“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?

  • Ironically, I did not feel particularly lonely during the pandemic until I was able to return to an on campus college experience. Once that happened, hooo boy! I discovered last month that it is possible to be surrounded by peers, laughing along with them, only to feel hopelessly lonely as soon as I step away from them. That, plus some other factors, led pretty quickly to the lowest low I have ever had in terms of loneliness.

    For years, I have often felt like I am the one who works the most to accommodate my peers’ interests. Honestly speaking, my ability to do so is a blessing from God and I am grateful for it. However, this semester I began strongly craving a return of the favor. I think I have gotten pretty good at loving and trying to know others, but it can feel so exhausting and discouraging when I don’t feel loved the same way back, or if I don’t perceive my peers seeking to really know me too. I grew up with a different background than most people I know, so finding people in my immediate vicinity who can relate to me on the level I wish for has seemed virtually impossible. More recently, though, I have been seeing the companionship that I crave on campus starting to develop.

  • Such a lovely year, right? Grateful for your realness, Kevin. And for your self-awareness as to the “why” of your loneliness. Shows a lot of growth. Count me in as a fellow “struggles to reach out when struggling” person. I’ve gotten way better at it, but it always feels like going against the grain.

    • Hooray for forced self growth because you’re stuck with your thoughts because it’s a pandemic!
      .
      And yes, let’s go against the grain and reach out, even when it’s not easy.

  • This post hit me hard as I’ve been reflecting on loneliness a lot recently, even though it has been the constant theme of my life during this pandemic. What makes it hard for me to reach out though, especially now, is the fatigue of being the one that reaches out every time. There are so few times that friends will text or call to ask how things are going or to catch up. Or few times that anyone will ask to hang out with me, rather than me always setting something up. The only reason I find myself in isolation, is because I just want to take a break from always initiating. And then I realize, no one ever reciprocates. To that I am left with thoughts of, “Does no one actually like me? Does no one want me?” So loneliness feels like a vicious cycle – either feel exhausted by being the sole initiator but at least not being alone, or pause to not be reached out to at all.

    • Wow Jay – I feel like I am in the same boat as you in many ways, During the time of isolation, I have tried to think of about anyone I could think of to reach out to, and have written some, but haven’t got many responses. I know time marches on, and people change, but I take comfort at least I did try.

      I see from your posts you have some Filipino heritage. I’ve been to the Philippines before – it has a special place in my heart. I feel for what you are going through, brother…it hurts and can and is exhausting.

  • Thanks for sharing all the Nouwen quotes Kevin, and featuring a quote by Tom! I don’t know what’s worse, feeling lonely or the thoughts that you’re alone and invisible in the world, kinda like Hugh and Jay, that it wouldn’t matter to anyone if you’re not here. I can’t think of many things that can empty the heart quicker for so long, but Nouwen’s onto something when he says if we can tolerate the pain of loneliness there’s something better we find thru it.

    Community and Jesus are good stuff Kevin, finding YOB did so much to unlock the isolation of dealing with ssa, and by definition abiding in Christ means the reality of never being alone, which puts the lie to all those thoughts. And when the feelings surround me, I find if my heart is full it’s like a flame keeping the darkness away.

  • Yeah, the loneliness of this year has been very crushing. Its like going back to my pre YOB life when I barely had any friends or physical touch to speak of. Its been a blessing to be able to connect with so many friends over zoom and whatnot but even that starts to wear out its welcome. I’m fully vaccinated now so I’m hoping for a turning point and a new beginning.

  • Thanks Kevin for your heartfelt post. I love the Henri Nouwen quotes.

    For me, at least, last year was not a big jolt or shock. Since moving down here to the south nearly 6 years ago now, I have had very little contact with anyone (and I have mentioned that in other posts before). So, there was not a lot of adjustments regarding having time with others as I have never had much to begin with.

    It’s been hard, though, not to have support from others during this time of enforced isolation. Starting in the fall, about 20 people I knew in some way or had some point of connection died – some I was closer to than others. Then, this year, I think it is already about 12 or so people. So, the few times I would get to talk with someone on the phone or exchange cards have all but vanished now. The sense of loneliness and loss has been overwhelming at times – I just don’t know what I would do without the promises of the Bible – that Jesus is with us always, even to the ends of the earth.

  • Kevin Zimmerman

    Born and raised in the Midwest, I find my heart bent toward nature and travel. Things that I love? Travelling, cooking, trying new food, hiking trails, exploring other cultures, the arts, stories – told and read – summer camp, and lists (seriously). Personality tests run the risk of putting people into boxes, so I'd rather let you get to know me before sharing what I "test" as. "Sojourner" is a term I'm becoming more comfortable using to describe myself and my lifestyle. Random facts about me: I played the bassoon for eleven years and can speak French. Let's journey together.

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