The Pervasive Struggle of Loneliness
We live in a world that has been so radically developed by technology that we can interact with those on the other side of the globe in an instant. Our cultures have become so amalgamated through the globalizing effect of this technology within the realms of pop culture, social media, consumerist marketing, and the like, that we are able to find much common ground with those who are in a totally different cultural and geographical environment than our own. We can physically travel from one side of the world to the other in less than a twenty-four hour day, and Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram have allowed our modern culture to maintain a regular awareness and familiarity with a broad number of relations wherever they are. Virtually all but perhaps the homeless and young children own cell phones, and according to one report:
“The average American makes or answers six phone calls per day, sends and receives 32 texts, and spends 14 minutes on chat/VOIP . . . Thailand came in at the highest daily use of chat/VOIP at 77 minutes per day . . . [and] during January 2015, Americans spent 4.9 hours per day on their smartphones . . . [while] Thailand, Malaysia and Qatar followed the U.S. as largest users coming in at 4.0, 3.1 and 3.1 respectively. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina spent the least amount of time coming in at two hours and under.”[i]
Yet in the face of these mind-boggling abilities that we possess, which our predecessors could never have dreamed possible, it is also becoming increasingly apparent that people are more socially inept, lacking in non-virtual interactions, depressed, isolated, and abysmally lonely than ever before.
How can this be?
“LONELY, I’M MR. LONELY”
The problem of loneliness is not new, and has been a common weapon of demonic forces to break down and destroy the lives of humans throughout the ages. But it is so ubiquitous in these present times that one cannot help but wonder what we have done to contribute to this epidemic of inner solidarity, and what we are missing in the common endeavor to be the communal, relational beings we were designed to be.
It goes without saying that it is particularly among the younger generations that the struggle of loneliness is most severe. Khouria Frederica Matthewes-Green, of the Antiochian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church, often comments that when she speaks on college campuses and brings up the topic of loneliness, all eyes become glued to her with pale looks of child-like earnestness, as if to say, “How does she know?” Yet even among the married and older generations who have developed a lifetime of strong relationships, the struggle of solidarity and isolation is an extremely frequent problem, although not many are able to come to the point of opening up and admitting this inner burden they carry.
The differences in extroverted and introverted temperaments come into play here, but I believe there are common inner needs which all humans possess, the absence of which increases the arduousness of lonely grief, regardless of personality type. According to Myers-Briggs I myself am a frustrating mixture of people–oriented introvertedness. Thus, I am drained and exhausted by crowds, parties, and social contexts and try my best to avoid them. But then I become vexed and discouraged that I am alone. It seems that many who have similar tendencies try to resolve their frustration by simply finding a spouse and starting a family to share life with, and some do find a great deal of peace there. For many, this is all they have ever looked for in life, yet for some reason no one ever seems to be interested in them. Others who are not called to a marital relationship often feel ostracized and struggle to find their place in their community since everyone else has “significant others.” Yet all too often people fall in love and marry, and then when the novelty has worn off, and the struggle to integrate the maleness and femaleness of one another becomes such a burden, the loneliness creeps in; but now there is a feeling of increased distance from friends since engagement with married life is believed by others to demand their focus.
The struggle of loneliness is different for everyone and all must deal with it uniquely. So many encounter it later in life, after raising a family for most of their years only to be left with an empty nest. The tragic loss of loved ones and spouses can cause such a gaping void in one’s soul that they lose hope of ever filling it with someone else. However the pain of loneliness reveals itself in our lives, it must be remembered that there are always steps to take in counteracting the attempt of the Enemy to defeat us with it.
As I write these words, the song “Look Down” from the tragic musical Les Miserables just came on my internet radio station. This is the opening song to the story of Jean Val Jean, who has just been released from prison in eighteenth century France, after decades of imprisonment, slavery, and starvation all because he once tried to steal a loaf of bread. The other prisoners sing “you’ll always be a slave” as he is handed his papers and dismissed, for he carries with him his reputation as a felon and will probably struggle to survive for the rest of his life. This is the eternal bondage that the Enemy tries to crush us with after we go through the pain and torture of struggles like loneliness and loss.
“ONLY THE LONELY, KNOW THE WAY I FEEL TONIGHT . . .”
Although at times we must be by ourselves, “it is not good for man to be alone” [Genesis 2:18] in facing that companionlessness. In order to begin the fight against the sinking despair with which loneliness oppresses us, we must hold true the words of Scripture that “iron sharpens iron” [Proverbs 27:17], looking to the lives of others and our predecessors to find encouragement and guidance in handling this cross we are given to bear. Whenever God called someone in Scripture to accomplish a crucial task for His people, it involved a life of extreme distinction from other people. Abraham leaving his home and all he’d ever known, my patron Joseph being sold into slavery and taken from his family, Moses fleeing from Egypt to make a life in Canaan, Elijah living in the desert and being fed by ravens, Amos being led away from his southern home in Judah to prophesy to Israel – virtually all of the prophets were asked to say and do such outrageous things that they were very much set apart from the community. Christ Himself demonstrated inner lonesomeness in His earthly ministry as His friends and followers were unable to understand His teachings, and He went to the cross in total psychosomatic isolation. The Apostles were sent out to carry the gospel to the four corners of the earth at the sacrifice of their earthly devotions and relations. Countless martyrs, Fathers, monastics, and Saints for two thousand years have spent their lives in isolation from others, either voluntarily or due to persecution, but have been able to harness this solidarity in their pursuit of God to become the most holy and Christ-like people in the history of the faith.
But in order to develop our spiritual maturity to the point that we can avoid becoming “lonely” simply by being “alone” and instead “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” [Colossians 3:15] and “rejoice in the Lord always,” [Philippians 4:4], a strong community of true, intimate relationships with a few other mature brothers or sisters is crucial. Even for those that are married, a consistently intimate and transparent connection with at least one or two other persons of the same gender with whom we can relate, understand, and share our struggles is a fundamental step in overcoming the lonely epidemic. It seems that this is why loneliness is worse than ever before, since shallow and surface-level interactions that never reach a mutually vulnerable status have so permeated our lives that we think they will fill our longing for friendship, when they only whet our appetites enough to make our longing for closeness unbearable. Women need their close female friends to pour out their hearts with, and, as hard as it is for them to admit it in our homosexual–homophobic segregated culture, guys also need guy friends with whom they can let down their guard and be translucent on a personal level (see my article on male relationships). In an iconic way, these relationships will be pivotal in our ability to relate more intimately with Christ and find fulfillment in fellowship with the heavenly host when we must go through periods of being alone, either internally or externally.
BEARING ONE ANOTHER’S BURDENS
Before entering the main “nave” or sanctuary of my Church, I try to always recite to myself Hebrews 12:22-24:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”
If we are the only living person present when we approach the Throne of God in prayer, the reality is that we never, ever, do so in isolation. Regardless of where we are in our lives, we are never alone. We cannot be, for we are made in His image and likeness, which is an existence of community, intimacy, and love. Just before this passage, in Hebrews 11, a long list of the faithful is given as encouragement from the example of their godly lives. The beginning of chapter 12 then concludes that we are even now in our own lives surrounded by the great cloud of these witnesses who have gone before us. There is an icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent in my parish depicting believers climbing a ladder with Christ at the top, symbolizing our life journey in pursuit of God. On one side of the ladder are black winged demons, pulling people off and casting them to the pit below. On the other side are angels, and some versions have the Saints above interceding, helping people continue their upward call in Christ Jesus. One inquirer to our parish, noticing this icon, lamented that there is so much attention given in all Christian traditions to the demonic world; but, he asked, “Where are the ones who are on our team?”
The immanence of that team is found in Christianity’s most well-known statement of faith, for this is what is meant by the historic doctrinal line of the Apostle’s Creed:
“I believe in the communion of Saints.”
In the ancient catacombs in the Middle East, where the earliest Christians lived in hiding due to intense persecution, there are numerous supplications etched into the plaster walls, (denoting an established practice), asking the Apostles and martyrs who had gone before them to pray for victory and endurance in the suffering they had to bear, since these figures stood before the Throne of God.[ii] By God’s grace, never having to carry our cross in the Christian journey by ourselves is a reality because neither death nor life are able to separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord [Romans 8:38-39], which is His body, the Church.
Ultimately what is needed is a change in our orientation – a repentance – from seeking the gratification of our own immediate cravings and instead occupy ourselves with becoming conformed and united with the likeness of Christ. In so doing, we will find healing for our pain and struggles. As C.S. Lewis put it:
“Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”[iii]
[i] PR Newswire. Seattle, March 25, 2015. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/no-time-to-talk-americans-sendingreceiving-five-times-as-many-texts-compared-to-phone-calls-each-day-according-to-new-report-300056023.html
[ii] See “The Veneration of Mary and the Saints in the Holy Tradition,” The Illumined Heart. Podcast. With guest Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon. Oct. 7, 2007.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Macmillan, NY:1952) p. 192