Our 21st-century world is more wired and interconnected than at any time in history. We can instantly send messages across the globe and react in real-time to events as they unfold halfway across the world. Cities, college campuses, shopping malls, public parks, and social media platforms teem with people and human activity, and yet one of the most persistent problems of our time is loneliness.
You wouldn’t think it, seeing how “connected” we always are. Through our devices, we’re constantly interacting with other people, but it seems many people feel lonely. Despite our apparent connectedness and the sheer number of people around us, we really are, as author Sherry Turkle put it aptly, “alone together.”
There are moments in life when we all feel isolated and alone. Sometimes we may go through long seasons of feeling this way. It never feels pleasant. One truth about us as people is that we generally gravitate toward other people and toward relationships with them.
Even as we struggle to trust people or connect with them, we have something of a yearning to meaningfully relate to other people. This makes sense when you come to understand that human beings are hardwired for relationships. We are social animals at our core. We need to interact with our fellow humans.
One of the earliest narratives in the Bible talks about when God had just created the world, and there was only one person in it. With one exception, everything was “good.” Though surrounded by a menagerie of animals and pristine beauty (cold, crystalline rivers and lakes without a trace of pollution; fresh air to fill the lungs and then some), God said that it was “not good” for that man to be alone.
He needed a human companion – an equal to relate to – for it to be truly called paradise (Genesis 2:18). This is remarkable, but it makes sense of our experience in life. Being alone and lonely is one of the most painful things we can go through.
What makes us lonely?
Our loneliness can result from several things.
- For one, the loss of a loved one can leave us feeling alone. If that individual was particularly close to us, and they were part of our daily life, then we feel their absence even more keenly. This can connect with and be compounded at certain times or seasons of the year. For instance, many people struggle with loneliness during the holidays because those are usually the times we spend with the people closest to us.
- Secondly, the fact that every one of us is a unique human being with our own life story, personality, dreams, and ambitions, means that there are parts of us which are often hard to convey to other people. In the biblical book of wisdom called Proverbs, the author writes this nugget: “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10).
We may have people around us that are understanding, loving, and compassionate, but there is a level at which they may not quite get it and us. This can produce a feeling of being alone, even though we may be surrounded by people.
- Third, we may have been hurt in a relationship or in some other way, and we become isolated from other people. Humans are emotionally complex beings. Our hurt can cause us to withdraw from people, even while we struggle with the tension of wanting to connect with them to share our pain and be heard.
- Another source of loneliness may emerge when we feel that the people we are relating with are not genuine, or not willing to connect. In searching for an authentic connection, sometimes we can be thwarted by a wall of politeness or people keeping their emotional distance.
Whether it is because they are dealing with their own issues, or because the space does not feel “safe” for people to let their guard down, forming meaningful connections with others can be an uphill battle. In some workspaces, and sometimes even worship spaces like a church or small group, people have their guard up, and that can leave one feeling lonely in the middle of the crowd.
At times, people form cliques and in doing so they deliberately exclude others from those groups. Being outside these friendship groups can leave one feeling ostracized and alone.
- Finally, we may simply struggle to connect with other people. Social skills like starting and maintaining a conversation can at times be taken for granted – for some these can be daunting and an obstacle to forming meaningful relationships where they feel heard and loved.
It may also be that emotionally we aren’t up to connecting with other people, even though on some level we would like to. When people are feeling depressed, for example, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to do anything, especially engaging other people. Thus, we may be trapped in loneliness that is not of our own making.
When You Feel Alone: Coping Strategies
Dealing with loneliness may be a huge challenge for us. The first and largest encouragement for us is to realize that even the son of God dealt with loneliness. In the hidden bitterness and joys of our hearts, we can know that God knows about our loneliness.
As Hebrews 4:14-16 puts it, Jesus can sympathize with us because he knows the human condition in all its messiness. When we pray and share our pain with him, we can be confident that he understands exactly what we’re going through.
One example is that on the night before he was arrested, falsely accused of crimes, and then unjustly executed, Jesus drew his closest friends to his side and asked them to pray with him and keep him company.
He knew what was coming, and like many of us, he did not want to face that ordeal alone. But they abandoned him. Instead of staying up and praying with him, his friends fell asleep. Not once, but several times! While praying and dealing with anguish so deep that his sweat was like drops of blood, Jesus had to keep waking them up.
Meanwhile, one of his followers betrayed him to the authorities, leading them to where Jesus was praying and identifying him by kissing him in greeting. And then, when the authorities arrested him, his friends ran away and left him to face his fate by himself.
Moreover, when one of his closest friends was confronted with whether he knew Jesus, he denied it three times, going so far as to curse that he’d never even met Jesus – and Jesus saw and heard it. In his hour of greatest need, he was utterly alone (John 18:1-11; Luke 22). Our Lord knows the pain of being alone.
This same God has given this promise to His people: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). When we feel alone, the God of all comfort is with us. We are never truly alone, even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death that Psalm 23 famously speaks of.
You are not alone. Those deepest of depths within us that we cannot begin to communicate to others, those parts of ourselves even we struggle to understand – these God knows in intimate detail. The precious promise of God’s comforting presence is the foundation upon which we can build our sense of self as we go through this world.
As God binds up our wounds from loss, broken relationships, and the hardships we face in connecting with others, we are strengthened, encouraged and emboldened by the fact that we aren’t going through life alone.
As we seek to bridge the at-times awkward chasm of starting a conversation with a stranger, as we try one more time to connect with another person, as we pick ourselves up yet again, this too we do in the loving presence of our heavenly Father.
“Crowds in the Rain”, Courtesy of Alex Block, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Admiring the View”, Courtesy of Noah Silliman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Crucified”, Courtesy of Ricky Turner, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Jesus Saves”, Courtesy of Edwin Andrade, Unsplash.com, CC0 License