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So You Think You’re Lonely

We can draw on the Church's history of kindness to fight the intense loneliness of the modern age.

“Thank you. We love you.”

These words are printed on the bottom of the sales receipts from La La Land Kind Cafes. And that’s not at all. I was patronizing the coffee shop for the first time recently, and the Gen Z-er barista was working hard on the connection with our table—taking our pictures, asking us personal questions, giving us unsolicited affirmations, and then, as we were leaving, thanking us and telling us, “Love you guys so much.”

It’s weird. But being “in the business of kindness” isn’t or at least shouldn’t be. Here’s a bit from the “About us” section of La La Land’s website:

The name La La land represents a dream world. We set out to bring La La land to life. A place where you walk in and feel a true sense of joy for life. A place where you are loved for who you are. A place that brings together all human beings. A place where kindness is priority.

Granted, it is fantastically secularized—but this is what lay people are supposed to do on this side of eternity! “Bring La La Land to life”—in religious language, “restore the temporal order and build the Kingdom of God here on earth”!

How do we do that? Stewarding joy, love, kindness, and community, “a place that brings together all human beings.” In biblical and religious language, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

Where did all these catholic ideas come from? Oh, the Church. It sounds like church because it is from Church. Place this truth in the “intellectual history” fact file.

The movement of “normalizing kindness” (also on the La La Land website) began in the first century of the Roman Empire. Pagans converted to the Faith in droves, when the Church was illegal and persecuted, because of the kindness shown to them by their Christian neighbors during the famines and plagues. The concept of charity became an experiential reality.

This coffee shop is a sign of the times—post-Christian times. The people there are trying to do what the Church is supposed to do: transform culture by building a civilization of love and a culture of life.

I’ve always been fascinated by how well the secular world diagnoses the problem. For example, the problem of workaholism launched the “self-care” movement. Wrong-ish solution, but the right problem: worship of work over human dignity. What’s the real root of workaholism? The sin of sloth, or acedia. Interestingly, the root word for acedia means “lack of care,” uncaringness. We should care about spiritual things, and we should also care about ourselves. So moderns aren’t wrong about the need for self-care. But without replacing worship of work with worship of God, all these attempts at self-care remain superficial and circular.

The fourth-century emperor Julian the Apostate tried—and failed—to do the same thing in a pagan context. Pope Benedict reminds us of the story in Deus Caritas Est:

Upon becoming emperor, Julian decided to restore paganism, the ancient Roman religion, while reforming it in the hope of making it the driving force behind the empire. In this project he was amply inspired by Christianity. He established a hierarchy of metropolitans and priests who were to foster love of God and neighbor. In one of his letters, he wrote that the sole aspect of Christianity which had impressed him was the Church’s charitable activity. He thus considered it essential for his new pagan religion that, alongside the system of the Church’s charity, an equivalent activity of its own be established. According to him, this was the reason for the popularity of the “Galileans.” They needed now to be imitated and outdone. In this way, then, the emperor confirmed that charity was a decisive feature of the Christian community, the Church (24).

Julian tried to incentivize “kindness.” You can legislate morality insofar as the law is within the realm of justice. But the realm of charity is of a supernatural order, and the nature of love demands that it be entirely free—freely willed and freely accepted. Without freedom, morality becomes moralism, and sometimes this can tend to violence (e.g., one of the merch items in the La La Land shop says “be *insert expletive* kind”).

Another fascinating sign of the times is Bumble BFF, the “Bumble For Friends” app. That’s another well-intentioned monetization of the current epidemic of loneliness. Buy a coffee, get some love affirmations. Purchase an app, buy some friends.

But all consumeristic attempts will fail or remain ultimately unsatisfying because, as Pope Francis exhorted us in Evangelii Gaudium, without God, we “remain existentially orphaned, become drifters, flitting around . . . and never getting anywhere” (170). You can’t monetize love (no matter how well intentioned), and you can’t hotwire an emotional connection or purchase friendship.

The statistics surrounding these issues are staggering. Since 2010, religiosity among high-schoolers has decreased by 27 percent. Forty-two percent of youth report hopelessness and unhappiness. Twenty-two percent have experienced suicidal ideation in the last year, according to the CDC.

I guess it’s time to make parish families great again! The breakdown of the family has left us a lot of unhappy spiritual children to adopt. It should be the easiest time to evangelize. Interestingly, La La Land Kind Cafe intentionally hires and mentors “foster youth.”

Let’s do the same, supernaturally. The practice of physical and spiritual adoption originated in medieval convents and monasteries, which led to the founding of official orphanages in Europe. Now we need the apostolic zeal and creativity to re-invent the parishes as spiritual orphanages for our numerous spiritual children.

Currently, parishes have adopted a consumerist model, following the culture. Even those who belong to a parish remain largely anonymous, coming in and out for sacraments, or engaging only with those they like, are already friends with, or maintain a shared context with (same small group, kids in the same religious education program, etc.). There are many within the parish who remain lonely, not to mention those within the parish boundaries who are waiting to be found—the peripheral “orphans and widows” whom the Lord has entrusted to our care.

If Mother Teresa is right about loneliness being the most terrible poverty, then we have never been poorer in the West than we are at this moment. Let’s change that.

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