Han Zicheng was barking up the right tree.

Last December, the 85-year old Chinese widower made headlines when he put himself up for adoption. Han was suffering from chronic loneliness but had passed the age where seeking out some kind of fresh give-and-take companionship made sense. He needed an arrangement that acknowledged his frailty and didn’t require him to contribute much if anything. In other words, he craved the sort of care that only a family, or something family-like, could provide–people that would care for him simply because. As the notice he posted at bus stops in his neighborhood explained:

“My hope is that a kindhearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through old age and bury my body when I’m dead.”

Alas, poor old Han died before he could find the right fit. After an initial outpouring of sympathy and interest, potential candidates balked when confronted with the reality of what might politely be called an alienating personality. Loneliness had embittered the man. Even those offering care weren’t ready to take abuse.

Han’s case is hardly an isolated one. Not in China, where the needs of a disproportionately aging population represents an impending economic and public health crisis. And not in the United States, either. Last week, Cigna released a survey of 20,000 adults, gauging levels of loneliness, and the results are bracing.

According to the data–they used the UCLA Loneliness Scale–nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46%), left out (47%), lacking meaningful relationships (43%) and isolated from others (42%). Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) stacks up as the loneliest generation, believe it or not. But demographic breakdowns are misleading. Earlier this year it was British pensioners and clergy spouses, last year it was middle-aged men, before that professional women, now it’s college students. Everyone, it would appear, is lonely and getting lonelier.

We talked about this increasingly sad reality quite a bit in New York last weekend, especially as it relates to the stark divisions which characterize our world today. One of the questions that arose has stuck with with me: Are the two issues related and if so, are we lonely because we’re divided? Or are we divided because we’re lonely?

“Both” may be the right answer. RJ Heijmen noted in his opening talk that having a common enemy brings people closer together, that if shared purpose fosters a sense of belonging, then shared antagonism (or resistance) compounds that bond.

Anyone who’s attended–or even walked past–a rally of any kind recently will notice how pronounced the communal aspect has become. I remember talking to a former student who had just volunteered for a campaign. When I asked her how it was going, she told me, “I found my people”–as opposed to, say, “my purpose” or “my candidate.”

I’m hardly the first to theorize that our need for connection is so fundamental that when belonging isn’t readily found or experienced in conventional spheres (e.g., church, neighborhood, office, family), the surplus emotional energy has to go somewhere. Today, much of that energy/need is being directed at our ideological and political affiliations, ergo the increased vehemence. It’s not simply “issues” at play but belonging.

Tribalism, you might say, is one way we counteract or compensate for loneliness. We are divided, in part, because we are lonely.

The inverse is true too. If we are leaning on a specific cause for belonging, then those who belong most will be the ones who espouse their views most ardently. The louder the display, they more affirmation and admiration it will garner for the person involved. Belovedness correlates more or less directly to the strength of our commitment. Belonging is thus not only conditioned on holding certain opinions or convictions, but holding them strongly enough. Any hesitation becomes grounds for rejection. As The Onion wrote this past week, “‘We Can Have Differences Of Opinion And Still Respect Each Other,’ Says Betrayer Of The One True Cause.”

And so we signal our adherence however we can, clamoring over our co-belligerents for the social-emotional rewards that come from being the most hardcore, the most purely devoted. Which becomes a lonely enterprise tout de suite. As Stephen Marche writes in The Unmade Bed, “The business of correcting idealism is a parlor game in which, one by one, everybody leaves the room.”

Alas, the narrower the cause, the less genuine belonging can be generated. Because no one can really be reduced to a single conviction or even set of convictions. To try and do so invariably involves leaving something out, repressing some inner contradiction for fear of being ostracized–refusing thereby for some part of ourselves to be known.

In other words, we are lonely, in part, because we’re divided.

Of course, the content of the ideology being embraced has an enormous bearing here. Is it an ideology that takes into account the fundamental flimsiness of human nature–that incorporates or at least acknowledges the truth that we are all inwardly divided, consistent in our inconsistency? Or is it one premised on a more Pollyannaish self-understanding that (inadvertantly or not) punishes its adherents for any flicker of uncertainty or–gasp!–hypocrisy?

Put another way, is the group I’m a part of bound together by shared strength or shared weakness? By shared righteousness or shared sin? Is it a community of law or a community of grace?

The delineations are always often unclear. I think of the This American Life episode we referenced on The Mockingcast recently, the story of sex-ed youtuber Laci Green and her experience when she transgressed the norms of her staunchly progressive audience. Click here for the details. Suffice it to say, the group that understood itself as standing for acceptance had a less accepting internal ethos than the one that had been cast as “trolls.”

You see this all the time and in every ideological (and religious!) combination imaginable: the form of a movement can be compassion but if its (sole) instrument is law, then it will sow exclusion and loneliness.

The point here is not to figure out how to care about social justice without turning into an a-hole, though that’s important. The point is merely that division and loneliness aren’t separate phenomena.

So if adult adoption is off the table, what might a ray of light look like? Clearly you could do a lot worse than Helena Bala’s approach, which CJ highlighted on Friday (the Craigslist Confessional). If you haven’t watched the video, it’s really something else. The kind of empathetic, non-judgment on display is so much more difficult that it appears. Pure grace in practice:

My favorite moment comes when the widower comments, almost to his own surprise, that “part of being heard is being self-honest enough to hear myself.” That sort of honesty can only occur when performance goes out the window, no? I dare say the private one-on-one setting is no coincidence. Sure, phone calls and emails are better than nothing, but an in person interaction, where you can see, hear and, yes, smell, the other, is ideal.

At first glance the clip suggests that there’s an inverse relationship between sharing and listening, that our TMI-era is actually indicative of the loneliness epidemic, not the solution to it. We’re dying for someone to listen but so busy talking that we never think to do so ourselves. But Bala goes a level deeper when she responds to the question about whether or not we’re sharing too much today. Her response is golden. She says that what we’re sharing is “the wrong thing. Our veneers are quite perfect… That’s what we want to portray. ‘We’re doing great’!”. In other words, most of what passes for sharing today is in fact self-justification, not honesty. Even our vulnerability becomes performative, engineered to maximize sympathy and affirmation. Yet a world of competitive self-justification is a lonely one, indeed.

In John, Jesus says something remarkable. He tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you.”

The servant-master relationship is marked by withholding on both sides. Reality bears this out. The employee doesn’t tell the boss why she was out so late last night, and the boss doesn’t confide in the employee her anxieties about the company’s future. There’s a wall of propriety but also a wall of contingency between them, as there is in every conditional/instrumental relationship. A certain amount of loneliness–or independence–is baked into the equation.

Christ knocks down the wall–one so instinctual to how we think of God–and claims friendship with his followers. And what is friendship, in its purest form, if not a non-instrumental, non-performative relationship? A friend is a person you spend time with because you want to, not because you have to, or need to, a person you confide in because you’re assured of their charity toward you. They both like you and love you.

Jesus redraws the lines of their relationship with transparency as the basis, a transparency that flows from God to him, and him to them, and does not appear to be predicated on their own merits, but on his choosing. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” he tells them, and he means it. After all, the ensuing chapters reveal his audience to be perilously fair-weather. Yet his love for those he calls friends holds true. It persists, even as the world unites against him. Even as he finds alone on the other side of the inglorious divide we lay down before the grace of God.

Come to find out, that’s precisely where our joy is made complete, where the adoption papers are signed–in our Merciful Friend’s laying down of his life for the sake of lonely wall-builders of all persuasions.

And yet, if I were to speak to Ms. Bala, I wonder if I’d have to courage to confess my two minds about this Good News. Because I don’t like what it says about me. I want my appreciation of its beauty and truth to place me on the right side of some line. I want to belong on my own terms, not someone else’s. I want to look away, and I often do.

Try as I might, though, I can’t shut out the music. Not entirely. Not when it sounds this abidingly sweet: