Are We Living on a Lonely Planet?: How to Stop for the One
I wonder whether the things that are difficult to talk about, are the very topics that need to be given airspace. Like loneliness for example. I was going to call this post ‘The Lonely Planet Guide to Overcoming Loneliness.’ Because most of us if we are honest, have experienced a little loneliness at some point in our lives. In fact, if you believe what the magazine articles and even scholarly research papers are documenting, unprecedented mumbers of people today are lonely. Some sociological researchers have noted increases in “social isolation” and that many people are less significantly connected to close friends and family today. We seem to live on a lonely planet.
It has led me to consider whether loneliness is an inevitable part of the human condition? Are people today more lonely than they have been in previous generations? And are we in the West more lonely than those in developing countries, or is that a generalization? Many have observed that in “developing” countries and in Southern Europe, cultural patterns such as families across generations living together under one roof may provide space for fostering intimate relationships in daily life, Furthermore, does our virtual, chaotic and individualistic culture keeps us from the intimacy we all crave? We have social media and facebook, which have many positive attributes, however do these sites create a false sense of relationship with others?
Being lonely is not necessarily about alone-ness, and loneliness is not a sign of weakness. For some it could be about a lack of meaningful relationships with others. Or for many of us, it could be that we have many good friends but struggle to make the time to nurture those relationships. Relationships where we can talk heart to heart. Furthermore, our society is very global and many of our friends and family may be living in different areas or even different countries.
People can be lonely in many different seasons of life. Young people studying at university can be lonely. They may feel like a little fish in a big pond. Singles may often experience loneliness. Especially when it seems that we live in a couple’s world. When we are single we might well think ‘If only I were married, then I wouldn’t be lonely’. However what many single people may not realise is that marriage does not solve loneliness. Many a married person can be forgotten about, singles might think, ‘well it’s alright for them, they have a spouse’. But it goes both ways, and if we are married, we can be sensitive to the needs of single people around us. We can serve them, invite them into our homes and encourage them to share in our family life. The elderly too. All around me are those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, those who have experienced the trauma of widowhood or have experienced the pain of a broken relationship or marriage. The pit of loneliness for them may well run deep.
And mothers of young children? I would guess that many of them would score highly on a loneliness scale too, especially those that are not in the paid workforce. Many mothers are parenting in isolation without the support that they need. And life is busy with a capital B when one has littlies! Babies need to nap, kids get bugs, there is that sausage sizzle to help with, preschool parent help to attend, a costume to sew, girl guide biscuits to sell, taxi driving to soccer and ballet and so on. One’s friends with kids are equally busy, at full capacity even.
I have also heard many people comment that the loneliest place can be the church. One blogger has written that church relationships were the trickiest she has ever known. She goes on to write that in a job there can be cammeraderie with one’s colleagues but there is perhaps not the same expectation as in church that one’s colleagues will be ‘best buddies’. Many church goers have talked about the ‘bruising and wounding’ that occurs from a lack of meaningful friendship. Perhaps this is because if we are a church goer, we may have the expectation that we ought to have meaningful social relationships with one another in the context of church. But these days much of our involvement with other members of our faith community may be largely limited to the confines of a church building. Do we have others into our homes for old fashioned hospitality anymore?
Much research attests to the correlation between loneliness and mental health. The most described link is that between loneliness and depression. The age old saying that ‘friends are good medicine’ does seem to ring true. In much of history, people were born, lived and died in the same community. They were known in that community. I’m not wanting to romanticise the ‘good old days’ because the ‘olden days’ had it’s fair share of problems, like today. However today, are people as ‘known’ in their communities, given that we are increasingly global? Has our mobility stiffened our sense of community? Are we afraid to make friends with people for fear that they might move on, or we might move on? And if loneliness is a predictor of poor mental and physical health outcomes for people, is it something that we should be talking about in our communities and churches? If we are in church leadership, what can we do to ensure that a sense of community and pastoral care is fostered?
And if we are a believer, we might wonder where is God in our loneliness? The narrow path can sometimes be a lonely path. It’s not a busy congested motorway. When I’ve felt alone, I find comfort in the truth that Jesus understands. He experienced the abandonment and loneliness of the cross so my sin would never be a barrier between God and me. His sacrifice cleared the way so we can go to God and pursue His presence in the lonely times of our lives.
I’ve recently learned about the theological concept of caritas. Developed by Thomas Aquinas, it is commonly understood as friendship with God that ultimately leads to deepened friendship with one another. Perhaps the challenge we face today is to cultivate more genuine depths of safe vulnerability and intimacy with one another. Indeed, we can have traits that prevent sharing, such as independence. Likewise, our pride — the desire to be viewed as ‘having it all together’, our determination to be “in control” at all costs — is a quality that may isolate us from each other and keeps us from interdependency with our family and friends.
I’ve recently been encouraged by a movement called ‘Stop for the One’ instigated by Heidi and Roland Baker. If you have not heard of the Bakers, they are missionaries ministering to orphans and the poor in Mozanbique. I have had several friends who have been fortunate enough to work alongside these amazing yet humble servants of God in their ministry Isis Global. ‘Stop for the One’ was birthed in 2009 and is simply about sharing God’s extravagant love with one another. It takes seriously the call to care for widows, the orphans and the poor. But this initiative can also be applied to anyone that we come into contact with each day. Our neighbours, colleagues, the checkout operator at the supermarket, the children of friends.
The Bakers have said that the only way to stop for millions is ‘one by one’. ‘To do this we must stop for God, the One who is the One and then one in front of us each day’. The people we meet may not be physically in need like they are in Mozambique. But perhaps they have emotional and spiritual needs. Maybe they are lonely. Mother Theresa has said that ‘Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty of all’. Can we think about the phrase ‘Stop for the One’ and engage with our neighbour over the fence, another mum at the park, or those around us who may be hurting, remembering that others are hurting more than we realise. Can we ‘love them to life’ through the little things, and make our lonely planet a little less lonely?
Church can be lonely, and sometimes the workplace can be too. The season of singleness can be lonely but marriage can have it’s lonely seasons too. One’s marriage partner cannot meet all one’s needs for companionship, and there are times when you just need your girlfriends. Motherhood, although a precious and special season, can be particularly lonely. And we live in a ‘selfie’ culture. The song chorus that I heard at a school assembly when I worked in Special Education says it all – ‘It’s all about Me’. Is that what we are teaching our children? Does individualism contribute to the growth of individuals, the maturing of friendships, the strengthening of family and communities?
But when the sun sets at the end of each day, we are essentially alone in our own skin, with our hopes, dreams, masks and dark shadows. But our identity, the essence of ourselves, is not found in our achievements or failures, belonging to a friendship group, clique or a particular church community. Our identity is anchored in the reality that we are beloved daughters or sons of the King.