Why Are We So Lonely?

I think it’s safe to say that most of us are cut off from each other in one way or another. The research seems to indicate that our increased dependence on social media has led to more, not less, loneliness. The only exception to this indication appears to be when a connection is made over the internet that eventually results in a person-to-person meeting in the real world. The only remedy for loneliness is physical proximity to other people in a state of mutual trust.

This kind of trust, however, is very difficult to build and to maintain. We move more frequently today than we did fifty or sixty years ago. We move jobs, houses, apartments; or we move to new States or countries frequently. Our interests change more often. Some of us, however, are more like oak trees. We settle down in a soil and remain there through the bitter end. While that’s a wonderful position for some, the reality is that, increasingly, it’s more of a privilege than a “this is how things are around here.” If you’re lucky enough to find a stable job with a salary that steadily increases with the cost of living around you; if you are lucky enough to find a job where management stays the same, or at least follows the same course or vision throughout your career; then consider yourself so. That’s great.

But we move a lot. We undergo change. One of the things I have discovered about life that has become an axiom of mine is that the only friendships that survive a tragedy are the friends who were physically there. I have friends whom I was close with in college, who later on went through physical problems, the loss of a marriage, or the loss of a child, and I cannot now have the kind of close trust I had with them simply because, even though I knew that they were going through something tragic, I wasn’t able to be there. I couldn’t take them out for a beer or cup of coffee. I couldn’t bring them or their family some food. You have to be physically there to support someone during tragedy. Emails, text messages, and at best even a phone call – they just don’t cut it.

C.S. Lewis once argued in his book, The Four Loves, that people who are lonely perpetuate their loneliness by seeking to be un-lonely. He was much more elegant in his way of speaking than I am at paraphrasing him, but the point is that the more you seek a friend the less likely you are to find one, since friendships, according to Lewis, are built not on the basis of a mutual desire to have a friend, but upon a mutual interest in something other than the friendship (motorcycles, or books, or a certain job or hobby, or sports, or music, or chess, or God, or whatever). Unfortunately, the more lonely we feel the greater the desire to find a friend becomes, and consequently the less likely we are to find what we are really seeking – the remedy for that cold feeling in our chests.

It’s not just the contextual fact that “no one is around.” Sometimes we get really hung up in trying to impress others. We think that in order for other people to accept us, we have to pretend, or we have to highlight one small part of ourselves over others. Before I moved to where I am now, I had a church full of men – a few younger, some about my age, and many who were older, with whom I could have and should have made better friendships. One man, in particular, had a large family like mine, and had experienced adoption like I have. His children were all older teenagers. He reached out to me on several occasions, but because I erroneously believed that he wouldn’t accept me unless I could match his knowledge and interest in music, I always kept my conversations on that subject with him. I would have benefitted immensely if I had invited him out to a pub with me and sat down and said, “Please tell me about your experience as a dad – I’m really struggling.” Sometimes the fact that we’re so lonely is that we fail to reach out and ask the right questions – those questions that burn in our minds and hearts in our beds before going to sleep – those are the questions that might actually build connection if we just been strong enough to ask them of each other.

But sometimes you just find yourself in a place where there are no friends. My wife told me about a quote she read on social media the other day that said something like “the real miracle was that Jesus had twelve friends in his thirties.” Life gets busy with young children. A neighbor has been sending me regular text messages to invite me to poker games at his house, about every three weeks or so. Every single time, for months now, I have had a conflict in my schedule and I haven’t been able to make it. Those messages stopped recently, either because he has decided not to host any more poker games, or else maybe he has just given up on me. It’s not much fun if, when trying to nail down a date to get together with someone for a cup of coffee, I’m having to look at my calendar two or three months out in order to find time. The first thing children feast on, before breakfast and your soul, is your spontaneity.

When I find myself in these situations of forced solitude, I try to remember a couple of stories in the Bible that encourage me to hang on a little longer. One is 2Kings 6:15-17. Elisha the prophet and his servant wake up to find their tent surrounded by an enemy army. Elisha’s servant asks the prophet in a state of panic, “What do we do!?!” Elisha calmly replies “do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

The second verse I think of is the story of Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah. Elijah runs a great distance out into the desert one day, fleeing for his life from a queen who wants to kill him. He ends up hiding himself under a tree and, in a state of depression and despair, asks God to take away his life: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” This is in 1Kings, chapter 19. He lays down and falls asleep, but God gives him bread and water, a kind of miraculous food that sustains Elijah through forty more days of solitude in the desert before he finally finds a cave. A lot is made of the latter part of this story, but not a lot of people look at how Elijah must be feeling right here in the early part. He ran from Jezebel a day’s journey into the wilderness before falling down exhausted under that tree. He gives up in despair, and falls asleep. He’s clearly depressed. “Done” as we might say. Then, in the middle of his depression and loneliness and despair, God gives him food. That food sustains him not for just one more day, but for forty days in the desert wilderness. God says, “here is food. Eat it, because the journey is too great for you.”

The journey is too great for us. How many of us have actually felt the weight of that in life? That’s why we’re lonely and depressed, and despairing, and in need, right? We know the journey is too great – we just need it to either end, as Elijah prayed, or else we need some food. We need a friend. We need something to sustain us for just a bit longer. That’s what loneliness feels like.

God speaks with Elijah in a whisper, asking him what he is doing way out in the middle of nowhere. Elijah answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your alters, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” Elijah believes he is the only one left who believes in God. He thinks he’s the only one who thinks like he does. He says this twice to God. Finally, after God gives Elijah some final tasks to end his ministry, he says “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Elijah here discovers what he could not see: there were seven thousand people who loved God as much as he did in Israel. He was never alone. He just didn’t know where to look, or didn’t have the opportunity to look there. Yet, God knew all along.

None of us are lone-rangers, no matter how much we may feel that we are.

Going back (or forward, depending on your perspective) to Elisha’s story. Elisha tells his servant not to be afraid, then he prays on behalf of the servant that God would “open his eyes that he may see.” And the servant suddenly sees a whole army of God’s hosts encamped behind their enemies. Though the servant thought, as I would have, “We’re surrounded!” they were never alone.

Elisha’s servant felt alone and responded with anxiety. Elijah felt alone and responded with depression and despair. In both cases, they failed to see the reality around them clearly. God lovingly opened their eyes in both cases to the fact that he doesn’t want his servants to be left all out on their own. The only one who had to endure that torture was raised from the dead so that we never have to endure true loneliness and despair.

You are not alone. God is sustaining you, and he will continue to sustain you. Just ask him.  In Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, Moses says:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

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