Meditations On Loneliness

Sometimes, loneliness is not about the absence of people. I know this because I’ve never lived alone and I’ve still been lonely. I’ve never not been connected to my family, to my surrounding community, either of believers, of neighbors or co-workers, and I’ve still been lonely. I have lived my entire life in the presence of many people, many of whom knew my name and liked me, and I’ve still experienced terrible loneliness. How is it possible to be lonely, butmail never having been alone? While I know some people whose loneliness is a direct result of lack of contact with people, (those who live alone, are housebound, who are new to an area or culture, whose work or geography isolates them, whose life circumstances are tragic, etc) there is another form of it that I am more familiar with. It involves being disconnected. Let me explain.

We all have two worlds – our inner and outer world. The outer is very familiar to us, it is that which is outside of us, which we present to others and which all can see. Our outer world includes our physical selves, what we choose to post on Facebook or social media, our accomplishments, our words, our body language, our conversations, our attendance, our appearances, our choices…etc. It is the part of us that is open for everyone to interact with and see. But it is our inner world that is most truly who we are. In our inner worlds are those parts of us only we and God see – our memories, preferences, emotions, the stories we choose or are not able to share, our dreams, our fears and doubts, our character, our internal monologue, our thoughts about things, events, people…and this is the part of us that we sometimes (often) choose to hide from others for a variety of reasons. Maybe it isn’t safe or we aren’t comfortable with who we are on the inside. Perhaps we’ve figured out that people prefer a different self than who we are, so we pretend to be the preferred person. For some, what is going on inside of us is such a mystery to us (and maybe so powerful as to make us afraid of it) we can’t even explain it to others. Maybe we are ashamed of what is in there.

And so, when we choose to relate to others through our outer world, if it isn’t aligned properly with our inner world, our deepest, truest self, we can feel disconnected. Deeply misunderstood – and how could we not? People are relating to a part of us that isn’t authentically us. Our bodies may be one place, but our hearts are somewhere else.  It is like being very hungry, yet eating potato chips. Or having an itch on your shoulder blade, but your friend scratches your nose. It just doesn’t satisfy. And it can feel kind of awkward. This practice means we can be painfully lonely on the inside, even when our outside has a very full social calendar: because we are trying to connect with the wrong part of us.

This can hurt because…

Disconnection is one of the most painful of human experiences. We are wired for connection. In fact, God said it isn’t good for us to be alone. (Gen. 2:28) Even a cursory reading of scripture and observation of how the world works and how humans thrive indicates we are meant to be in community with each other. We are not solitary creatures. When we are forced into cultural forms and patterns that deny us connection with people, it produces loneliness. And a whole lot of pain.

I sometimes explain to my visiting non-American friends that America is what happens when you get everything you want. We wanted bigger houses, more stuff, bigger yards and privacy. So we bought them with our time and relational bandwidth. We don’t have time or energy for other people anymore. Not the way we were meant to anyway. We rarely live near our friends and family, and we are too busy working and driving to see them significantly. As a result, we are now a very lonely people, sacrificing the daily interaction people historically had with their communities in pursuit of our wants. How else to describe a society that is so affluent and materially blessed with all we could ever want, yet is so depressed, overweight, anxious, fearful of the future, angry and lonely? We are disconnected from each other.  And it hurts.

Disconnection/loneliness has one of its roots in unshared experience. We don’t just want to be connected to anyone. We long to be connected to people who like us, who are like us and who understand us. This means that often, we are looking for those who have similar experiences to us. Yet, how to find those people if our experiences are locked away in our inner worlds and we don’t share them with others? This is a conundrum. And it can become more complicated if we are in pain or experiencing loss (I wrote about this in more detail in Meditations On Grief). Not everyone has lost a parent, has a spouse with a cancer diagnosis, has a chronically sick child, is infertile, has been betrayed by a loved one, etc. We need to find those people we can connect with around our pain. When connecting points are missing, either because we haven’t shared our experiences or because we don’t share the same experiences, we feel alone and lonely as a result.

Disconnection has another of its roots in shame. Shame is the powerful feeling of being unworthy of connection. (Daring Greatly by Brené Brown) We feel that there is something so wrong with us that if someone else knew it, they wouldn’t want to relate to us. The girl who was told, implicitly or explicitly, that it is her body people want, not her. The boy who struggles with a porn addiction he can’t control. The couple whose marriage is in shambles. Abuse victims with tragic stories tucked away in their hearts. While the circumstances are different, we all feel shame. WE ALL FEEL SHAME – which again, is the feeling that if others really knew us and our inner worlds, they wouldn’t want to connect with us. So we hide. We disconnect from the world around us. We become lonely. Gen. 2:25 describes how God intended for mankind to live. It says, “The man and woman were both naked, and they felt no shame.” We were made to be seen and known, with no hiding and no shame. Connected to others. Just a few verses later however, man and woman sinned, are flooded with shame, are now disconnected from God and each other and begin to hide.  We’ve all been lonely ever since.

God has a heart for the lonely. Ps. 68:6 says, “God sets the lonely in families…” God says that He will be with us always. (Jn 14:16, Matt. 28:20, Ps. 23:4) One of the primary things He longs for His children to learn is to abide in Him – to be with Him. (Jn. 15:4) If we can learn this, we will never be alone. He knows our hearts (Ps. 33:15) shares our experiences (Heb. 4:15), knows what it is to be lonely (Matt. 27:46, Matt. 26:40) and frees us from our shame (Rom. 8:1, Ps. 34:5).  He also longs to restore us into healthy relationships and connection with others. (Jn. 13:34-35) God has a heart for the lonely and wants to meet our need with Himself. If we can learn to open ourselves to Him and let Him love us, He is a most satisfying friend. 

But sometimes, we still need friends with skin on. While God indeed is great, and He loves us and wants to be with us, it is still possible to be painfully lonely, even with Him in our lives. Because we are made for connection. With more than just Him. With each other. We’ve been hardwired for it. So, part of relating to Him means we learn to relate to others better. In more healthy ways. We learn to not hide our inner selves from those in our relational circles. To share our experiences and stories, to really and truly listen to the experiences and stories of others and connect around them. To learn our shame is a liar, telling us things about ourselves that aren’t true. To create places for others, if they choose, to lay their shame down in the presence of safe people who love them.  These are most powerful spiritual skills, not often taught and often not learned. We often prefer the spiritual skills of Bible study and prayer, because they are safe in the realm of our outer world – and we can do them alone. But if we can learn to practice the subtle and messy skills of community, they invite us to relate more healthily to others and to God at the same time. They hold the potential to ease our loneliness.

(originally posted on 5/28/13)

It Can Be Just So Terrifically Awesome! (Conversations About Cancer pt. 3)

(Part 3 in my series on what it is like to talk with people about pain and the awkward (pt 1 – click here), awful (pt. 2 – click here) and awesome results.)

I still remember talking with a recent acquaintance who knew Jeff had just been diagnosed with cancer. She innocently asked a question about his health and prognosis to which there wasn’t a positive answer. It was an awkward moment. And she handled it perfectly. She looked right at me, giving me her fullest attention, slowed her speech so she was very clear, and said from her heart, “I’m so very sorry.” Nothing more. She was slightly uncomfortable, but comfortable at the same time. And I was comforted – by her sincerity. By her honesty. She saw me. Heard me. Even though we didn’t know each other very well, she didn’t let the awkwardness keep her from acknowledging the gravity of what I had shared.

Good conversations, especially those between older and younger women should be immortalized.

Good conversations, especially those between older and younger women should be immortalized.

There was the friend I invited over to my home for dinner and we went into my office so we could talk. We’ve known her for years and she loves our family. It was the first time I was able to tell her our news.  She wept bitterly and gave full expression to her sadness for us. And I felt so deeply loved by her tears and the lack of shame in letting them go.

There was the friend in another part of the world I spoke to on the first day we heard Jeff’s initial diagnosis. The unexpectedness of our news squeezed a surprised and soft “Wow” out of her as she processed what it was I had just said. And, after a few moments, emotion washed through her voice as she simply and quietly said, “I am so sorry for you two.” As I sat there in shock, she then asked the right questions and allowed me to tap into her wisdom. She listened and counseled and did what older women are supposed to do in those moments. She led. And it was so great not to have to lead when it took all I had in that moment to just sit upright and keep breathing.

There were the crazy friends who, during one of Jeff’s stays in ICU, when things were so uncertain, drove a long way to be with me. They brought me food. Good food too. They let me talk all I wanted, made me laugh like only they can, engaged me in a real conversation…and then prayed over me as we all cried.  It was the ugly kind of cry too, with sobs and snot and running make up – the kind you only want to do in front of those who really love you.  And I felt very understood, cared for and loved.

Sometimes we do the carrying. Sometimes we are carried. And it is beautiful.

Sometimes we do the carrying. Sometimes we are carried. And it is beautiful.

There was the text message that asked just the right question at just the right time that saved me from going down a dark path. I wrote about it here. And I felt gratitude that someone dared to not let me go off on my own when I needed to stay connected.

There was the friend who doesn’t really hug very much who let me bury my head on her shoulder and sob. I know she was praying for me in my helplessness. And I felt the specialness of her gift to me, of her coming out of her comfort zone because I needed her. She put my needs ahead of her own. She even made me drink some water because she recognized I wasn’t doing well and couldn’t take care of myself. I don’t really remember how I felt in that moment because my nervous system was fried with fear and grief and unknown. But I wasn’t alone in it because my friend was there with me.

There was the older woman friend of mine who came and sat with me in the hospital, just to be present so I wasn’t alone in a moment when I really didn’t need to be alone. I didn’t have to talk if I didn’t want to, but I could if I felt like it. Even when I wasn’t sure what sort of emotional response I might have and that made me very nervous about another being with me, it felt very safe. And good.

There were the phone calls from friends I hadn’t seen in years, but had to talk with me. There were the emails and texts from around the globe from people who know and love both Jeff and I. There were the personal visits from those who had to really work to get to where we were but came anyway. In all this I felt…so grateful that friends didn’t let time or distance or fear or awkwardness keep them away.

It turns out, many many many of the conversations I have had about Jeff’s cancer have been awesome. Not in a “ha ha, hey, let’s throw a party” kind of way…but in a deep “we are here with you” kind of way. I haven’t had to be alone, either in my heart or in my outer world. These awesome conversations have been about more than just the exchange of words – but the exchange of love, relationship and presence. More than encouraging, but soul-defining. A blessing. A gift I get to keep the rest of my life. Who knew? That in the face of so much pain, there would, at the same time, be so much joy? Treasures hiding under the muck.

From these friends I’ve learned so much about communication and connection. About love. About how to listen. About what it feels like when another approaches my pain – and how to do the approaching… especially in those fragile, tender moments when a heart is breaking.

No wonder God wants us connected to each other, in authentic community and relationship. To not hide, to open ourselves to one another in all its messiness and hang out there – by the roadside together until the hurting one can get up and walk again. Offering grace. Taking turns taking care of each other – because each of us will be the hurting one at some point.

And I feel so grateful to those who know how to communicate, how to be human, how to be compassionate…how to stay with someone in pain and not run in fear or from the awkwardness. My interactions with them haven’t always been neat and clean and pretty, but they’ve always been real.

And the best part? Those friends always brought Jesus with them. And that is always an awesome experience.

Pr. 17:17 A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

Pr. 25:11 A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.