Our Body’s Need for Community

I’m writing this blog post in an airy cafe on a beautiful sunny morning. Sipping my cappuccino, I can gaze out the window in that dramatic way writers do when they’re searching for just the right word. All of this has been brought to me by my teenager who can babysit.

It wasn’t too long ago that when my husband left for the day, I’d be home alone with little ones allll day long. And if they didn’t have nap schedules that allowed for an excursion or if I was too tired to get all of us out the door or if we were sick or if friends were sick or pretty much if the stars weren’t perfectly aligned, we stayed at home.

I began working on Write in Time when I was at the tail end of this period of being at home with only little children. To help me craft the story, I enrolled in an online class at my alma mater. My instructor mentioned in one of her feedback emails that she felt the loneliness of each of my characters. It was hard to hear. I was lonely at home and it was seeping into my writing.

I had intentionally tried to capture some of that grueling isolation in one of my main characters, Marie, the young mom of a toddler and one on the way. I hoped in some small way it would encourage other moms who were still deep in the trenches, alone, with few to cheer them on during the day. However, I didn’t realize I’d also made my other main characters lonely too. 

Write in Time ultimately became a book about our need for community, a lesson I was learning little by little as I walked through motherhood. The trials of caring for relentlessly adorable children was wearing down a long-held notion I’ve had that I can–and should–do everything myself. I knew I needed to make time to connect with friends and maintain relationships outside of those in my immediate family if I was going to survive!     

When I would go for days without seeing anyone but my kids and my husband for just a little while before and after work, I’d feel so crummy. Like, really terrible. Later, I learned why.

I discovered that loneliness can actually harm our physical health. In researching the importance of maintaining relationships for a talk to young adults that I gave in the fall, I found out that intense loneliness actually causes our body’s cortisol level to spike, triggering an inflammatory response. This inflammation, especially if prolonged, can result in various diseases, heart failure, and even early death!

These poor students–if they were lonely before my talk, now I’d made them anxious about it! I hadn’t meant to exasperate their problem. Instead, I wanted to help them identify that subtle heaviness that builds when we focus on our to-do lists and forget about taking time to see family and friends. It’s our body’s inflammatory response telling us that something is wrong. 

I suspected that these young adults, now removed from the social atmosphere of undergrad, might have been experiencing similar feelings of isolation that I’d felt while at home. I wasn’t wrong.

There was a lot of heartache in that room when they readily admitted they often didn’t see friends or really anyone for most of the day. They were isolated in their graduate studies or working away from their peers in the real world. One young man said that his company went out of its way to give its employees their own offices. And while that sounded great, in reality he now works alone in a small room from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. 

Another young man, visibly shaken, told me that he had moved recently for his job. There was no community culture within the company and he didn’t know anyone in the area. He asked what kind of programs our society could have in place to remedy this issue. I had to tell him that I didn’t know what the answer was, except to affirm that it’s a struggle to start and maintain relationships with others. We all have to find our own way to do so. 

With family and friends spread throughout the country and world, connecting with our loved ones requires much more effort and intentionality than ever before, a little like going to the gym would have been totally unnecessary in a different age. And now, quarantine and social distancing are only intensifying that challenge.

For me, learning that long periods of isolation aren’t just boring or uncomfortable but actually take a toll on my long-term health motivated me to work on my bad habit of neglecting time with friends. If I feel a strange weight on my chest and can’t quite put my finger on it, I’m a little quicker to ask myself when I last hung out with friends or called my mom. 

Our incredible technology makes us far more self-sufficient that ever before and gives the illusion that we can get by without real relationships. Our physiology, however, tells us differently.

The buzz of the cappuccino makes me feel alive inside as I look around the cafe. I could spend all day here. Just the little friendly exchange with the kind woman behind the counter and the other patrons similarly enjoying their coffee have been lovely, uplifting interactions with other adults.

And then my phone rings. It’s the teenager. The three-year-old has had an explosive episode in the bathroom and I’m needed at home immediately. 

I smile and close my laptop. I honestly don’t even mind my outing getting cut short. I’m grateful for the time out in the community that I wouldn’t have had not too long ago. I know I needed it.

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