Written by Mary Ellen Dingley, Communications and Outreach Coordinator
The first time I ever came to a L’Arche home, I sat next to Debora. Debora is a thoughtful communicator, comfortable sitting in long silences which are often followed by a witty quip or a loud laugh. This was new to me – I am frequently uncomfortable with silence, accustomed to judging my relationships on how quickly our words flow and if we can keep pace with each other in conversation. But as Debora and I sat quietly, I was surprised that within my discomfort I felt a connection.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what is being called “the loneliness epidemic” and where I have seen it play out in my own city and communities. A slew of recent research reveals high levels of loneliness in society, high enough that some consider it a public health crisis. The UK has even created a government initiative to combat loneliness.
This loneliness epidemic has risen during a time of community change in the USA. We now tend to do less together in organized groups, whether civic or religious. Although millennials are credited with starting the sharing economy, coming up with new ways to co-live and co-work and co-operate, it hasn’t appeared to alleviate the gap caused by decreasing participation in other former community cornerstones like churches.
Loneliness should not be confused with social isolation, although the problems are often intertwined. Social isolation is quantifiable by looking at the lack of social contacts while loneliness is subjective. Loneliness can arise from social isolation but it can also inflict itself on people with a packed social calendar. Someone could have many social connections and feel deeply lonely.
My theory on loneliness? I think in our hectic modern society we tend to keep our social connections at a distance and this gives rise to loneliness. This is of course only a theory, based on my own observations and not research, but I’ve noticed us being quick to disengage from relationships that aren’t convenient. In busy cities like DC we might not be socially isolated, but I think we don’t want to be inconvenienced by our connections – whether an inconvenience because of physical distance, scheduling, or different abilities, beliefs, socioeconomic status, or age.
It’s vital to have healthy boundaries and honor our needs and wants but I’ve observed that we sometimes use the boundaries as weapons. Any time something will inconvenience us in the slightest, we push for distance. But if a relationship with someone never inconveniences us, never makes demands on our time or energy, it’s not much of a relationship. At a certain distance, connection simply cannot grow and loneliness is likely.
I too sometimes tend to keep people at a distance, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes to my detriment. My experience at L’Arche GWDC has introduced me to a new way of building connections.
The other day a L’Arche GWDC leader and I were talking about how L’Arche is different from other organizations that include people with intellectual disabilities, such as institutions. In some institutions, “residents” are kept separate from “staff.” This is most apparent at mealtimes; people with disabilities eat in the cafeteria and the staff eat somewhere else.
The leader said to me that distance is “expected” in many institutions but L’Arche doesn’t accept distance. “We don’t accept that as a way of living.”
In a world where much of US society is surviving a loneliness epidemic, to not accept distance as a way of living is a radical stance and a needed one. And to not accept distance between people who are very different, with different ways of thinking, moving, and communicating? Even more so. Our L’Arche mealtimes are one place where our commitment to connection is visible: the homes sit down to eat dinner together, every day.
At L’Arche, we ask each other to enter into what society would deem inconvenience. Living in community means compromise. Being in relationship means giving, receiving, and supporting each other, even when it’s hard.
I ask core members (adults with intellectual disabilities) to repeat themselves because I communicate differently. And they do. We ask each other to adjust how slowly or quickly we walk, so we can walk together. And we do. At the beginning of meetings, we ask everyone how they are doing, because we all genuinely want and need to know. In big and small ways, we close that distance between ourselves, not despite but because of our differences. We celebrate differences and each of us adjust our lives to them.
We not only differ at L’Arche because of our experiences living with or without intellectual disabilities, but also because of differences like our religious beliefs, our heritage, and our ages.
That last one is more striking than you might think here in DC. DC has a larger young population than the USA overall, with a median age of 33.9. It’s easy to find yourself surrounded only by one age group. Before coming to L’Arche, just about everyone in my church, my professional sphere, and my social circles was a 20- or 30-something. That creates its own kind of loneliness, at least for me – a gap in my life where I didn’t have folks I saw regularly that could share wisdom beyond my years or remind me of the wonder of being a kid.
At L’Arche, I sat down to dinner once to pray and on one side held the hand of a retiree and on the other a toddler. I hold 6-month-old babies and crack jokes with folks in their 80s and everyone in between. I have been greatly blessed by this multi-generational community. As our community ages and families grow, we travel more slowly, with walkers and wheelchairs and baby carriages. We might go slower, but we never go alone.
For me, being in L’Arche has eased a certain type of loneliness I didn’t even know I had. I’m lucky to have a wonderful, supportive group of friends and family in DC and a very busy social life. But my friends, like myself, are mostly “young professional” types, and we are busy with careers, travel, volunteering, and other commitments. We snatch time together often quickly, in whatever moments we can.
It is in L’Arche homes where I can slow down and sit, sometimes in silence, sometimes in conversation, with people with very different life experiences. These slow moments are a bridge to one another, crossing distances one glance or word or gesture at a time. How I needed that connection!
At L’Arche we explain that we are “not a solution but a sign.” Not everybody needs to be in a L’Arche community, and not everyone would find the connection they seek in one. L’Arche is not the one-size-fits-all solution to the loneliness epidemic. But I believe our rejection of distance, a rejection that is not despite but because of our differences, is one that can be replicated in many places.
We reject distance. We embrace the inconvenience of community. And you know what? For me, it doesn’t feel inconvenient any more. It just feels like home.
If you’re interested in getting to know the L’Arche community, join us at one of our Prayer Nights, an Open House, or other event! Check out upcoming events here.
You can also support us through our Giving Tuesday campaign here.
Featured photo by Ryan Donnell