Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dealing with loneliness

Months ago I read an article about how loneliness was an epidemic in our society. I needed no convincing. I'd seen it and experienced it. In spite of the crazy mix of social media that promises to facilitate all our relationships, we as a society were feeling more isolated, more alienated.

These days things have changed (how's that for an understatement?), but loneliness is still an incredible challenge for us. In the midst of social distancing, I'm in conversation with dozens of people. I hear over and over again how they're coping with the challenges of quarantine. Often the conversation comes back to some version of loneliness.

For almost three years now, I've been living alone in my cozy cabin. My nearest neighbors are relatively far away, a quarter-mile or more. My days and nights are pretty isolated. While I'm privileged to live in tremendous natural beauty among the oaks and the whitetails on the shore of this little lake, I've wrestled many times over the last few years with loneliness.

Out of that time, here are a few reflections on the benefits of enduring loneliness and how to cope with solitude.

1. Name it for what it is. You may not realize how lonely you are. It's a vulnerable thing to admit, even to ourselves, even during this crisis. You might experience loneliness as a deep sense of hurt, or fear, frantic energy, or even panic. Maybe you're focused on one idealized solution for your loneliness: You just want to go to a ball game, eat out at your favorite restaurant, or embrace that particular loved one. That longing is overpowering. Don't let that fixation cloud the real issue. That preferred solution might not be possible right now, especially in a time of pandemic. If you can name the fact that you're lonely, you can start dealing with the real need in a healthy way.

2. Recognize that your loneliness is the symptom of something good. Even before sin entered this world, according to Genesis, God looked at the man he had made and diagnosed isolation as a dangerous problem. "It is not good for the man to be alone," God said. (See Genesis 2:18.) The fact that you are longing for connection to others says that you are functioning as God intended. You need other people. You need conversation. At some level you need intimacy. This discomfort means your heart is healthy. Think of a teething baby. The baby's discomfort might lead to crabbiness and tears, but it's a symptom of a good thing happening. Your longing for connection means your heart is what God has created it to be. We need relationships.

3. Don't try to be holier than God. I hear so many people say that they just need to be more focused on a relationship with God when they're lonely. It sounds pretty holy, right? But it's not the way God created us. Yes, even in times of loneliness God is there for us. Yes, there's great benefit to spending time with God when you're lonely. But as noted above, God designed us to need other flesh-and-blood people. The Bible makes clear over and over again that a spiritualized connection with God is not enough. We need human community. Take advantage of the church right now. If you have church connections, use them. If you don't have a church yet, this is a fantastic time to discover new connections. Thousands of churches are expanding their online presence in many creative ways. Let those churches speak a word of hope and encouragement into your loneliness. I'm so privileged to be part of The Open Door Christian Church, and we're finding new ways to get online and connect with others. Take advantage. And if you are looking for a way to be connected at a deeper level, please email me. We have lots of new computer-based groups starting up specifically to help people stay connected.

4. That said, be smart about how you connect with God. One of the advantages to times of solitude is that we can pour out our hearts to God. We can be honest about the ache. If you're alone where you are, or if you have car time, don't be afraid to talk out loud to God about how you're feeling. (People used to think you are crazy if you did this, but these days people just think you're on the phone. It's great.) Two places in the Bible I'd suggest you spend time: First, the book of Psalms. It's full of all kinds of authentic, difficult emotions, and alongside those difficult emotions, there is a lot about what it means to have a relationship with God. Second, read the gospels––Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When you are feeling far from God, it's helpful to connect with God-in-human-flesh in Jesus. Notice how often Jesus retreats into lonely places. Notice how often he intentionally builds relationship with those around him. When you're lonely, bring that loneliness to God and know that Jesus experienced what you're going through. It won't fix the hurt, but it's still a comfort.

5. Reach out to someone. When you're lonely, it might feel like you just need to hunker down and fight through it. Okay, but the best way to fight through it is to reach out to someone else. Phone a friend. While texts and emails are good, there's something about hearing the sound of the voice of a person you care about that is balm for the soul. Rediscover the lost art of phone conversations. Call an at-risk person and check in on them. Take time just to chat. Because you are hurting, and this conversation may not be your first choice, it's tempting just to get morose and stare out the window or stare at the TV screen or stare at the news feed. Roust yourself and initiate a conversation. It won't fix everything, but it will give you a human connection. One of the best ways to deal with the pain of loneliness is to care for someone else.

6. Don't be afraid to stare into the abyss. Loneliness is deep and painful. In the midst of that pain, you might find yourself facing some realities about who you are. It can be really uncomfortable. But it can also be a tremendous time of learning and growing. Let God shine his light on things that you don't want to acknowledge. Face your fears and your weaknesses. If you keep a journal, write about some of these difficult things you're learning. But––and this is important––limit the amount of time you focus on the dark stuff. A half-hour a day is plenty. Force yourself to STOP contemplating the difficult stuff after a while. Depression is a real danger in times of isolation. Consciously turn away from that trajectory when you need to.

7. Let music help you. Music is one of God's greatest gifts at all times, but especially now. The right music can help you in every step of dealing with loneliness. Don't be afraid to have a happy playlist that is just lighthearted and fun. Because of my sense of humor, one song on this playlist for me during this pandemic is the Georgia Satellites, "Keep Your Hands To Yourself." It makes me laugh every time as I think about all of us struggling with social distancing. (When you're lonely, laughter is like Popeye's spinach.) You can have another playlist that helps you with staring into the abyss (#6 above). Not long ago I invested time listening to Bach's B Minor Mass. I guarantee if you have any openness to classical music, that one will move you and call you into the depths. Another musical friend that will help you through the loneliness is a focused worship playlist. One of the songs on my worship playlist lately is "New Wine" by Hillsong. This was recommended to me by a friend not long ago, and it's a powerful word in these challenging times. I've noticed lately that live versions like this one carry a comforting sense of being together with a crowd right now. Take advantage of that.

Loneliness is hard, but it's not insurmountable. If you're wrestling with loneliness in these days, I guarantee you God is using this time for good in your life. Don't be afraid to need people and to reach out. Don't be afraid to ask God what he's doing in all this. Don't be afraid to laugh. We need each other.

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