A Robot That Helps With Loneliness: The Transforming Ministry of Presence
Sandra Peterson maintains a geriatric house-call practice in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Her elderly patients are especially struggling during the pandemic: they must remain isolated for their own safety, yet many have become profoundly lonely as a result.
Enter Paro the robot.
Paro is modeled after a baby harp seal and intentionally scaled to the weight of a human infant. The robot coos, wiggles, and blinks its eyes when it is held. Invented by Japanese roboticist Takanori Shibata, the device demonstrably works. Studies show that the robot helps some Alzheimer’s patients reduce reliance on psychotropic drugs, improve blood pressure and oxygenation levels, and respond emotionally.
Paro was given to workers at a high-volume call center in Tokyo to help them with stress as they respond to calls for coronavirus testing. An intensive care nurse in Atlanta has been using a Paro to cope with isolation since he is living separately from his family and pet in case he becomes infected with coronavirus.
‘Fear Not, for I Have Redeemed You’
Human nature does not change. You and I feel the same fears our great-grandparents faced. As John F. Kennedy famously observed, “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
As a result, what helped hurting people in the biblical era still helps hurting people today. And across God’s word, we find that the promise of God’s presence is one of the most vital ways he ministers to suffering souls.
He pledged to his people in the wilderness, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). His word assures us, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).
One of my favorite passages of Scripture contains this promise from God to his exiled people: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; and when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1–3).
Now, as the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27), it’s our turn to pay forward the grace we have received.
The Day My Father Died
My father died at the age of fifty-five when I was a senior in college. The day after his death, a friend from school drove across Houston to be with me. He spent most of the day at our house. I don’t remember that he said much at all. But I will never forget the fact that he was there.
On my first trip to Cuba, I asked one of the pastors how our church could best help his church. He said, “You’re doing it.” He explained that many of his members feel intensely isolated in their Communist country. They and their families are constantly pressured and worse. It’s easy for them to feel their minority status and perilous future. For a group of Americans to spend a week with them says more powerfully than words that they are not alone.
In these very difficult days, it can be hard to know how to help hurting people. If someone loses a loved one to COVID-19, we’re not sure what to say. If someone is isolated because of the disease, we’re not sure how to help. If someone loses their job or is otherwise disrupted by the pandemic, we’re not sure how we should respond.
Let me suggest the ministry of presence. In an existentialist, postmodern society that views the world through the lens of “my feelings” and “my truth,” an expression of unconditional solidarity and grace-filled humanity is as powerful as it is countercultural.
When you don’t know what to say, ask the Holy Spirit (Mark 13:11). And know that often, you don’t need to say anything at all. Where you can be physically present, your companionship will make a difference you cannot measure. Where you cannot be physically present, your simple notes, emails, texts, or social media posts of compassion will be used by God in ways you cannot know.
Alfred North Whitehead encouraged us to plant trees we’ll never sit under. With whom will you plant seeds of the gospel through the compassion of your heart?
Jim Denison, PhD, is the founder of Denison Forum with a reach of 1.7 million. He also serves as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health.