In, The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Arthur Conan Doyle puts Sherlock Holmes on the case of a missing thoroughbred, horse-napped on the eve of a big race. His trainer is also missing and presumed dead. Holmes usually solves cases by spotting evidence others have overlooked, and then fitting it into a logically consistent narrative. But this time, he doesn’t solve the case by what he finds but by what he doesn’t find. He doesn’t find anyone who heard the guard dog barking in the night.
When Holmes draws the Scotland Yard detective’s attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” the detective replies, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Holmes replies, “That was the curious incident.” Holmes realized that the most important clue was not what he found at the scene, but what was missing.
Perhaps Holmes’s approach might help us make sense of a very different kind of mystery. Imagine a case in which people from diverse racial, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds are experiencing increased incidences of cognitive dysfunction and breakdowns in health. Imagine further – it seems a red herring to most observers – an increase in political extremism among these people.
These “clues” are not out of a detective story, but out of the evening news. How do they fit together? Could the presence of some hitherto unnoticed influence explain these diverse consequences? Or might the real explanation lie with what ought to be there but is missing – “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”?
There have been increases in cognitive dysfunction among older Americans, along with a rise in certain health problems across all ages: diabetes, obesity, increased stress, elevated levels of inflammation, and more. Researchers have looked for clues in what we eat and in our daily routines – the things that are present in our lives – but only recently have they looked for clues in what is missing from our lives.
What is missing? Close and meaningful friendships. Andrew Horn writes that the number of close friendships in America has dropped over the past few decades: “Between 1985 and 2004, the General Social Survey reported that the average number of confidants Americans felt they could talk to about important matters in their lives fell from 2.94 to 2.08.”
Things get worse. One out of four respondents to the survey say that they have no one with whom they can share important matters. No one. Zero.
Loneliness is shortening people’s lives. It is robbing them of their wellbeing. The absence of meaningful relationships is slowly killing people.
A review of research on the subject in Science suggests that social isolation places a person at the same risk for illness or premature death as does high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise or smoking. Another study linked loneliness to an increased risk for developing dementia.
God knew what he was talking about when he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Humans need interaction. Meaningful relationships are a key to a healthy, happy, and flourishing life.
I can’t be myself by myself. I discover myself through interaction with others. As C. S. Lewis explained: “By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” I need relationships, first with my creator, then with others, if I am to understand and become myself.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the kind of relationships in which a person discovers and becomes himself or herself are not digital ones. So where, if not on Facebook, will twenty-first century people find them?
There are, of course, many places. Enriching relationships have begun in coffeeshops, service clubs, country clubs and even bars. But the church is the ideal place. The church, though far from perfect, is a place where people are supposed to care for and respect each other. The church is a place where people find themselves by finding God – or being found by him – and then find each other. God, the biblical poet writes, “sets the lonely in families,” and one of his go-to families in which to place people is the church.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter