Loneliness begins with disappointment. It’s a failure to belong the way we want to, to connect with others securely enough to exchange opinions, jokes, interests, concerns, secrets—all the things we naturally fall into when we’re with close friends. One long-term study of loneliness found that it starts at the edges of social networks, where people have fewer connections, and then crumbles those connections as the lonely spread loneliness to those closest (literally and figuratively) to them.
These days, many of us feel we’re at those crumbling edges. Most of us are at home with almost nowhere to go, even if new responsibilities make our lives feel more hectic.
Even before the pandemic, loneliness was grabbing attention in the United States and other wealthy countries. Cigna found that in 2019, 61 percent of Americans were lonely, a sharp 7-percentage-point rise from the year before. With the falling marriage rate, rising chronic health problems, declining wealth across generations, and high rate of living alone (28 percent of households had only one person in 2018), we’re feeling lonelier than we have in decades. Interestingly, preliminary Barna Group data on loneliness (to be published in my forthcoming book on loneliness, Brazos Press 2021), show that Americans’ lack of privacy and loneliness rise together—an unexpected and unpleasant combination.
So as we self-isolate, both the young and old, those in empty and those in full houses, are all likely feeling lonelier than before.
As we self-isolate, both the young and old, those in empty and those in full houses, are all likely feeling lonelier than before.
Chronic loneliness damages heart health, immune systems, sleep, and more. It seems to bring on senility and worsens Alzheimer’s symptoms. Lonely people are more likely to die. Loneliness also has spiritual implications. It distorts perception—particularly in how we think about our relationships and interactions. Discipleship and distortions don’t grow together.
It’s not always a bad experience, either. Most of us have moments or periods of loneliness that can help us rather than harm us. The loneliness of being awake in a sleeping household, of early pregnancy, of going in a different direction out of a sense of conviction—these times of loneliness can often be savored.
It’s the chronic form of loneliness, the kind that shuts out intimacy for solid months or years, that hurts us.
Shouldn’t We Feel Fulfilled?
Not only are many of us feeling this loneliness, isolation, and stress of adding “full-time teacher” or “job-searcher” to our other duties, but many of us are also feeling guilt. One form the guilt can take is thinking that we Christians ought not to feel lonely when we have constant access to God.
Some myth-busting is in order. Whenever our theology directs us to be austere and withdrawn, we may be imbibing some non-Christian ideals. In God’s good creation, there isn’t a tradeoff between closeness to God and closeness to others. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “The illusory feeling that it is good for us to be alone [is] a bad spiritual symptom; just as lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because men do really need food.”
One form the guilt can take is thinking that we Christians ought not to feel lonely when we have constant access to God.
Loneliness, in fact, was a problem God addressed before the fall. God gave Adam a companion in Eve because, Genesis tells us, he was alone. We can conclude that loneliness isn’t sinful, and that human companionship is good, even if God were already walking with you among the animals.
Better to Be Isolated
Almost all of us are now in the position where there’s a tradeoff between our normal needs and what we should do to respect the lives and needs of others. Stuck at home, many of us are lonely. In a strange way, though, right now it is good for us to be isolated.
So, what’s to be done right now? We don’t need to treat isolation as a virtue or loneliness as a vice. There’s no need to feel guilty that our prayer times leave us still wanting spontaneous conversations or hugs.
Instead, for most of us this is a painful period of putting one good thing above another. In this, we can follow Jesus, as Lewis wrote, who was “not only of Calvary, but of . . . the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions.” And, I would add, of sacrificial loneliness.