Humans were created to live in community. So how does one deal with feelings of loneliness?
Three years ago, I moved from my home on the West Coast to the East Coast for a new job. Taking only my cat with me for company and continuity, I spent the first few months in my new home feeling more lonely than I have ever felt in my life. It wasn't that people weren't kind to me. But I was apart from good friends, my spiritual community, and all that was familiar. I was exhausted each day by the demands of a hectic job. What little energy I had left was spent in learning my way around, finding a new doctor, hairdresser, and dentist, not to mention friends and a new church. I remember being very envious of those whose husband, partner, or family moved with them. At least they brought some kind of support system with them.
While it might have been easier to have a built-in support system during those months, the unavoidable fact is that we all experience periods of loneliness. Popular mythology holds that only single people experience loneliness, but I've met married people who have faced lonely periods as well. As human beings, we need the companionship of significant people in our lives.
Enter the biblical stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis ("it is not good for man to be alone"), or of the animals entering the ark 2 x 2, and it seems like we have a biblically mandated solution to loneliness--marriage. But the Bible also contains the stories of single people leading full and rich lives. Miriam, Moses' sister, helps lead the Israelites out of Egypt. A beloved leader, she leads the people in celebration after their escape. When she is punished with leprosy, and must stay outside the camp for seven days, they will not go on without her. When she dies, the people stay put until she is buried. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in the New Testament, appear to be single, and have significant friendships with many, including Jesus. Paul, Jesus, and others fill the pages of the Bible--all single people, beloved of God, with rich, full lives. God doesn't appear to them and demand that they get married to fulfill the mandate in Genesis. Perhaps we get too focused on Adam and Eve, and the Ark, and forget that the Bible contains stories that affirm the value of the single life as well.
Still, loneliness can be a reality in the single life, but perhaps some of it comes from confusing loneliness with the act of being alone. I often tell people in my singles retreats that we won't make good partners for anyone in this life if we can't be a good partner to ourselves first.
If you find that you dread an evening by yourself, make a list of the things that you might do to nurture yourself. That list can include anything that nourishes your mind, body, or soul: browsing your local bookstore, taking a leisurely bath, listening to music, walking, meditating, journaling, enjoying a favorite hobby, going out to a movie or show (yes, you can go out by yourself!). Use that list to make your time alone into restorative time for yourself. We get so little self-care time in this life, and I can guarantee you that anyone who is married, and particularly those with children, would be thrilled to have an evening to attend solely to their own needs. Jesus often went off by himself to pray and escape the demands of others and of the day; it's not a bad model to follow.
Another time that loneliness strikes us can occur when we want a partner in life so deeply that we ignore the wonderful community that surrounds us. There's nothing wrong with the desire for a partner, but focusing exclusively on that rarely brings it about. Humans were created to live in community, so one way to move away from loneliness is to focus on others. It is in giving that we receive, says the prayer of St. Francis. What we will receive we cannot know in advance; this isn't a magic formula. But volunteer your time, pay attention to the needs of family, friends, and colleagues, or give of yourself in any other way that seems appropriate, and see what happens. Let yourself experience the intimacy of friendship and of service to others, rather that putting life on hold until that significant other comes along.
Finally, learn to befriend your loneliness. Think of it as your teacher, and ask it for wisdom. Speak to God about your feelings, and ask to know what this time of loneliness has to teach you. Talk with others about it--friends, clergy persons, spiritual directors, or others--and ask their help and support. As I grappled with loneliness in my new home, and talked with others about it, I realized that I had to live differently if I wanted more connection to others. I was spending too much of my time at work, leaving little time to get the rest I needed in order to have enough energy to go out and make new friends and develop new support systems. My feelings of loneliness in a new environment were kept at bay by working too many hours, which further increased my isolation. By listening to my feelings--as uncomfortable as that was--I discovered that my loneliness had something to teach me about living a more balanced life, one that had time for prayer, friends, and fun, and not just work. Even God took the Sabbath off.
None of this is to say that feelings of isolation, of loneliness, are fun or easily managed. They are real and sometimes very painful. And if they are chronic, you might want to find someone who can help you look at them carefully. But these feelings can be important tools in making changes in your life. They certainly have been so in mine.
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