Loneliness is an odd thing. We all recognize it when it happens, and yet it’s not that easy to get at what exactly it is, or how to prevent it. A person stuck at home because of illness or disability is likely to be lonely with very little human contact, but so is a mother or father of young children who spends the whole day with under-fives and can’t even get enough privacy to go to the toilet alone!
Clearly loneliness isn’t the same thing as solitude. It’s possible for some people to spend days or weeks alone (maybe camping in the Sierras?) and not feel lonely for a single moment. I’m one of those people. And yet some of my loneliest times have been in rooms where there are at least a hundred other people within earshot, all milling around and drinking coffee together.
So in loneliness, something else is going on besides lack of human contact—though that happens, too. The Bible tells us that in the beginning, God looked at the first human being he created and decided it wasn’t good for that person to be all alone. But before God fixed that situation (by creating another person!) God drove that point home by having the first one look all through the animal creation, getting to know everything, until it was clear there was nothing and no one comparable out there. Poor Adam. No amount of aardvarks or amoebas was going to cut it for him. He must have really appreciated it by the time he met Eve!
I Want Social Input
What did Eve, the second human, bring to the situation? She brought human “input,” if I can call it that, into Adam’s life. And that’s something we all need to avoid loneliness. Have you ever noticed how some people go home to an empty house and immediately turn on the TV, even though they have no intention of watching it, and they’re not even in the same room? They want, they need the background noise, the sound of human voices. Others are continually on the Internet, getting their fix of humanity through Twitter or Facebook or texting. Human input seems to be a non-negotiable for pretty much everybody, even if the amount needed varies from person to person.
But Eve brought more than that when she came along. By being there, she insured that there was someone in Adam’s life who had some concern for him—who noticed his existence and was interested in it—who was able to provide the “give” as well as the “take” of human interaction. I think this is where the parents of small children get their loneliness from. There’s no shortage of human interaction when you’ve got a baby wailing every time you set him down, and constantly wanting to be fed or changed or soothed or put to sleep. And yet that baby is pretty much all about the “taking,” with almost no giving. It’s natural at that age. But it contributes to a unique kind of loneliness—the loneliness of the caregiver who nevertheless is not seen as a fellow human being with needs and wants of his or her own. No wonder parents long to spend time with other adults!
I Need Social Output
But other kinds of loneliness might be even more common. Consider the loneliness of a person who is always on the receiving end—whether that’s because of sickness or disability or age or simple isolation. A hospital bed can be a very lonely place, in spite of all the professionals (and even visitors!) interested in your welfare. A person who’s going through major crisis—whether it’s financial or emotional or family or health-related—that person can feel pretty lonely, too, even as everyone else is trying to help. These are situations where human interaction is all “take” and no “give”—like a lake where there’s constant inflow, but no outflow. It seems that the imbalance leads to loneliness. And this might be why the old-fashioned advice for lonely people is for them to get involved in some sort of activity or service project—because it will “take you out of yourself.” It seems that being completely “in yourself” is a lonely place to be.
Dealing with Loneliness
So what if it’s you? How can you cope with loneliness? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as no doubt you know already. This article isn’t going to solve all your problems (though I wish it did!). And much as I’d like to, I can’t say something facile like “Go to church and you’ll never be lonely again.” Because that’s baloney. Some of my loneliest times have been in church.
But you might want to consider the whole social inflow/outflow problem as it relates to your own life. Do you have contact with people who care about you and want to know how you are doing? If not, what can you do to get that contact? Taking a class, getting involved in an activity where you meet the same people again and again, even (yes!) going to church can help. Affection and even friendship tend to grow over time between people who see the same folks again and again and again—even when those people are the complete opposite of soulmates.
What about your outflow—are you doing anything to impact other people’s lives for good? If not, consider some sort of service activity. Believe me, people will notice and miss you immediately if you are the one who normally delivers a meal/calls a shut-in/tutors a child and suddenly you aren’t there one week. But even aside from that, the simple act of being effective in the larger world tends to cut down loneliness. Grandma was right—it “takes you out of yourself.”
Certainly this isn’t going to prevent any and all lonely feelings from now to forever, not for you and not for me. And if we’ve got other problems going on, like job or relationship issues, those things are going to just add to the loneliness. But if God is as aware of our lives and as caring as Christianity says he is, we can look to him for help. Because he knows what it means to be lonely. Jesus experienced it many times. And he wants the best for us.