On the morning before the Parkland shooting, my 6-year-old daughter had a fire drill at school — her class lined up neatly outside as the building was cleared for safety. When she got home she told me she doesn’t mind fire drills so much but that the really scary drills are the ones where they don’t go outside. Tears welled up in my eyes as she described the drills where they have to hide under their desks or in the closets — she said she doesn’t really understand them, but she knows it’s about someone from the outside trying to hurt her.
We are in a national crisis. I am grateful for the people and organizations demanding sensible gun laws – something long overdue—and I am, like all of us ought to, doing self-reflection about what my part is in putting an end to these tragedies.
My life’s work, at its heart, is focused on solving the problem of loneliness. Loneliness fuels isolation, it feeds pain, it is the driver of irrational and violent behavior. Loneliness at its very worst tells us that there is no one else out there, that our only hope for fullness is lashing out. Of course, all of us have felt lonely at times and of course, very few of us have acted out in violent ways, but if we can solve this for everyone, no matter how deep or shallow the feeling might run, I believe we will transform our society into one in which our children aren’t having to prepare for school shooters between math and recess. And to create that transformation, it’s key we understand what we’re facing.
We’ve learned loneliness is not about social isolation, which means it’s harder to spot in both directions — people can be quite fulfilled alone and not feel lonely and people can be entrenched in community and still report loneliness. In fact, a study at UCSF found that the majority of people who are lonely are married and live with others. And here’s what was so worrying to me — an analytic study that drew in the experiences of more than 3 million people, found loneliness peaks in young adults. And young adults or millennials make up the largest portion of our population and in the coming years, the biggest demographic in our workforce.
And loneliness is not just a problem, it’s an epidemic. What may have been considered a concept that once lived on the pages of a meditation blog has become a serious and evidence-based area of research with half a dozen Harvard Business Review articles focused on our national wave of loneliness. Here’s what we know: 40 percent of adults in America are lonely (and that’s self-reported so we can be fairly certain it’s actually much higher) and that loneliness reduces our lives as if we were smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Imagine someone you love was smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day, would you talk to them about it? If it was 40 percent of the people you knew, would you think we ought to collectively talk to them?
The ability to be our authentic selves and to see others as theirs is the antidote to loneliness. When we’re the truest versions of who we are and we’re welcomed and included because of that, it is all but impossible to muster up a lonely feeling. My organization works with our country’s largest companies and government Employee Resource Groups to create workplaces where all of us are encouraged to be our authentic selves and all of us are included. And when we’re successful in that work, what starts out as a series of handbook policies and checked boxes gets reborn as belonging. And belonging is our holy grail.
One of my heroes, Brene Brown, reminds us that it’s harder to hate close up, that we need to move in. Go to work and move in. Encourage your children to find someone they don’t like at school and move in. Let’s, as a country, move in. Because this is not a problem that will be fixed on Capitol Hill or in a boardroom or on television—we need Congress to pass gun laws that will keep us safe, and we need all of us to commit to co-creating a world of belonging to keep us whole.
Erin Uritus is the CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, the world’s premier nonprofit dedicated to achieving global LGBTQ workplace equality. She is a longtime executive with experience in corporate, non-profit and government sectors.