Researchers from several leading universities conducted a 10-year study of 5,100 people and their social contacts. Their findings are that the emotion of loneliness can spread from one person to others. Like a virus.
Theologian Sarah Coakley describes a similar phenomenon in studies of pain and healing, based on her work with leading pain scientists. She spoke at Duke recently about her findings. Coakley and colleagues found that pain is not a private emotion. Pain is felt in community among sufferer, colleagues, strangers, friends, and family. Even when a patient dies, the community must deal with the body. Even if a person is unconscious, his or her distress registers with caregivers who see the person in pain.
It’s like the time my manager told me my strategy was showing. Ouch. Some people will be oblivious, yes. But others know, even if they’re polite about it.
There is good news. Coakley argues that healing is equally communal. She describes a delicate web of interpersonal and divine discernment: listening, prayers, solidarity, emptying, requesting, submission, and gentle touching. Coakley argues that healing is primarily done by God. The human healer is merely the mediator. This is difficult to keep clear about, but Christians must, lest we fall into idolatry.
The loneliness study does not draw such theological conclusions, but does say that society should tend to those at the margins who transmit loneliness to others.
Coakley recommends that we should compliment conventional pain treatment with the wisdom of spiritual practices of healing. For example, prayer helped persecuted 16th century churchman Juan de la Cruz with the pain of being confined by his own order. Others are embodied by Christian communities that do some of the church’s best work at the margins – precisely where the loneliness study suggests we need to concentrate. Strong examples include the Church of the Savior in Washington, which has a hospice program, and Word Made Flesh, an international organization whose members sit with the poor, dying, and enslaved. They range from the Nobel prize nominated L’Arche communities of the disabled, to the unsung church folk who take a mitten from the Angel Tree each Christmas to bring a teen or child some much needed physical and emotional care. The church has a rich tradition that can go deeper and doesn’t start from scratch.
It’s always troubled me that we often don’t reach for the communal approaches to healing. But it’s hardly a new problem. One of the most poignant laments in Shakespeare’s works revolves around a quest for healing, and it is found in “Macbeth.” Macbeth is dealing with a rebellion, guilty visions, and a troubling reforestation near his castle. Yet what he spends some time on is trying to get help for his troubled wife. He demands of his doctor:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain, 52
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
The doctor tells Macbeth the patient must minister to herself. The frustrated king replies, “throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it” (This from a man who used Wiccan physic as a stepping stone to kingship!).
I’m not typically pro-Macbeth, but here I think the tyrant has a point. Patients, according to two major studies, aren’t as self-healing as we hoped, and can even spread their loneliness and pain. That’s why the king called his doctor.
Perhaps the doctor should have called his pastor and the women’s auxiliary.
Allegra Jordan is special assistant to the dean at Duke Divinity School.