“The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small.” Mother Teresa
Until the age of ten, I lived like many American kids of the ‘70s, in a primly geometric neighborhood, cross-hatched with pavement, with matchbook yards and immature plantings. More than any tree, the television towered over my childhood. Sweltering hot summer afternoons were often spent indoors watching the same game shows and re-runs other families watched: The Price is Right, The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Happy Days. Though I loved these shows and the family I watched them with, and though our little yard did have a treehouse in an old oak tree and an above-ground pool, for me something was missing. It itched and ached like an amputated limb. It was nature. And since exploring uncultivated nature was rare for me, times I wandered into it, amidst the margins around my neighborhood, were memorable. I still see the arching branches I crouched through on the back-sides of bushes, like a collection of knobby arms raised over my head in a wild square-dance—sun-sparkled dust baptizing me like confetti. Or the rivulet streams with their menageries of colorful pebbles and split-screen reflections.
Occasionally I hear a phrase that opens a door to understanding like a key. Words are powerful, and at times we cannot quite decipher a social dynamic, a knot of emotions, or a foggy personal interaction until the right words “come to us.” Sometimes they come from a teacher or friend; sometimes even from the dream world, as in the time I heard in dream: You are full of God and shining!
Words from the author Richard Powers spoken recently in an interview, hit me powerfully in this way. He spoke of “species loneliness.” Such powerful, true words to describe the blight of human disconnection and sickness we see around us: species loneliness. The words struck me as a diagnosis of the first half of my life (the second half being the slow healing). But also diagnosis of what in modern life has gone off. He uses the phrase to denote how human beings have cut ourselves off from non-human species and other beings inhabiting our world, such as trees and other plants. In our desire for dominance and self-gratification we have put ourselves in solitary confinement, and in the worst cases become tormenter of all things non-human. We have deprived ourselves of love-relationships with non-humans.
It is making us sick. We were never meant to operate as an autonomous and independent species. We desperately need the full cooperation of other species to survive, from large mammals that maintain a crucial balance within ecosystems, to microbial communities in our own guts. As a result of our non-cooperation, inter-species disconnection is breaking down the systems humans depend on. But the disconnection is deeper than interdependence of biological systems; it is also theological. That’s why—in my ears—the word “loneliness” gets at it with such scalpel-precision. Loneliness is defined as “destitute of sympathetic companionship.” It is a sickness of the heart and soul, the parts of ourselves we cannot see, yet know to be our very essence.
Loneliness has apparently reached epidemic proportions, with consequences not only socio-political, but also physical. This led the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) to initiate a 2016 survey about loneliness that found 72% of Americans experience loneliness, with over 3 in 10 (31%) having loneliness at least once a week.1 Such statistics are helpful for shining a bright light on a problem shrouded in darkness and secrecy. Yet the AOA’s recommendations for addressing loneliness seem largely to miss the puzzle piece to which Powers draws attention. The AOA recommendations mostly center around human connection (though they briefly mention enjoying nature), as if our disconnection from each other is by and large the problem.
Human-to-human intimacy may be a huge part of the problem. But something else is missing. Researchers like Eva M. Selhub and Alan C. Logan, authors of Your Brain on Nature,2 present evidence for the ways nature nourishes our bodies and souls, making us feel less lonely. For example, oxytocin, as well as other feel-good, connection hormones like serotonin and dopamine, are not only secreted when we experience closeness with humans, but it seems, when we experience closeness with animals and natural environments. Oxytocin is the “connection hormone,” the love hormone critical for health—nature’s antidote to loneliness, and when we connect with something—including animals—in a loving way it is released. Scientific research into this phenomenon is young and has mostly focused on human-dog relationships, but it offers promise. We don’t necessarily need to surround ourselves with friends, or find one satisfying lifelong intimate partner, to counter loneliness. We do, however, need to alter the ways we view nature and non-human species. We need to widen the family circle of love.
I know in my bones that to thrive I need connection with the trees and plants and wilds, and most importantly animals. My knowledge of the science and the current limits of the research don’t allow me to definitively generalize: All people need such connections with non-human species to thrive. But I expect science will prove it soon enough.
Due to privilege, good-fortune and some significant sacrifices, my life affords interrelationship with non-human species in spades. My small home backs onto miles of wild woods, and the 100-year-old cedar and spruce trees just outside my windows are beloved, like family. Of my several intimate friendships, three are with Sybil, Lupe, and Harper (cat, cat, dog—respectively). These three keep the oxytocin flowing throughout each day—receiving and giving love, inspiring me to spontaneously smile and laugh and emote, and weaving into the warp and weft of my heart. There are those who will see me as some “crazy cat lady” archetype, rather than seeing me through the lens of, say, John Muir or Henry David Thoreau (men who choose lives of simplicity and nature-affinity are lauded in ways women similarly inclined are not). But so be it.
Life intertwined with animals and wild nature can be the antidote to “destitute of sympathetic companionship,” the definition of loneliness. Of course, as with any language, learning the love-language of the cosmos requires some practice and intention, and there were many times in my younger-adult years when I was lonely even in nature. I had not come to feel and understand how it pulsates with compassionate, loving, divine energy. But we only really learn a language by immersion. And we only learn to love something by really looking at it, and having our eyes opened.
A saying of Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas (an early sayings gospel, of which almost ¾ of the sayings are paralleled in the canonical gospels), reads: “Split a piece of wood; I’m there. Lift up the stone, and you’ll find me there” (77b). God as immanent companion encountered in nature—under a stone, or in the eyes of a hummingbird or a dog—is wonderfully good news for people sick with loneliness. Love is abundant and waiting for us—right there in nature.