Another Week Ends

The Cure for Loneliness, Murder Detectives in Community, the Power of Music, and the Religious Aspirations of AI

Cali Yee / 9.8.23

1. The epidemic of loneliness is not a newfound sickness by any means — even in pre-pandemic society, studies showed that 61% of adults experienced loneliness. But post-pandemic, the sudden universal loss of community paired with our human need for connection served as a springboard for more studies and conversations surrounding our epidemic of loneliness. Not only that, but certain areas of the world like Britain, Sweden, and Japan have appointed “ministers of loneliness” to initiate both social and physical infrastructures to build community. Nicholas Kristof, for the New York Times, dares ask why we still suffer despite knowing the cure for loneliness:

Social isolation is the rare malady whose cure is fully known and costs relatively little, yet is still so difficult to achieve. In the 21st century, we are a social species living atomized lives; even when living in a high-rise apartment building in a densely inhabited city, surrounded by people in every direction, we can easily feel bereft and melancholy.

Stuart Andrew, the British minister for loneliness, told me that one of the challenges of loneliness is the stigma that surrounds it. We’re embarrassed that we’re lonely and slow to seek help — so he has been sharing stories of his own lonely childhood. […]

The steps to tackle loneliness aren’t grand, high-tech or expensive. In fact, one of the strategies is simply to get people back into old-fashioned patterns like eating meals together, holding parties and volunteering to help one another out. […]

One of the paradoxes of humanity is that while we (along with other primates) evolved to be social creatures, wealth drives us toward solitude. When we have the resources, we stop sleeping eight to a hut and build a big house with high walls, and each family member has a private bedroom and bathroom — and then to afford the mortgage we work so hard that we never manage to have meals together.

The decrease in church attendance and the persistent doubts plaguing younger generations about religious institutions leave a gap where church used to fill a major role in building community. How will church ever become a place we go to for human connection? Mike Cosper, in his essay for Christianity Today, may actually be getting somewhere by taking notes from Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building:

After months of isolation, many were questioning what value was to be found in gathering again at churches, schools, and workplaces. Only Murders offered an adamant answer: Community is necessary. Loneliness can be escaped. Even grief and tragedy can be a catalyst to connection.

However unintentionally, that echoes a foundational Christian understanding of community. Unlikely friendship was knit into the DNA of the church from the beginning, when zealots, tax collectors, fishermen, and sinners of all kinds encountered grace and began following Jesus together (Mt 10:2-4). […]

Today the church’s biggest obstacle to that kind of community is often self-imposed. First, leaders act like marketers, dividing congregations into demographic groups and programming ministry to meet specific needs. Then, in the interest of highlighting “diversity,” we attempt to manufacture experiences that bring those groups together, expecting various members to fulfill stereotypical roles according to race, age, or gender.

I wonder if we couldn’t take a cue from Only Murders on this front. In the fifth episode of the current season, when Mabel is asked to characterize her relationship with Oliver and Charles, she calls them her “best buds.” They talk about “murder, mostly,” she adds, but also “how to connect to Bluetooth. We talk about that a lot.”

It’s an artful understatement. Friendship defies description. It also resists force. Those who want to fight the loneliness epidemic from inside the church could learn a lot from a relationship built on murder and Bluetooth, a pairing of serious purpose and the mundanities of life together. To make another understatement, that pair is just what can unite us at church.

Cosper doesn’t stop to question whether or not we can be freed from our loneliness; he is clear in stating: “Loneliness can be escaped.” We need only to look outside of ourselves — to God, and also to the mundane liturgies of shared meals, carpools, and pew buddies.

2. Continuing on the topic of community is Paul Woodruff’s intimate essay from the Washington Post. A retired professor of philosophy, Woodruff writes about the value of time spent with friends in-person and the downside of connections made with people solely online:

But web-based connections are simply not as good as in-person ones. Technology tempts us into being satisfied with pseudo-friendships, and these can be dangerous. You’d be a fool to marry or promise sex to someone you had never met off-screen. That’s because the internet can’t reliably protect us from falsehood. Now, artificial intelligence has become a champion at falsehood. It can create false images of people — even of my friends — and get me to believe they are real.

Oftentimes, when we meet someone online (whether on a dating app or on social media) what we see of them is a curated and controlled narrative. And it is from this narrative that we form our ideas of who we think someone is rather than who they actually are. There is no better example of this than the para-social relationships people form with celebrities and influencers. To know someone is to actually have a conversation face-to-face with them — no phone screens, DMs, nor comment sections to hide behind. But besides lacking authenticity, online connections also lack the comfort of being physically present with someone. For Woodruff, seeing his loved ones in person, rather than via online platforms, is the best solace for him as he nears the end of his life:

They are right to come in person. In actual presence, they can hold my hand, stroke my brow. At the end of my life, if they were trying to see me through the internet, they would fail. That dying thing will not be me. I am who I am through my actions, and dying is not an action. It is a happening. At the end, I will have no comfort in being observed. At the end, I cannot be seen. I want to be touched.

3. For Joe Garcia, Taylor Swift (yes, Taylor Swift) is his solace as he lives out his life sentence in prison. More specifically, Swift’s genuine voice and relatable lyrics are what carried him through the pandemic and will continue to encourage him until he gets the chance for parole in 2024. Whether or not you love, like, dislike, or hate Taylor Swift, there’s no denying that music is a powerful salve, a revelation of sorts about who we are in the world around us  — as evidenced by Garcia’s testimony in the New Yorker:

There was, in her voice, something intuitively pleasant and genuine and good, something that implies happiness or at least the possibility of happiness. When I listened to her music, I felt that I was still part of the world I had left behind.[…]

I’m fifty-three, and I’ll get my first chance at release in 2024. I couldn’t help but think of “Daylight” again. “I’ve been sleeping so long in a twenty-year dark night,” Swift sings. “And now I see daylight.” […]

For the past two decades, sleep has not come easily to me. Often, when I get into bed, I think about the day I was arrested at the scene of my crime. Some neighbors called 911 and reported gunshots. I can still see the grieving family members of the man I killed, staring at me in the courtroom at my trial. I’m guilty of more than murder. I abandoned my parents and my sweetheart, too. There’s no way to fix this stuff.

Taylor Swift is currently the same age, thirty-three, that I was when I was arrested. I wonder whether her music would have resonated with me when I was her age. I wonder whether I would have reacted to the words “I’m the problem, it’s me.” Hers must be champagne problems compared with mine, but I still see myself in them. “I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror,” Swift sings and I think of the three-by-five-inch plastic mirrors that are available inside. For years out there, I viewed myself as the antihero in my own warped self-narrative. Do I want to see myself clearly?

4. Next up is a compelling comparison of AI and religion. What in the world could artificial intelligence and technological advancements have to do with the centuries old systems of faith? According to Sigal Samuel at Vox, the answer is salvation:

Five years ago, when I began attending conferences in Silicon Valley and first started to notice parallels like these between religion talk and AI talk, I figured there was a simple psychological explanation. Both were a response to core human anxieties: our mortality; the difficulty of judging whether we’re doing right or wrong; the unknowability of our life’s meaning and ultimate place in this universe — or the next one. Religious thinkers and AI thinkers had simply stumbled upon similar answers to the questions that plague us all.

So I was surprised to learn that the connection goes much deeper. […]

The influential ninth-century philosopher John Scotus Eriugena, for example, insisted that part of what it meant for Adam to be formed in God’s image was that he was a creator, a maker. So if we wanted to restore humanity to the God-like perfection of Adam prior to his fall, we’d have to lean into that aspect of ourselves. Eriugena wrote that the “mechanical arts” (a.k.a. technology) were “man’s links with the Divine, their cultivation a means to salvation.” […]

This wasn’t tech for tech’s sake, or for profit’s sake. Instead, tech progress was synonymous with moral progress. By recovering humanity’s original perfection, we could usher in the kingdom of God. As Noble writes, “Technology had come to be identified with transcendence, implicated as never before in the Christian idea of redemption.”

It’s not so much that AI is being used to further religious beliefs and foster faith — although it is for some — it’s more about how the seemingly secular nature behind the desire for technological advancements looks for answers to the same problems that we might usually look to religion to solve. Our desire for control over our lives just as much impacts how we interact with religion as we do with technology. We want both our religion and our technology to bring us comfort, convenience, and ease of life. AI just happens to be hiding behind the profit-hungry, success-driven hipsters of Silicon Valley. Samuel goes on to say:

We need to decide what kind of salvation we want. If we’re generating our enthusiasm for AI through visions of transcending our earthbound limits and our meat-sack mortality, that will create one kind of societal outcome. But if we commit to using tech to improve the well-being of this world and these bodies, we can have a different outcome. We can, as Noble put it, “begin to direct our astonishing capabilities toward more worldly and humane ends.”

In the end, it’s not about deciding what kind of salvation we want but rather finding what will actually be the thing to save us. Salvation won’t come from our debates over morality nor will resurrection come from our attempts toward immortality. Of course, committing ourselves to look out for the well-being of the world or engaging in good works for the furthering of the kingdom of God are all good and holy things, but if we expect them to do the work of sanctification we will ultimately realize that they are failing at their job. What does the work of sanctification is the word of forgiveness spoken over us again and again despite our earthbound limitations.

5. For kicks and giggles, here’s the Onion‘s “Coffee Shop Onlookers Speculate About Unimaginable Riches Awaiting 43-Year-Old Reading ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People.'”

 “With the meteoric rise he’s bound to experience after executing Stephen Covey’s principles of effective self-leadership, collaboration, and improvement, it won’t be long before that guy is buying a superyacht and two or three vacation homes,” said coffee shop customer Justin Schoenberg, adding that as soon as the reader had finished the self-help book, he would probably take over the entire company he worked for and put himself in charge as CEO. […]

At press time, onlookers confirmed the man had closed the book and picked up his phone, presumably to book himself a seat on a commercial space flight.

Back to the topic of curated personas, here’s Reductress’ most recent: “‘Easygoing’ One of Woman’s Most Carefully Curated Personality Traits.” Oh, and happy belated Labor Day!

6. I think it’s about time we revisit the evergreen balm of Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night, which Natasha Moore at ABC Religion and Ethics reflected upon this week:

You hem me in … You lay your hand upon me. It’s become my fallback, my traction, my incantation, these last few nights. It is a vastly different thing to be awake at 4am in the grip of your own merciless thoughts, and to be awake at 4am in the embrace of one from whom you know you can never be separated. […]

Pain, crisis, fear, all have a way of swallowing up everything else in the world. 4am has a way of cancelling out everything good or bright. We need something big enough to swallow 4am, to contain those moments of weeping, watching, wearying, working in the night and keep them from growing monstrous beyond their bounds.

The vulnerability is real. When we do have to confront the night, what it shows us about our illusions of control and self-sufficiency, productivity and trivial distraction, is itself no illusion (even if it usually evaporates with the dawn). But neither is that desolate nightscape as definitive as it seems. What the unwilling midnight watcher needs is a tether to a larger reality — a tether to the light.


  • A stirring testimony and experience with Jesus, “Jesus Met Me on the Morning of My Funeral” by Cedric Kanana at Christianity Today.
  • What Really Happens When Americans Stop Going to Church
  • Confessions of an Atheist Philosopher: “I had one last resort to try: giving up, which is the advice most atheist philosophers provide. According to them, happiness lies not in finding the meaning of life, but in accepting that there is none. Relax, they say. Stop searching for something that isn’t there! Be a good person. Enjoy the present moment. Be here now!”
  • Nick Cave over at The Red Hand Files: “We are propelled by some contingent mischief into a sphere of yearning, of imagining, of warm dreaming, directed at someone who is oblivious to the full nature of our longing. It is a madness of sorts, not unlike religious belief – so much desire and yearning directed at an entity that so often feels indifferent and withdrawn. But this unrequited longing poured into the universe is the energy that turns the world.”
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