Do you ever feel lonely?
I have, and I do.
For the better part of my sophmore year of college, I spent my time cramped up in my bedroom and frustrated by a lack of meaningful connection. During that time, I had to seriously wrestle with a stark and nagging loneliness that had been creeping around and was just beginning to show its terrifying face. I remember one-time sitting in a meeting with some others from my campus ministry’s leadership team, and we had begun to go around and share our high points and low points for the week. It was my turn, and I recall needing to confess that I had felt deeply alone. It was mortifying and not because of how people responded (which was actually incredibly well). I felt shame bubbling up in me to even release the words, “I feel really alone.” I don’t feel like I did it out of a desire for a pity party or just because I wanted the attention. I just feel like I had to. It had built up, and it felt as if without reprieve I’d surely just sink deeper and deeper into the mire.
It felt humiliating though to admit that to people. Though I remember a few approaching me afterwards and declaring to me those same words, “I feel lonely too.”
When people profess that they are lonely, we often pity them. Don’t we? There’s this underlying assumption that I often think about that goes sort of like this, “that poor soul must have no friends. Maybe they should join a church or a crossfit. Maybe they should get married. Maybe they should branch out a little more,” or something along those lines. Yet I still feel myself thinking those thoughts without often recognizing how much I feel their words myself.
I’m going to make a bold claim, and it’s going to sound unpleasant, but I believe it’s true:
we are all lonely.
We’re all on an even playing field. Happily married, mournfully married, unwillingly single, happily single, divorced, it doesn’t matter. Our estate is a lonely one.
At this point, you’re probably confused, maybe a little pissed off that I would make such a remark about you. You have your brunch friends and your date nights. You don’t wake up in a bed alone. You have at least a thousand Facebook friends, but yes, you’re still alone.
But hear me out, I only say that we are all alone, so that we might begin to recognize something beautiful.
I want to argue that although we all feel alone that that feeling of loneliness is actually a God-given, God-reflecting, and good desire.
Ultimately, I believe there’s a point to the loneliness, and that despite the most intimate of relationships we still feel different degrees of loneliness but still feel lonely nonetheless. The most poignant definition of loneliness I’ve ever come across is simply this: “the want of [or longing for] intimacy“. It’s the state Adam was in in perfect vertical relationship with God, but still lacking closeness, horizontally, with another person even before there was the entrance of sin into the world. If loneliness is as previously defined, then can any of us truly claim to be in perfect intimacy with another? Do we ever cease longing for more closeness with another person? There always a want for more closeness, for a friendship to be cultivated, for another to know us just a little bit more – this is to feel a little bit of loneliness.
To feel lonely isn’t to be inhuman. If anything, to feel lonely is to feel the desire for friendship that God has ingrained us with in which is nothing but a glorious reflection of Himself. Our desire for companionship isn’t bad, it’s beautiful. I am not saying the state of loneliness is good, but that the underlying desire within loneliness is. Tim Keller would agree:
“Do you feel like a wimpy, weak little people because you’re always lonely and you’re always needing people and you don’t feel like you don’t have enough friends. If you feel like that it’s because you’re like God. It’s not a sign of your imperfection. It’s a sign of your perfection.”
The problem is not that we feel lonely. The problem is how we have adapted to respond to those feelings of loneliness.
It’s no surprise to me that alongside our age of distraction which includes the rampant use of pornography, social media, shopping, and netflix there is also a rise in feelings of isolation. Even with hundreds of friends available to us in a moment’s notice, we’re still aching for depth yet still settling for distraction. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says this:
“…how often have men cried woe upon the solitary person or portrayed the pain and misery of loneliness, how often have men, weary of the corrupting, noisy, confusing life in society, let their thoughts wander out to a solitary place—only to learn again to long for community! …In the busy, teeming crowd, which as community is both too much and too little… the cure is precisely to learn all over again the most important thing, to understand oneself in one’s longing for community.”
When we feel lonely, running from it may be just prolonging the inevitable. If we’re afraid to feel lonely, we may be doomed to it. To a certain degree, it may mean that a good place to start is becoming a tiny bit more conscious of our desire for community, intimacy, and friendship rather than consistently running to an outlet to keep our minds away from those fears.
Imagine a broken world like this without this desire for intimacy, or to put it more simply, imagine a world where no one ever felt lonely. I’d imagine everyone would be content to themselves. There would be no community, no coffee dates, no netflix-binging with roommates, no marriage, no family unit, no friendship, no vulnerable conversations, no long walks together, and no Trinity. An unredeemed* world without the feelings of loneliness would be a world of ironic isolation.
Feelings of loneliness are similar to feelings of physical pain. We need something like those feelings of pain to indicate to us that we are in an unhealthy or harmful place and need to move to something better – a place of isolation to a place of friendship. The pain itself is not bad. What causes it may be, but the pain is actually helpful if only we can find a way to respond to it properly. Numbing a dislocated shoulder won’t fix it but a painful relocation will. Like Kierkegaard said, “the cure is precisely to understand oneself in one’s longing for community,” but the cure often feels like it’s killing us.
To feel your loneliness is painful. There’s no denying that. We were created for intimacy with God and others. Vertically and horizontally, and it’s no surprise that after that intimacy was shattered with the Fall of man that Adam & Eve hid themselves from God and hid their nakedness from one another with their fig-leaf loincloths. We’re all terrified of exposing ourselves, and we’re all terrified of a life of isolation. In exposing ourselves, we risk rejection, we risk shame, and we risk our own comfort. In isolation, we lack the sort of companionship that encourages us to take risks, to journey, and to ultimately live.
But thankfully the story doesn’t end in isolation. Thankfully we have a God who knows our loneliness and won’t leave us in it. Thankfully there’s a redeemer who redeems by uniting all things in himself, in perfect intimacy. One who has known loneliness far better than we ever have and is with us in it. He who became lonely for the lonely came to draw us into His embrace.
This is the same Jesus who cried aloud to His Father in whom he was one with, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
From intimacy to isolation, He came to rescue us from our lonely position.
We won’t always feel lonely. Right now we often do, but this won’t always be the case. As assuredly as the Trinitarian God exists as a community, we can be sure there will be a day, we too, will exist in perfect communion with God and one another. A day that our dignified desires for intimacy will meet complete satiety, and until then, perhaps we may discover, as Henri Nouwen once did, that “what seemed primarily painful may then become a feeling that, though painful, opens for you the way to an ever deeper knowledge of God’s love.”
* I say “unredeemed world” because I believe in the new heavens and new earth we will be living in perfect relation to God and one another – perfect intimacy and thus no desire for something we have already attained.