuals who can connect and unite for greater-than-self commitments and purposes — such as study, prayer and acts of kindness — it is sure to grow and thrive for a very long time. Members of such a community then learn to value each other as peers who can help them achieve what they could not do alone.

Relief from Loneliness

Loneliness, after all, stems from the awareness of our own isolated individuality. In the words of the great thinker, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, “’To be’ means to be the only one, singular and different, and consequently lonely.”

Therefore, relationships and communities that seek to only communicate with one another will, at best, provide temporary relief from their loneliness: In order to relate to each other, they must focus on that which unites them; not that which separates them. But what of their singularities and differences? What of their particular interest and their unique needs? Those must be set aside for the common good. Their dealings and expeditions must then include things that they can both relate to; otherwise, one side is sure to become disengaged.

But when relationships and communities are based on true connections, people are then encouraged to contribute their own singularities and differences toward the greater good. Like a symphony orchestra, diversity is then welcome: each person involved plays a unique instrument, making the relationship or the community’s collective concerto possible.  And, as in a symphony orchestra, each person can rely upon the others; it is that interdependence that banishes loneliness.

The Genius of Judaism – This Sunday, November 17

This is part of the genius behind Judaism’s call to fuse our lives with the life of our respected communities, and to take an active role in learning Torah and practicing deeds of goodness: When people come together, learn Torah with their unique perspective, and practice good deeds with their exclusive talents, they are thereby redeemed from their solitude, as they are then encouraged to express their singularities and differences, toward the growth and development of the community.

This Sunday, November 17, 2013, we are presented with a rare opportunity to heed this call on a very large scale: Hundreds of communities worldwide will connect together, not just communicate, for a Global Day of Jewish Learning, spearheaded by world-scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. (Google Hangouts On Air will allow thousands of Jews around the world to study together with 24 speakers from around the world– live, in real time. I am humbled to have also been included in the roster of speakers.) I encourage you to join me, as we connect and dedicate ourselves to that which is greater than you and I. For more information, go to www.theglobalday.com.

To quote the Beatles: “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” They surely belong at this event, and to this type of community. Without a doubt, the feelings of loneliness of ‘all the lonely people’ will then melt away.