Loneliness, Social Media, and Creating Community

The Sermon

In a sermon series claiming to be about Christians and Social Media, my pastor preached on the topic of loneliness. Loneliness, he said, afflicted many Americans, many Christians, many people. And that loneliness could only be exasperated by looking at social media.

It became very clear very quickly—as it does every time my pastor talks about social media—that he has no familiarity with “social media” outside of Facebook. And that while he admitted social media was a tool and therefore was what you make of it, it seemed he couldn’t see a social media that created actual interaction, actual community, actual growth.

In my pastor’s mind, the lonely person scrolls through his Facebook profile, looking at what everyone else has, and just getting lonelier and lonelier.

The pastor also made the valid points that

(1)    Lonely individuals cannot expect their loneliness to be fixed unless they speak and tell people they are in fact lonely.
(2)    If a lonely person speaks up, it’s the responsibility of the Church to rise up and meet that need.

But all of these points were couched in an anti-social media message. As if, a person could not be involved in social media and admit they are lonely. As if a lonely person is somehow making a choice between the time they spend on social media and hanging out with loving church members who want to cure their loneliness.

I listened to this message getting more and more upset. Getting angry. Wanting to stand up and shout.

Because I have been lonely in our church.

And the pastor was so incredibly wrong.

My Reaction

I don’t usually so vehemently disagree with the pastor. This was just a very specific topic, one practically designed to make me upset—though the pastor had no idea.

When I started attending our church, in around 2012, I was incredibly lonely. I was over 1,000 miles away from anyone I knew—family, friends, anyone. I had come to Albuquerque from grad school in Atlanta for a job. I lived alone, and being an introvert, for the most part I enjoyed it.

But I was lonely. It’s hard not to be when you spend every single day alone. When you work, come home, and do…what exactly?

So I did what every lonely person who is a churchgoer has been told to do. I got involved.

I went to church nearly every Sunday, not just service but the young adult Sunday School. I went to every young adult event the church held. I joined a small group, and at least two committees. I joined the handbell choir. I volunteered with a local convention—Bubonicon, and joined the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society.

But these were just…events. Things to do. Get involved, they say. They don’t ever say that keeping busy doesn’t fill the hole in your heart. Keeping busy doesn’t fill the void left by an empty couch or eating every meal alone.

I told people I was lonely. I told people at church. One or two of them even invited me over for dinner, once or twice. I remember one time a couple invited me over for pizza and to watch Captain America: The First Avenger with them and I was ecstatic. I came home and called my mom. “Mom, someone treated me like part of the family. Someone had me over and let me eat dinner with their kids and watch a movie with the family. Someone saw me, remembered what I liked, and said, let’s involve this person in our life.”

It never happened again.

I burned my hand on Father’s Day—a second degree burn that seared whenever I took it out from under the water—and had no one to drive me to the hospital. I sat on the floor of my kitchen and cried for an hour until one of my coworkers finally called me back.

So many times I was sick, and just needed someone to make me chicken noodle soup and maybe pick up some medicine for me—so I wouldn’t be the one puking in the aisle at Walmart (though I’m sure Walmart has seen worse). But I had no one to call because well….all the church people have families. They live far away. They have things to do. And to be honest, if given a choice between taking their kid to soccer practice and helping out a puking 26-year-old, no one chooses the latter.

I was terminally lonely while an active vocal member of my church, and the only thing that saved me, the only thing that was there for me, was social media.

Facebook

Facebook isn’t my social media tool of choice, but it was on Facebook that I stayed up until two in the morning talking to one of my friends as she cried.

It was through Facebook my high school friend Nicole and I discovered a shared love of Marvel and began texting.

It’s through Facebook that I keep up with my college friends.

It’s through Facebook that I see pictures of my nieces and nephews.

These things don’t make me feel lonelier. They help me feel connected.

Twitter

While living alone I lived tweeted every show and movie I watched. To my amazement, people just began responding. Suddenly I was never watching anything alone, but watching it with other people. And it wasn’t just my TV watching habits they cared about.

I tweeted about my writing, and they connected. I tweeted about feeling sick, and suddenly women were asking for symptoms and suggesting remedies.

I came into contact with a group of writers from Indiana, and would later learn they were all in the same writer’s group and considered me their “Imaginary Friend.”

I traveled a lot for work and discovered people wanted to have dinner with me when I was in their town.

I had people.

Everywhere.

Blogs

Miss Snark’s First Victim—a blog—hosted a “Critique Partner Matching” event. To help aspiring authors to connect with other aspiring authors. I met Jamie.

Jamie is another rocket scientist, around my age, who writes Middle Grade and Young Adult science fiction and fantasy, like me. But Jamie’s friendship didn’t just stop at reading each other’s manuscripts and giving feedback. Jamie met a need no one else had even realized I had.

Every week we watch—still to this day—Arrow together. Even though we live across the country from each other, through the power of the internet, we get on our computers, we start our recording at the same time, and we watch the same show, chatting the entire time. This grew from Arrow to include Falling Skies (while it was on) and Flash.

Watching TV as a family had been something sacred growing up. Watching a show we all loved—Stargate: SG-1—and spending the commercials talking about it. Suddenly something that had been missing from my life for a long time was filled.

It wasn’t just TV.  It was friendship. It was community. It was family.

Jamie became a part of my family.

Tumblr

A work friend brought me onto tumblr, and specifically into the mysterious and wondrous thing called fandom. While on this social media site, writing “headcanons” about my One True Pair, I met a woman who at the time I only knew by a tumblr name.

She was hilarious, imaginative, and pushed me like no one else ever had.

Eventually we moved beyond tumblr and to gchat. And we talked all the time.

Suddenly instead of spending my evenings alone, every day, I spent them with this awesome person, whose name was Caitlin. We didn’t live in the same state or time zone, but I wasn’t alone anymore.

Caitlin became—and is—one of my best friends. The person who I can talk to about anything: fandom headcanons, issues at work, and topics that are too TMI for most people.

It’s Caitlin who helped me through those terrifying early days of dating my now husband. It’s Caitlin that my husband conspired with when it came to planning surprises. It’s Caitlin who flies to Albuquerque every year so she can stay up with me to the wee hours of the morning for the Bubonicon Late Night Auction. It’s Caitlin who I still talk to nearly every day.

Conclusion

Social media did what the church failed to do. Through social media, people invited me into their homes—not for a quick dinner on one occasion but rather every night. To talk about my day, to talk about my interests, to get involved in my interests, and just show over and over again that they cared about me. More people than I can name or give credit to in a blog post: Sarah, Katie, Galen, Kat, Sam, and so many others.

This is what it takes to cure people’s loneliness. Not a onetime dinner and a movie. Not a onetime lunch. A continuing presence in someone’s life.

What does this look like off of social media? If you’re not a social media savvy person who wants to reach out to the lonely people around you?

Invite people into your life. Don’t just pat yourself on the back for helping a lonely person out once. Make someone part of your family.

Don’t tell me you’re too busy with your own family—focusing on your kids and their events or whatever. Because the only local friend I have who has done this for me has two kids of her own. But she is still there for me. There to go to lunch. There to invite me over to dinner with her family. Inviting me to the movies with her. Inviting me to weekly trivia. Helping me with learning how to create cosplays and craft. And just being all around awesome.

Lonely people come in all shapes and sizes. Young single people far away from their families, women who feel like they’re being swallowed by the title of “mommy,” men who feel like no one understands them when they talk, and older people who once had homes full of kids and now find it’s just…empty.

Reach out to people beyond the events. Form bonds with people outside of your family unit. Form community. Invite people into your life.

That is how we stop loneliness.