Thank you to all who joined our conversation yesterday. I wasn’t able to save the recording this time, but will do my best next time. We shared for an hour about faith shifts, doubt, and certainty. I could have listened to you all for another hour or more. It was deeply refreshing to hear your various perspectives and the thought with which you bring to each of your experiences. I’m looking forward to our next conversation in February.
One thing I was struck by in our conversation is just how very lonely many of us feel in our faith, church, experience, understanding of God, and more. There were a few moments when someone was sharing and I thought to myself, “We see you. I see you.” It could be that I’m particularly sensitive to this feeling of invisibility because (as an Enneagram 9) it is one of the most persistent feelings I have navigating the word, but I don’t think so. I think this loneliness is nearly universal these days.
Perhaps some of you are deeply knit into a place where you are seen, heard, acknowledged, and loved by the very real flesh and blood people in your life and community, but I just don’t think that’s the reality for many of us these days. Maybe it’s because of how transient we all are in 2023, maybe it’s the vestiges of COVID-19, maybe it’s how social media scratches our itch for connection but is found to be merely a one-dimensional imitation of it. I don’t know entirely. The stats on loneliness are off the charts these days, so this isn’t just a faith-crisis thing.
We had some friends over the other evening, over a pot of leftover leek and potato soup with butter slabbed crusty bread. One of them joked about how happy he would be as a hermit who never saw people and I chimed in about how if I didn’t have a few standing appointments each week, I’d happily never leave our house. Nate is not wired the same and neither is our friend’s partner. Both begin to feel stir crazy after a mere day at home.
It is hard for me to not feel guilty about my love for aloneness, especially as I see this crisis of loneliness around me. Evangelicalism hammered into my head that of faith, hope, and hospitality, the greatest of these is hospitality. To have an “open door” seemed to me to be the mark of whether one’s Christianity was serious or not and I embraced it fully, believing that the more spent one was as they went to bed at night, the more holy their day was.
But as I found that posture wanting deeply (mainly because so much energy was spent being with others that one never left time to deal with their own soul), I began to realize there is a great difference between hospitality as making a good meal and setting out good china and laughing together late into the night, and what Norman Wirzba illuminated as the life of love: “Making space for the other, inviting the other in, cultivating the life of the other, and liberating the other into their life.”
One of the most formative works of my own life in the past year was learning to see God as hospitable to me as a prerequisite for practicing true intimacy and hospitality with others—otherwise it’s just busywork that I use to keep me from paying attention to Jesus and the work he has for me. Just this morning my spiritual director and I worked through some of my patterns in friendship and one thing that kept coming up was how near to Jesus I have felt in recent years. I really feel like he is my best friend and he hears the cries of my heart and knows the tender spots and is attentive to them all. I wondered aloud to my SD if that was one reason I rarely feel lonely. I’m never alone.
The crisis of loneliness is a real thing and we must pay attention to it, but I’m not convinced the cure is more togetherness or more friendships. I don’t know that our reaction to the crisis of loneliness should be to create more opportunities for connection. I wonder if the cure for loneliness is a greater awareness of the presence of Jesus?
How does one get there though? How does one become more aware of Jesus, hear him, listen to him, feel loved and seen and known by him?
Well, I don’t know if this is causation or correlation, but it has helped me immensely to receive the hospitality of the God who formed me from himself with clay and then who put on flesh and came to me. The Christian story makes a big deal of God but when we look at God, God is making a big deal about us and his love for us. It is the “gift of being yourself.”Of being “magnificently oneself.” Of “becom[ing] visible / while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.”
If you are lonely today (and I’m just going to go ahead and assume that’s all of us to some degree), here are some practices to try.
Make space: When we’re lonely, we often think the antidote is to make a connection with another—and sometimes it is. But that connection is somewhat selfishly motivated, it’s because YOU’RE lonely, not because you genuinely want to be connected with this other person particularly. Now, before you go on feeling guilty for needing something that is good and right (companionship) or before you shout at me that your needs matter, just stop for a second and say, “What would I say to/do with/laugh about/etc. this person? And why am I afraid of doing it by myself?” Sometimes our cure for loneliness is not to be with another, it’s to learn to be alone. To make space for the person we are just as we are today. Sometimes it’s scary, but it’s good.
Invite yourself in: Look in the mirror and call yourself saint. I believe this was a practice Eugene Peterson committed to doing. But I’m also reminded of the book of James when he writes about not being one who looks in a mirror and then walks away and forgets what he’s seen. Don’t forget you’re a saint when you walk away from the mirror. Don’t forget it’s by grace you’re saved. Don’t forget you’re loved and seen and know by the God who fashioned you in God’s image.
Cultivate your life: Find (or rediscover) a hobby. Even better if it’s something you did when you were 10 or 12. Re-learn what delighted you then because chances are, it delights you still. And as you put your hands to the work of this hobby, think to yourself, “God made me like this and delights in me doing this. He’s not shaking his finger at me or disappointed at how I’m ‘wasting time.’ He’s opening his barn or his craft cupboard or his game closet and pulling out everything that might supplement the work of my hands right now. That’s how much he likes it.”
Be liberated into your life: Put away your phone. Log off of social media. Seriously, if you’re lonely right now, I want you to log off social media for a day or ten. Stop looking at and loving the lives of others while you’re lamenting your own. You have a beautiful and precious and necessary and good, good life to live, and the mechanisms of social media want you to think the only way to see a good life is to glue yourself to the lives or thoughts or short quips of others. It’s a lie. Log off.
None of this will fix your loneliness if you do it once or even twice, but if you make a practice of these things, I can almost guarantee you that your loneliness will abate. It won’t disappear completely because we do need other humans and my prayer is that God will provide us all with the right humans for our current season, but it will help your loneliness a little. And the more you practice God’s hospitality for you, the more you will be able to practice it with another, and hopefully the crisis will be over eventually.
Tell me your experience of loneliness over the past few years in the comments below. What have you found to be most formative and/or helpful in your process? Maybe your story will help nudge another forward!
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Those words (it’s no secret) have become a sort of mantra for my life over the past five years.
Wow. Thank you for this. Putting words to so many crises (many internal) that I've not known how to bare.
I like to be by myself. My loneliness in recent years has been philosophical, for lack of a better way to express it. I have two, real-life, like-minded friends. One I rarely see, and one lives far away. I went from living in a place where I felt for the most part like these are my people to feeling like these are not my people, and if they knew what I really think and believe (how I vote!) they would have nothing to do with me. I feel this way because it happened. A family we were good friends with canceled us, and we were essentially run out of our church. I agree with you about friendship with Jesus being the key to survival and, ultimately, to flourishing.