Last year when writing a series focusing on how genuine Christian community can counteract our growing political polarization, I wrote a post on the loneliness epidemic that many modern societies around the world are experiencing. As I researched the topic of loneliness, I was overwhelmed by the mountain of information I found regarding the both the impact of loneliness and how widespread the problem was, particularly in industrialized Western cultures. Since then I have continued to contemplate the question of loneliness that is so silently pervasive in our lives. This post is based on these reflections. My thoughts have been heavily influenced by my recent reading of ‘The Restless Heart’, the excellent book by Catholic priest/teacher/speaker Ronald Rolheiser.
“No person has ever walked our earth and been free from the pain of loneliness. Rich and poor, wise and ignorant, faith-filled and agnostic, healthy and unhealthy have all alike had to face and struggle with its potentially paralyzing grip. It has granted no immunities. To be human is to be lonely.”Ronald Rolheiser
It is ironic that what is possibly the most universal experience of humanity is also an experience that we are so often afraid to admit having. Few want to admit to being truly lonely, or to not having deep meaningful friendships. We view others who do make that admission as social pariahs who we try our our best to avoid; we certainly do not want to admit to being one ourselves. No one is more likely to be thought a ‘loser’ than a person who is chronically alone, and yet only hunger and thirst are more common longings on our journey through life. The irony is that the walls we build up to hide our loneliness only make us lonelier. If we are willing to reach out and admit our loneliness, we may begin the journey to truly connecting to others.
We hide our loneliness out of feelings of inadequacy, shame, and pride. We were made to be social, connecting beings (reflecting the social, triune Creator) and we feel our failure to realize this identity on our deepest levels, often blaming ourselves for our loneliness whether it is our fault or not. We are also made as individuals with different perspectives and gifts that were intended to fit together as a greater whole. Our inability to connect is often felt as a rejection of our individual identity, giving us the sense that we don’t fit in or belong to the whole. We may feel (I have often felt this way) that perhaps we born in the wrong country or period of history. Maybe even the wrong planet. When we don’t see how we contribute to the greater whole of society, we feel disconnected regardless of how physically close we may be with those around us. Sometimes our loneliness truly is our fault, a result our stubborn selfishness and pride. Each one of us has self-destruction tendencies that harm our relationships.
How do we address loneliness? The way we often address our loneliness ends up causing more pain than the original anguish. We surround ourselves with people who are not true friends, chase after romantic relationships hoping ‘the one’ will fulfill all our needs, or perhaps more often we try to cover up the nagging voices of longing with endless activity. If that fails we drown it with alcohol or drugs.
Dealing with loneliness starts with accepting one hard fact; despite online claims to the contrary there is no ‘cure’ for loneliness; not in this life. The apostle Paul expresses it well in the oft quoted passage from Corinthians, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully; even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13: 12) summarizes both the hope and the frustration of the Christian life. The hope because someday our longings and ache will be satisfied; the frustration because someday isn’t today. We still have to endure until that day when we see face to face and are fully known. By accepting this, we can stop placing unrealistic expectations on those around us and stop the endless search for a ‘cure’.
Part of the answer to loneliness may come in an unlikely form- solitude. Author Richard Foster contrasts the two well in his book ‘Celebration of Discipline’, “Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.” Jesus routinely withdrew to private places to pray alone, particularly after times spent with large crowds (Mark 6: 45-46). I think there are two lessons we can draw from Jesus. One lesson is that to find our true selves we need to periodically separate from the crowds; the second is that our time alone is not truly alone but can be one of conversation and deepening intimacy with God. I often will go for a walk late at night, even in winter, for that very reason. It is often the quietest, stillest time of the day and is perfect for meditating on my concerns, anxieties, fears and hopes and then offering them to God. It is during this time that I often come away refreshed with a greater clarity of who I am and ironically, a lessoned sense of loneliness. Somehow a time of solitude aids in the formation of true community. When we allow God to peel away the layers of the stresses and concerns of our lives we then have an easier time allowing others to see those deeper levels of our lives, and with greater confidence because of our time spent in prayer with God.
Other Christians down through the ages have found value in seeking solitude. 15th century German Monk Thomas a Kempis writes, “In silence and peace a devout soul makes progress and learns the secrets of the scriptures. Only in silence and peace does a devout soul find floods of tears in which it may wash and cleanse itself each night. The further the soul is from the noise of the world, the closer it may be to its Creator, for God, with his holy angels, will draw close to a person who seeks solitude and silence.” C. S. Lewis, an Irishman speaking from the 20th century, states, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” We would do well to heed their advice and learn to cultivate solitude in our lives.
Solitude and community both have a role to play in our quest to connect with others. I wrote on the process of forming community in this post last year for those interested.
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The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home
By Ronald Rolheiser / Image Entertainment