There is an enormous amount of suffering in the world. Not only do I experience my own suffering, but as a therapist I continually go scuba diving into the suffering of others. As I gently wade through the currents of my patient’s stories of trauma, I continually pick up on a theme that causes my heart to break. Perhaps I pick up on it easily because it is something I have felt and is an experience know all too well – the sting of loneliness. Loneliness is that crushing feeling that we are disconnected from others and we are existentially alone in our emotional/spiritual/physical pain.
Loneliness is probably best thought of on a spectrum of intensity and frequency. There are those who experience chronic loneliness and those who experience state and transitory loneliness. In other words, there are some who have felt a nagging sense of loneliness their whole lives. They could be in a room filled with people and still feel lonely. There are others who feel lonely for moments at a time and then come back to baseline and feel a sense of connectedness with others. There are also those who are in between. Perhaps they felt connected at one time, yet due to painful transitions and life circumstances they find themselves lonely for a season.
Loneliness is fearless and is not prejudice. It does not care about roles, status or labels. I have counseled CEOs, pastors of megachurches, military officers, esteemed therapists, talented musicians, store clerks, housewives. The subjective and often times debilitating experience of loneliness effects people from every walk of life.
Loneliness is kryptonite for human beings and has holistically devastating consequences. Mother Theresa wrote, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” John Cacioppo, one of the leading researchers in the world on loneliness, says that around 60 million people in the U.S. are affected by loneliness. His research concludes that loneliness increases suicide, lowers a person’s immune system so they get sick more easily, decreases the quality of sleep, and is associated with increased negative views about themselves and the people around them.
If you struggle with loneliness, let me offer a few thoughts.
Time to Get a Wit(h)ness
For those I journey alongside in the therapy room, there is a common thread surrounding their troublesome stories and deep sense of abiding loneliness. For example, in regards to a husband’s sexual abuse growing up, I ask him, “Have you ever told your wife about this?” He replies, (with his head slumped down in shame), “No, I never have.” I ask a pastor, “Have you ever told your leadership about your struggle with addiction?” He replies “No, I never have.” I ask a sailor, “Have you ever told one of your fellow sailors about your desire for connection?” He replies, “No way, they will think I am weak.” I ask a wife, “Have you told anyone about your anxiety and panic attacks?” She replies, “No, I haven’t.” It becomes clear that all of the people above who reported both their struggles and their loneliness were without a wit(h)ness.
We are wired to connect. We are wired to belong. We are wired to be known. From the cradle to the grave, from birth to earth, and from the womb to the tomb to the place beyond the moon, we are meant to be in intimate relationships with others. To the degree that we have shame-filled secrets and are without intimacy (in-too-me-see) is the degree that we might be lonely and soul-sick.
If you are plagued by loneliness, I encourage you to allow at least one person into your haunted house. Let someone you trust into your painful and embodied stories of abuse, trauma, or struggles with everyday life. Take a risk and share your battles with addiction, parenting, relationships, singleness, God, or whatever keeps you up at night and down during the day. You might have learned long ago that people are scary, that they could hurt and reject you. I get it. But there lies the paradox. It could very well be that people from the past have been part of the root cause of your loneliness, however, the consistent compassionate wit(h)ness of people can become a catalyst for tremendous healing and growth.
For those who value spirituality, one of the most powerful wit(h)nesses can be with God. The psalmist writes in Psalm 42:1-2, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Sometimes there are aches and thirsts, which only God can soothe and quench. Dare to take a risk. In the silence, in the darkness, cry out to God, thrusting your aching heart onto the altar of grace and see what unfolds.
Embrace Your Loneliness
Asking you to to embrace loneliness might seem like an odd suggestion. Let me share with you what I mean. I find that most of us do not want to enter into our loneliness. As a matter of fact, we do everything we can to avoid our loneliness. Some shop till they drop, some work overtime, some watch porn, some use religion, some smoke pot, and some go on websites attacking and criticizing other’s views, all to avoid their loneliness. The activities one can engage in to avoid their inner ache of loneliness are endless.
Although the natural impulse is to run away from the pain of loneliness, the beautifully dangerous and paradoxical task is to enter into it more fully. While connecting deeply with others in the midst of your loneliness can be transformative, engaging in solitude and spelunking into the dark cavern of loneliness can become an alternative site of apocalyptic salvation. Sitting in silence, allowing yourself to feel every nuance of loneliness throughout your body, and allowing yourself to come into contact with the accompanying thoughts that have been buried underneath the pain, enables you to transform the experience. Although there are no guarantees, what began as a dark and scary endeavor can end in hope and become full of liberative insights.
Loneliness is not something we can ever get rid of or alleviate entirely, it is only something that we must tend and befriend when it appears. When loneliness arises we can either bring it forth to the dark light of solitude or to the warm embrace of loving others. When we do, healing and transformation become possible.
Cacioppo, John T., and William Patrick. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social
Connection. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008.