Last week, as I was wrestling with the dreaded Flu that has taken America by force this winter, I stumbled upon a Ted talk by Susan Pinker. Susan speaks of longevity, and factors that influence how long we live. She claims that social integration is the greatest predictor of long life. Isolation and individualism, which is the climate that has usurped our western world, is the most toxic and deadly habit that we could take on. Being surrounded by friends and loved ones actually keeps people alive for longer. Low fat diets, exercise, fresh air, smoking or not smoking: These indicators don’t extend our lives as much as being surrounded by other people.
The top two predictors of longevity are: Close relationships and social integration. “Social integration” means the number of interactions that we have during our day. How many people do we engage in conversation with throughout our daily life? Social media and texting don’t count. Oxytocin and dopamine are not released in the same way when we interact online or via text as they are when we come face-to-face or voice-to-voice with others. Our friends protect us from stress by stabilizing our cortisol levels and increasing our feel-good and healthy brain chemicals. Our immune system is bolstered by creating a village around us. “It takes a village” is not just an empty truism, but it is reality. It takes a village to raise healthy and well-adjusted children, and it takes a village to help each of us remain stable emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
What Susan presents in a scientific manner only serves to support the Biblical structure that God has set in place for relationships. We need one another, and we thrive in community. We cannot do this thing called life on our own. “Rugged individualism” doesn’t work if we want to thrive in this life, and our isolation, in fact, significantly shortens our lives.
Our church is completing a five-week series on relationships. We have spent five weeks studying scripture and diving into what God has to say about our friendships, marital relationships, family relationships, work relationships, and most importantly, our relationship with God.
God exists in constant relationship. Why do you think that God is composed of three beings in One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Not only is the Trinity in nature a being that is defined by relationship, but God created humanity to be in relationship with Himself as well. He desired more relationship, so He created us!
Being formed in the image of God (imago Dei), we are created to be in relationship. We go crazy if left alone for extended period of times. Social isolation is the greatest punishment that anyone could experience. Why is this?
In her video, Susan Pinker shows slides of parts of the brain that are lit up in social engagement (voice-to-voice and face-to-face, not social media). This is no surprise when we study what the Bible says about relationships: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17). We read in all of Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, Ephesians, and others that he values his relationships above all else second only to his relationship with God. To the Philippians, he writes: ” I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all.” (Philippians 1:3-4). To the church of the Thessalonians, he declares his thanksgiving and love for them. To Timothy, his beloved son in the faith, he showers love, grace, and constant exhortation. Paul’s network of “social integration” is massive. Those who support him in sickness, prison, and even in death are nearly innumerable.
How did Paul survive the mess of a life that he endured for the sake of Christ? A: Through the power of God; B: Through the support of tons of people.
Paul was not afraid to reach out to encourage others or to seek encouragement and support. His load was heavy, and he had many individuals who helped shoulder his burdens.
So here I am, many weeks home-bound, many days bed-bound, watching Ted Talks on social integration and learning about the importance of relationships from my husband on Sunday mornings. All of this flies in the face of the lies that I have fallen for over the years. I have been brainwashed to believe that my life is mine alone to carry. I am terrified of burdening others, or of being “too much” for friends to handle. These thoughts are lies from the enemy. The more I hide, afraid to reach out for support or to offer support, the sicker I become (spiritually, emotionally, and, subsequently, physically). And still those lies echo in my consciousness: “Suck it up. Be a good soldier. Don’t reach out for help. Everybody is too busy. Don’t be a bother. White knuckle it. You should be able to do this yourself. No one can handle your mess.”
All of the sudden, the Spirit brings the theoretical of Ted Talks and Pauline letters and my real life of chronic illness and recovery to an abrupt collision: I need people. People need me. We are made for relationships. I can reach out. We need support, and we need to support others. I cannot do this crazy, messy life on my own. Suddenly the shame of needing dissolves into a benign powder that I can softly blow off my comforter that is pulled to my chin. In tears, I pick up the phone. It starts with a text: “Please pray for me. I’m sick and I’m so discouraged.” Then another and another. Then, as if God nudged her, a friend whom I have not yet texted calls and says, “You’ve been on my heart today. Do you need to talk?” Like one who is starving for relationship, I cling to my phone with desperate hands, holding it up to my feverish cheek, pouring my heart out to my beloved friend who was brave enough to reach out to me.
And I am filled, and filled, and filled. Quarantened by the flu, I am physically isolated, but the Spirit floods my room with hope, community, and the hearts that are praying for me in the moment. In my aloneness, I have never felt so wrapped in love. At 7:30 PM, I am lifted by the Spirit of God, and I am reminded of those who love me, who are just a phone call away.
I am incredulous at the thought of the absurd lies that keep us away from one another, flailing pathetically, trying to do life alone. God, in complete sovereignty, created us for Himself, and for one another. If we cannot do life on our own, it does not mean that we are defective. If we find that we are struggling to survive in our own strength, it means that we are actually coming to the place for which God created us: Community.