"Loneliness is a force of nature."
I had my back turned to my friend. I was at her kitchen table finishing breakfast and she was behind me at the sink. We had been talking about my intimacy research and noting how things like loneliness were such a strong motivation for making unhealthy choices in our relationships. I made my observation about loneliness but when I heard no response, I turned around and saw my friend bent over the sink, tears running down her face. I knew she was going through a particularly difficult season. Her best friend had passed away from an illness at the same time she had broken off a six-year romantic relationship. Just like that, the people she confided in and leaned on the most (and most often), were gone. Even with a full career, wonderful kids, and a loving family, my friend was buckling under the added weight of an acute loneliness.
I can relate.
I've been thinking about this quite a bit the past few years. My research about intimate relationships is always crashing up against the realities of my own life. Loneliness has been a reoccurring theme. It has forced me to reckon with certain realities of loneliness. How does one cure loneliness? What do we do in moments when loneliness seems to steal the very oxygen from our lungs? Everyone I know has struggled with loneliness and this struggle has not always been dictated by circumstances. There are plenty of us who have a discernable void of intimacy in our lives. This void, in its various manifestations, haunts us and triggers a sharp pang of loneliness.
However, there are also those of us who are surrounded by loving people, healthy relationships, regular intimacy, and YET, there is a loneliness we cannot shake. Over and over again, I witness people in a range of circumstances that suffer from loneliness. It leads me to agree with what scholars and poets have long observed: loneliness can plague any and all of us despite our circumstances. As a result, there is no real cure for loneliness. It cannot be eradicated by the perfect arrangement of intimate relationships sustained over long periods of time. In fact, loneliness is about something much deeper.
This dilemma raises the question: if loneliness is not eradicated by the presence of healthy, sustained intimacy, then what is it that makes us lonely? What is this ache signaling? To put it simply, loneliness is not a physical but a spiritual condition. The ache is with us all because no matter how good our relationships are with other people; they are never truly everything we need. People, even good people, are broken and flawed. No human relationship can fulfill all we crave and need. Additionally, even our relationship with God does not cure loneliness. While God is not broken or flawed, our relationship with God is. Even though God is with us in the most intimate way, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we still struggle with loneliness. In an important and powerful way loneliness is an ever-present reminder that the wholeness and connection we crave, the very fellowship we are created for, will not be fulfilled until all things are made new in the Second Coming of Christ. Until everything is fully redeemed and set right, the "already but not yet" leaves a mark of the rupture on our souls. We get foretastes of the Kingdom in the beauty of our relationships with God and one another. Yet, these are still just shadows and signs pointing to the justice and restoration we all long for. Loneliness is a spiritual wound we carry with us. We can comfort each other in the solidarity of this condition. We can welcome the ache knowing it will not last forever and that Christ's redeeming work is moving even now, inviting us in.
But this leaves us with a new question: if loneliness cannot be eradicated or cured this side of Heaven, what do we do with the deep pain of loneliness in our lives? Just because it is a universal, spiritual condition does not mean that loneliness is unable to swell to unbearable sizes. Intimacy can help manage loneliness, but often, because of this reality, we are tempted to reduce our relationships to functions. The accessible people in our lives act like a hit of morphine to symptoms of our struggle. We will welcome even toxic and artificial forms of intimacy to replicate the effects of real intimacy and medicate our ache. We will stay in superficial or even dangerous relationships rather than suffer the void that will inevitably bring on the sting of loneliness.
Recently, a student sat in my office after the pain of a break-up. He realized that the relationship was not going anywhere but was sick with anxiety over the alternative that would leave him without a companion and back in a state of loneliness. Being very familiar with this state, he was already dreading the feelings, habits, and sins he often turned to. Without a companion, how was he to survive the symptoms of his loneliness?
My student raises an important observation that many of us understand well. It doesn't help that we are swimming in a culture of romance idols. We are all fighting the saturated messages that tell us relentlessly that our value and wholeness is found in having "someone." But even if the culture was not this way, our own longings indict us. We fear loneliness.
But I want to offer a slight shift: I do not believe it is loneliness we fear. I believe what we actually fear are the things loneliness reveals.
In my own struggle with loneliness, I was struck by the reality that there were no circumstances or relationships that could eradicate my loneliness. This meant that, because of this universal, spiritual condition, my loneliness would always be with me in some way. If this is true, then what are all my efforts for? What am I trying at accomplish? What is the point of these relationships is they cannot cure my loneliness? And if my loneliness is sharp and unbearable, am I just doomed to a life of pain management?
Loneliness is not just a signpost to the anticipated consummation of Christ's work, it is also a signpost to the very brokenness that haunts our lives.
I suggested to my student, and to you dear reader, that loneliness is not just a signpost to the anticipated consummation of Christ's work, it is also a signpost to the very brokenness that haunts our lives. In a way, loneliness is a doorway and once we walk through it and cross its threshold, we discover that behind the initial panel of our loneliness are the actual issues we are suffering from. For my student, it was not just loneliness but who he was when he was alone that brought shame and discomforting revelations. If loneliness was the diagnosis, then a relationship was the cure. If he stopped at the threshold and rationed that all he needed was a companion, then he would be caught in an ongoing cycle of relationships in hopes that this circumstance would somehow fix the problem. But if loneliness is actually an invitation to peer into the dark, then when our eyes adjust, we find that there are other things driving the pain we describe as loneliness. And what is the advantage of finding these other things in our lives? It allows us clarity to meet the intersections of our struggle and God's grace. We have the opportunity to surrender ourselves to the surgical work of sanctification. It relieves us from the mania of pain management so that we can learn what the Lord is doing in our life and step in as participants in that work. It takes us down new roads. Loneliness might always be with us, but we can finally learn to embrace this spiritual condition because we know why it is in our life. And along this new road, we get to see deserts turned into gardens and beauty for ashes in other areas of our life.
Loneliness is kind of grief, and any fresh grief can trigger the pain of the voids in our life. One friend recently described how, on her way to a funeral, the acuteness of her singleness suddenly rushed unexpectedly to the surface. All our unmet longings, no matter how well we have managed them or come to peace with the circumstances in our lives, can be conduits of the spiritual condition of loneliness. Whenever grief or the deep brokenness of our world collides with us, an electric shock connects between seemingly unrelated parts of our story, and they become conductors creating a cross-section of voltage. This too, is part of the economy of God. There are some wounds that do not heal in our lifetime. There are some longings that go unmet. This inaugurated Kingdom of the "already and not yet" still contains cancer, violence, divorce, and death along with the powerful redemptive realities of healing, peace, intimacy, and life. The gospel compels us to hold all these truths with both hands.
Our loneliness is an evergreen in a forest of hardwoods that cycle continuously through seasons of abundance and bareness. If we can recognize and embrace this, then loneliness can be a valuable part of our life. It loses its teeth when we realize that what we fear is not actually loneliness, but the darkness it reveals. But the good news comes when we remember that even darkness is not dark to God and night shines like the day (Psalms 139:12 paraphrase). God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, is invading our dark places with the restorative power of grace and love. Set in its proper place in the gospel, our loneliness is no longer a problem to solve but a sign to pay attention to. It is a guide to the indelible, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. And it releases our relationships from the untenable burden to fix something they can never fully repair.
Together, we get to mourn the deep pain that invades our lives, but with tear-stained cheeks and clear eyes, we raise each other's faces to the dawn of the new day, new mercies, and the anticipated redemption of all things.