I was talking with a friend recently. She’s moved to a new community, started a new job, is in a new relationship. To the casual observer everything looks hunky-dorey.
Everything is hunky-dorey most of the time.
But there are these moments – moments like she was having when we were visiting – moments in which she said her spirit feels unsettled and a sense of overwhelming loneliness overcomes her.
Loneliness is nothing to mess around with or trivialize. It is a known health risk. Studies have shown that loneliness disrupts sleep, elevates blood pressure, increases a rise in the stress hormone cortisol, and leads to an increase in depression. Some health reports list loneliness at epidemic levels. It is reported that loneliness is twice the health risk obesity poses. When you are obese people notice and often offer help or make suggestions for intervention.
Lonely people are harder to spot, harder to diagnose and harder to treat.
The problem is that lonely people look like all the rest of us non-lonely people.
If there is such a thing as the non-lonely.
Or is that unlonely?
What exactly is loneliness?
Contrary to popular belief it is not the result of being alone or living a life of solitude, although it can be that.
Many jobs require that we spend a great deal of our time alone or in solitude. Being a writer, for instance. Or a long-haul truck driver. Or even a short-haul truck driver. There’s a certain solitude and alone-ness that comes with being president or Pope. Stay-at-home moms can experience a great deal of isolation. Just about any job that requires a person to be at a computer all day long, there’s an isolation and a solitude in that.
But solitude isn’t the same as loneliness. A lot of people enjoy solitude. Artists often enjoy the solitude of their work.
It’s isolation that’s the problem, not solitude.
Monks, for instance, often live a life of solitude but they rarely live lives of isolation. Same for nuns and scientists.
The folks who study these things say that loneliness is often a state of mind, more than a state of being. It is the perception that one is alone and isolated that makes a person the most lonely, rather than the actual being alone or being isolated. That’s why a person can be in the middle of a lively party and feel the most acute sense of loneliness. They carry a sense that they don’t belong, don’t fit in.
Studies reveal that the loneliest among us are the elderly. They no longer have meaningful work to fill their hours, and they have often lost their life-long companions. Poor health may keep them from pursuing other interests.
But one doesn’t have to look far to see that loneliness is a major problem for much younger generations.
The falling away of traditions and social constructs has led to more people turning to non-conventional means to try to combat their loneliness. The proliferation of dating & hook-up sites is all the proof we need of all the lonely people among us.
Part of the problem is the lies we tell ourselves. Intimacy is not the ability to have a plethora of sexual partners. Intimacy is built over a lengthy period of time, time in which trust and appreciation is cultivated. Intimacy isn’t about climaxes – it’s about going deeper.
But just try telling that to the mass media selling shallow hook-ups for immediate self-gratification.
The kind of loneliness younger generations face can be quite different than the kind of loneliness the older generation faces. An older person deals with devastating loneliness when their spouse of 51 years dies. The younger person today has little hope of ever reaching a 50-year anniversary celebration with a spouse.
Young generations are grieving losses they may never experience. While they watch their grandmothers or grandfathers cope with the death of a life-long spouse, these same young people are scrolling through Twitter or Tumbler feeds, keenly aware that at 33, or 42, that their pursuit of a better life has robbed them of the very things that their grandparents enjoyed.
They have graduate degrees and stable jobs. They take mission trips and work at the local homeless shelters. They contribute to Kickstarter programs and KIVA. They write blogs about how to have a dynamic relationship with God, and with others. They read all the articles they can find about all the ways they can overcome loneliness. They even devote their own blogs to how to live a fulfilled life.
The irony, of course, is that a person can lead a fulfilled life and still be lonely.
Fulfillment isn’t the answer to loneliness. Companionship and belonging is.
In this socially-disconnected world of ours, to admit that one is lonely or that one experiences loneliness carries a negative stigma. There is undue pressure upon all of us to have the most “friends”, the most “peeps”, the most “followers.”
Yet, for all its negative connotations, loneliness can be a good thing. It is often the very thing that drives us to our knees in search of the Creator who made us.
When we are lonely we are at our most like God. It was his loneliness that led God to create us all.
He created us from his own desire for companionship, and longing to belong to somebody.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain.