An epidemic of loneliness
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has touted loneliness as one of the greatest health crises facing our society today. He says that loneliness increases your risk for heart disease, depression, anxiety, and dementia. When it comes to reduction of life span, Murthy says, loneliness has the equivalent effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Researchers at Aalto University in Finland and Oxford University have shown that people start losing friends around age 25. Before then, in the college and young adulthood years friend groups abound. People move about in packs, crews, squads, coteries. This season of life is the fodder for TV sitcoms stretching back to Friends and beyond.
But then, one by one, friends get married. Or they move away. Children come along. Peoples’ worlds shrink to the routine of family, children’s events, and work. Even if you don’t get married or have children, your circle shrinks because other people drift from it.
And there you discover that loneliness has crept up on you, robbing you of joy.
It’s time to fight back against the loneliness with these two powerful practices. Before going further, please note that these are not recommendations to help with crippling depression or paralyzing anxiety. If your daily functioning is impaired by mental health issues, then seek professional help before trying these practices.
Practice 1: Disarm the loneliness by getting comfortable with solitude
I know that “Get comfortable with solitude” is hard to hear, but it is most important. Loneliness is anxiety caused by lack of connection. It is not necessarily caused by being alone. You can be surrounded by people and still be lonely. You can be in the center of a great convivial party and still be lonely. Loneliness is not disarmed by being around other people.
All our great fears are disarmed when we face them and understand the root of them. Loneliness is no different. The way to truly disarm loneliness, rather than putting a band aid over it, is to sit with it.
Blaise Pascal quipped in his Pensees that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
We learn to get comfortable with solitude as we practice the spiritual discipline of stillness. Simply being still and knowing that God is with you (see my post “Be Still” – The Practice That Helps You Overcome Distraction).
In my practice of stillness, I experience God’s presence with me. He is always unpredictable. Sometimes He gives an overwhelming sense of affection, sometimes He challenges me in my pettiness. Often He recalls to my mind words from scripture. Almost always, I wrap up my time of stillness feeling energized and aware of all that is around me. I’m able to go forth and connect more authentically with people.
From practicing stillness, I have discovered the fundamental difference between loneliness and solitude:
Loneliness is anxiety caused by lack of connection; solitude is seeking to be alone so that we can more deeply connect.
Stillness reminds me that solitude is not running away from the problems of the world – it is running to God who reigns even over the world’s problems.
Practice 2: Sterilize the loneliness by receiving with gratitude what others have to offer
This is also hard to hear, but it is essential to personal growth. I’ve learned the hard way that a lot of loneliness is self inflicted because we drive other people away by foisting excessive emotional demands on them. Unhealthy friendship is an imbalance when we drain the friend’s energy to assuage our own anxieties.
The problem is when our friend doesn’t have the energy or the time to assuage our anxiety. We might get upset and respond with irritation, anger, or passive aggressive behavior. As though, somehow, it is their fault that we are anxious. And these responses just give birth to more loneliness.
Yes, there are times when we need to unburden ourselves to our friends. But there is a difference between a needy unburdening and a seeking the counsel of friends. Healthy friendship is when friends serve one another by encouraging mutual growth. When you unburden, are you prepared to receive your friend’s feedback? Are you prepared to receive advice and encouragement? Are you unburdening, expecting a specific kind of validation, or are you unburdening, ready to receive what your friend has to offer?
Consider this: everyone has demands on their time and energy. Everyone is doing their best to meet the demands upon them. When someone gives you their attention, their time, their energy, it is a gift. Receive the gift with gratitude, even if it doesn’t meet your expectations.
Friendship becomes easier when we consider other people’s time, energy, and attention as gifts they give rather than debts they owe.
Putting it all together
By seeking stillness and solitude, I become more deeply connected to God. That relationship helps me take the pressure off other people in my life. I can receive them as the gift they are rather than demanding that they meet my needs. When I receive them without pressuring them, they are more likely to respond in kind.
So, here’s the challenge: spend time seeking out God in solitude, and then make a mental resolve to receive with gratitude what people have to offer. Let me know how it goes.
Soli Deo Gloria
About the cover image: The haunting face is a detail from Auguste Preault’s Le Silence, a plaster bas relief created for a cemetery tomb. I came across this in the Art Institute of Chicago earlier this year, and it has haunted me for quite some time.