“When we are lonely we perceive ourselves as isolated individuals surrounded, perhaps, by many people, but not really part of any supporting or nurturing community. Loneliness is without doubt one of the most widespread diseases of our time.”Henri Nouwen
Well, 2020 happened. And in this “unprecedented” year, a more personal disease revealed itself in me. Like Nouwen wrote, despite my being around people during a pandemic, I faced loneliness. My tendency to isolate combined with an actual, physical inability to connect with others made me look deeper into the why of my loneliness.
In middle school and high school, I experienced tough days hiding in my room, coming down for dinner only to rush back upstairs to solitude — all under the premise of “homework,” and all with my cat as my only temporary solace.
Youth group, college gatherings, and campus ministries with friends were fun at times; other times, I felt the way Wesley Hill describes in Washed and Waiting:
“It felt as if I were on the outside of a set of giant glass doors. Looking in, I saw people on the other side relating to each other in life-giving ways … no one seemed to notice me on the outside of the doors, staring in hungrily, wanting to be part of the relating but somehow unable to enter.”
Again, my friends were great. But there is something about our particular struggle, something about being painfully aware of one’s own brokenness and not feeling able to share it or let go of the weight that makes one feel alone — no matter how many friends are around.
The issue with not talking about my loneliness, not sharing why I isolated, is that the seclusion only left me further away from any answer and the steps to take forward.
Just suffer alone, put on a happy face until I can move forward, until a small crack lets in a nugget of Truth.
But years of choosing isolation, moments of seeing and feeling loneliness creates patterns that take time to heal and change.
“After all, alone is safe. Alone works for a while — months, even years at a time. But then, alone catches up with you.”Thomas Mark Zuniga
Post-college, I drew away from teammates, housemates, and coworkers several times. And then I wondered why nobody was around for me.
“…our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for those who can tolerate its sweet pain.”Henri Nouwen
Which brings us to 2020: a year when the church community I started to form fumbled right before everything shut down. I was physically taken away from Christian community. My depression and history of isolation made reaching out incredibly difficult. Unable to tolerate the pain of loneliness, I resigned to apathy most days.
Days, even weeks passed. When was the last time I talked about Jesus with somebody? When was my last hug? What day is it even? Numbing myself through books, music, and YouTube proved easier than praying, journaling, connecting, or even thinking most days.
So, what got me out of my isolation? What continues to shake me when I get lost in my loneliness?
The two-fold answer always has been and always will be this: community and Jesus.
When I look back at high school, college, and young adulthood, people continued to reach out in my loneliness (whether they could see it or not). Moments of laughter and tears reminded me of our shared humanity — brokenness and joy, somehow together.
Recently, this idea of community and connection has meant mostly intentionality over technology. Making time for phone calls and video calls. Meeting for socially distanced coffee or hikes with local friends. Being aware of (and thankful for) even the little connections.
And, more importantly, Jesus. Because there are times when community (especially physical community) just isn’t possible.
Seeking Jesus in periods of loneliness and isolation isn’t easy. But it is good. Many times, I found myself doubting in these moments.
But I also found myself drawn back in — whether by Scripture, a song, or an encouraging message from a friend. Rhythms of prayer, journaling, or meditation brought back a sense of purpose and connection to Jesus.
And that connection to Jesus — it reminds me of Truth and Love.
“But when we are not afraid to journey into our own center, and to concentrate on the stirrings of our own souls, we come to know that being alive means being loved. This experience tells us that we can only love because we are born out of love, that we can only give because our life is a gift, and that we can only make others free because we are set free by the One whose heart is greater than our own.”Henri Nouwen
Knowing ourselves, understanding our loneliness and desire for connection, pushes us to be alive. Living and knowing love, knowing Jesus leads us out of isolation, takes us away from loneliness.
As difficult as it is for me to reach out when I’m down, I’ve experienced enough moments to realize that brothers — and Jesus — will be there.
As I let myself reconnect and be loved, I can live again.
May we know that we are not alone in our loneliness or doubts. May we reach out when we feel down, and may we also be the ones who reach out to others.
May we continually yearn to know and experience Love and Truth in deeper ways that fill us. Even in our isolation.
How are you coping after a year of this pandemic? Do you also struggle to reach out when you’re lonely?