The Common Good

Isolated in America

I wonder if social isolation — not extremist religion or Chechen roots — explains the two brothers who set off bombs during the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding more than 170.

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The older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was quoted as saying “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” One emerging theory is that, he dealt with isolation in America by seeking his heritage in Chechnya and there, some think, found purpose in violence against his unwelcoming home.

In feeling isolated, the alleged bomber isn’t alone. Isolation is the new normal in America.

More than one in four Americans have no friends for sharing troubles, a recent study of social isolation found. Those who do have friends tend to have only two. Just half of Americans believe they can count on anyone outside their home for support. Less than one in 10 counts the neighbor next door as a confidant.

Researchers blame television, long commutes, and long hours at work to make ends meet. Other factors include aging in place and feeling isolated among new and younger neighbors; being immigrants and non-English speakers struggling to assimilate; feeling cut off from society by illness, physical abnormalities, race, gender, and sexuality.

Give credit also to rampant sexual abuse and its lifetime consequence of shame and feeling different, as well as social disruption caused by lost marriages and broken families. Unemployment tends to drive people indoors or into part-time jobs away from their usual circles.

It takes an event like the Boston bombings or recent shootings for us to see how some angry, isolated people are taking refuge in weapons, and dream of revenge.

It’s a wonder that we don’t have more outbreaks of rage and violence. If isolation corrodes the soul and stokes the fires of self-loathing and resentment, we shouldn’t be surprised when some loners — from bullied teens to poorly welcomed immigrants to the jobless to desperately lonely elderly — take arms against their troubles.

It makes me sad when I see churches close their doors to protect their assets, when they could be opening themselves to the isolated, and easing the loneliness. Many social service agencies are cutting back because of funding gaps.

Yet it makes me glad when I see people banding together in women’s support groups, small faith communities, lunch buddies, church choirs, cycling groups, exercise circles — the many ways we are able to get outside ourselves.

Small steps can go a long way. For example, as our church prepared to bring gospel music legend Richard Smallwood to New York to direct singers from Park Avenue Church and Marble Collegiate Church, we knew it would sell out.

Three leaders of Lifeline, our recovery ministry, bought a block of 12 tickets for residents of Greenhope Services for Women, an extraordinary residential program in East Harlem for women seeking recovery from addiction. Several attend Lifeline.

We wanted them to feel connected with a world of sobriety and sanity, to know that life offers more than just the rough times and isolation they have known.

Not just by attending a concert, of course. There are no magic bullets in addiction — or in any of life’s agonies — and no single-shot events. “One day at a time” takes work all the time.

Few of us go to the extremes of building bombs or carrying assault rifles into schools. But the acid of isolation is still there, eating away at our social fabric.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

Photo: davesimon / Shutterstock

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