Not long ago, I saw a news story about a New Zealand college student who had been found dead in his dormitory room. It has troubled me ever since. What made the story especially jarring was that the coroner estimated that the young man had been dead for about eight weeks before he was discovered. School officials only found him because the odor of his decomposing body was beginning to permeate the rest of the residence hall. Even his own family hadn’t inquired about him until several weeks after his death. Talk about dying alone. How could a young person from a supportive family, immersed in a communal living environment, be so invisible to those around him?
As a Catholic priest and military chaplain, I know I could not lie dead for that long before somebody bothered to check on me. In fact, my Air Force unit would probably start trying to track me down by mid-morning if I failed to show up to work one day. Nevertheless, this sad incident illustrated for me that we are living increasingly more detached and isolated lives. The lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic did a lot to exacerbate this already growing problem. A Google search of the phrase “pandemic isolation” brings up hundreds of articles about how damaging social isolation is, especially for teenagers and young adults.
To be sure, one thing contributing to this isolation is the electronic media we use in order to stay connected and stave off loneliness. I came across a much more mundane example of this growing detachment, even pre-COVID, about ten years ago. A military buddy of mine was visiting town on official business and we had agreed to work out together the following day. When he showed up at the gym, he was wearing earbuds and listening to “his” music. I quickly learned that there would be no spotting, no encouraging one another during the workout, no conversations in between sets, and no real camaraderie, just the occasional way-too-loud “WHAT?” We weren’t working out together, we were working out simultaneously.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, too, that most new vehicles of a certain price point have individual TV screens for each of the passengers in the car. What is a luxury feature in 2022 will be standard equipment in 2032. It’s not enough to provide an entertaining distraction for all the people in the back seats with a single drop-down screen. Now, everyone has to have their own individual multimedia suite for a boring ride around town, or a trip to grandmother’s house. Are there any families left who play the license plate game on long road trips, or who fight over which radio station to listen to?
We all, myself included, spend an interminable amount of time on our phones, listening to “our” music and surfing the web—doing almost anything except talking to another person. In the year 2022, the terms “connected” and “social networking” are becoming just as ironic and antonymous as the words “tolerance” and “open-mindedness.” To be super-connected is to be disconnected. In the era of Facebook, even the meaning of the word “friend” has transformed from “someone with whom a person shares a bond of mutual affection” to simply “a contact,” whom the individual may have never even met. Three years ago Pope Francis noted on Pentecost that, “the more we use social media, the less social we become.” The political and social fragmentation we see in our culture today is a testament to the pope’s observation.
Most organizations that deal with suicide awareness and prevention teach that one of the main precursors of suicide is the feeling of isolation, or societal rejection. Those are feelings that we’ve all experienced, and yet do our best to avoid. Combating those perceptions among our younger active duty and veteran military populations has become a top priority for the Air Force this past year.
Dying alone is not a uniquely twenty-first century phenomenon. There have always been potter’s fields. I can remember presiding at a funeral at my first parish where the only other people at the funeral were the pallbearers provided by the funeral home. But having also presided at the tragic funerals of the young, especially teenagers, I know that it’s highly unlikely for a young person to pass without their entire peer group being deeply affected by the experience. This poor 19-year-old college student in New Zealand had been dead in the midst of his peers and “friends” for two months before anyone thought to look for him. How can this be?
I’m not railing against technology. In many ways, technology has made the world a better place. But just as we don’t want science or warfare to be unmoored from ethics and morality, we should likewise insist that technology remain tethered to a proper understanding of human nature—namely, that we are made for communion with other people, as well as for God. In the wake of the pandemic, parents, employers, and school psychologists, regardless of their faith background, can now anecdotally attest to that theological assertion. Really, the best way to update your “status” with your family and friends, and with God, is in person.
James A. Hamel is a Catholic priest serving on active duty as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently the Command Chaplain for Air Combat Command, headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.
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