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Islands: The Phenomenon of Loneliness

I’ve been trying to start this blog for about a year now. I didn’t know where to start. What could I possibly say that was worth putting online for a wide audience? Would this just be another contribution to the over-socialized cyber culture that we’ve created for ourselves to avoid reality? I very consciously try not to contribute to that unfortunate shift in society. But that’s not the point...

As I reflected over the last few weeks, I know that there is something that needs to be recognized in our world. Now, I’m not the only one to recognize it, but if I can be a single voice that provides understanding and affirmation, then this post has purpose and I’m okay with that.

I’ve witnessed an enormous amount of loneliness in people that I love lately. It’s incredible to me that our world is more populated than it has ever been, and yet everyone is so isolated. We’re a sea full of islands that can’t seem to connect. If you are one of my dear friends reading this and you recognize that I’m talking about you, please, do me one favor and shake off that shame you’re feeling. This is not meant to shine a spotlight on you. I promise you, while I am thinking about your face and your name and your voice, I am also thinking about your friend who feels the very same way.

So how did we get so derailed? How did our relational society become so incredibly severed? I can only speak out of my own experience, but a couple ideas come to my mind…

First, at least in my artistic community, Christianity has become a shark tank. As I learn in my own classes about the rise of autonomy and the emphasis on choice in our society, I can see it ripping at the seams, tearing the fabric of faith that was once strong, sacred, and revered. As people gain more and more knowledge, we begin to fill in the gaps of our minds with our own answers just because we “can.” We now have the technology to create, so we don't need a creator. We now have the technology to know just about anything we want, so we don't need the all-knowing. And so on. Even in the sacred house of God, we dismiss Him to make room for our knowledge of Him.

What does that have to do with loneliness? Well, in my experience, untrained knowledge leads to unhealthy competition. In a society flooded with resources, we chase each other out of church because we are all racing to be the most “learned,” or the most “anointed,” or the most “servant-hearted,” or even the most “in-tune with the Holy Spirit.” We are building our own tower of Babel – reaching for heaven with our own pride and self-serving choices. If we hold the power of our fate by self-ruling, by having total choice, then you bet we’re going to claw our way up the ladder, stepping on every Christian and non-Christian that gets in our way. The real sick part is, the enemy fools us into believing we are “striving to be closer to God.” False.

We’re just striving to be higher up on the ladder than our brothers and sisters. We are trading God’s wisdom for our own self-discovery. That’s not obedient and that is not “serving the church,” that is pride. If having total choice available to us means that we will “choose” ourselves over our friends, then hopefully we can realize sooner rather than later that we don’t need our choice that badly. Instead, why don’t we trade in our choice for God’s choice? He chose a world based on relationship, not on the individual. He chose a world based on generosity, not on consumerism. He chose a world based on love, not on selfishness.

If we want to re-engage with a servant’s heart, then we need to shift our focus back to people. While we’re all climbing up the ladder, we’re missing out on the relationships that we were built for. We viciously criticize one another, all in the name of righteousness. We adopt pious bullying attitudes and think we are holding each other accountable. We have our noses buried so deeply in our theology books that we forget to look up and see the actual human being in front of us. In today’s society, the Christian church is often viewed as the least-safe place a person can go with their brokenness. How backwards is that? The church wants to preach the Good News, but if your life resides outside of the celebration, even temporarily, then they don’t want to get their hands dirty with your “sin.”

As a believer, this is heartbreaking to admit. But we have to be honest with ourselves if we're ever going to change. Everyone in the faith is so lonely because the church is not prioritizing relationships. Small groups are not enough. Sunday brunch is not enough. It’s deeper than what the institution needs to do. For the most part, contemporary churches offer a great deal of outlets for people to connect. The solution rests in the hearts of the people. Christian culture needs a shift in individual heart and priority. Being in the world and not of it has never been so difficult, but if we can regain that structure of community, we will spare a great deal of lonely believers…

Now, I am a part of the church, so I don’t want to exclusively rip it apart as if I’m not a member of the body. I will stand by the church and take my piece of responsibility in this tragedy. I’m guilty as well. We are all guilty of not loving one another well enough, and likewise, most of us are also victims of another person’s “choice.” That’s why we’re lonely. We’re victims and offenders, and there is seemingly no place for anyone to be both.

The second reason I believe we are so lonely is because we live in fear. This also ties into the dramatic shift in culture toward the individual. Now that we all have the freedom to choose who we interact with, who we love, even who we identify as, there is more risk of being rejected. We subconsciously sense our own freedom of choice and that gives us an awareness of someone else’s freedom of choice – the freedom to embrace us or to reject us. There was once a time when we were encouraged to love everyone (in different ways of course) because it was morally right to do so. However, with a society that increasingly values individual contribution over the common good, it has become acceptable to reject others based on what we need or want. This breaks down the very identity of a person that is found in the eyes of Christ. It breaks down the gospel and it breaks down the foundation of our faith.

Self-esteem is at an all-time low. Suicide is at an all-time high. People can no longer cope with a world that doesn’t have space for them, so they leave it or they live in it alone. All the while, we’re surrounded by other lonely people, but our fear has crippled our ability to reach out again. There is pressure to conform, even in the Christian church, to a standard of living that was never instituted by God. So, when someone feels that they are incapable of conforming to this man-made standard, it is identified as a spiritual defect. But it’s not! Loneliness has become a disease that we cultivated in our own world. We inject our loved ones with fear and we continue feeding ourselves the poison.

Now, I don’t want to place all the blame on our peers. Our fear is rooted in our own identity in Christ, so it is ours to confront, not the world’s to fix. It is good to feel like an object of God’s love. It is good to recognize the spiritual gifts that He has instilled in us. It is good to develop our individual character, within the context of God’s character. It is not wrong to desire relationship. It is not wrong to desire joy. It is not wrong to desire justice. It is also not wrong to wrestle with these things. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to care for our own mental or physical well being; it’s actually crucial to care for ourselves in order to remain healthy and vibrant, as God created us. It is okay to have desires. It is okay to want friends, love, relationship, depth, knowledge, realness, etc. All of these things spring from God’s nature, and I believe He wants to share them with us, as long as our goal is not to climb that ladder, but rather to enjoy those things in community with Him and in the community He created for us.

So what do we do? For those who are lonely, we have to allow ourselves to feel with no shame and with no punishment. Loneliness is a response to our inherent nature as relationship-based creatures. When we do not have that connection to other people, it's programmed in us to feel wrong. We have to allow ourselves to respond to how we were created. And we cannot keep punishing our self-worth because of our outside circumstances. Hurt. Scream. Cry. Express the pain. But do so out of lament and sorrow, not out of self-destruction. Because in the midst of our affirmation, we also have to remind ourselves that we are victorious. I can tell you about the victory of Christ and the freedom you have, but ultimately, we all have to decide to walk in it for ourselves. We have to decide that we are free and we will not be held captive by our loneliness. Everything we feel is very real, but it is important to maintain our perspective on who is in control. Last, lonely people need to unload the shame that we feel to speak up and ask for community and for relationship. There's no good in that toxic shame, it's just garbage.

While the world may not have been created to be as fast-paced as it has become, it's still a reality that we have to work within for the time being. I promise, people don't know that you're hurting as deeply as you are. If they did, they would tap back into that compassion that the world was built on and lift you up to make sure you are reminded just how not-alone you are. This takes courage, and it also takes humility. Humble yourself enough to not assume that these friends are taking pity on you. Humble yourself enough to accept the kindness at its face-value, because more often than not, it isn't pity. It isn't someone feeling sorry for you. It's a friend learning how to love you better as a result of your teaching them.

As for those who want to know how to find and help lonely people...our job is simple, if we're willing to slow down and do it right. Just listen. If we silence our own busy schedules and agendas, we can hear the quiet whisper of a spirit in need of companionship. When we're too loud, we can't hear those lonely souls - their voices grow weak five times faster than ours. We have to listen to our own spirit and open our eyes. Search for those precious souls that need a text. Even if we aren't sure they need one, send it anyway. Prioritize kindness. Selflessness. Search their heart not to react to it, but to respond to their unique character. Find out what makes them beautiful and live in that freedom together. Be present. Speak their love language. That's all anyone wants - to be understood and valued. We have to put aside our opinions and our choices in order to truly love someone.

"Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other."

- Rainer Maria Rilke

To you, my friends, who find yourself incredibly lonely, I apologize. I am so deeply sorry for my role in your loneliness. I ask your forgiveness, and I assure you that you are seen. You are loved. Even though I am human and lose sight of this truth, I can honestly say in this moment that I am humbled by your struggle. I have been there. I am there often still. But I don’t want to be lonely alone anymore. If the world lays a weight of loneliness on us, let’s at least carry the burden together. Tell me your stories and I promise they will inspire me. They already do…

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