Once, while traveling home alone from a conference, I went to the airport early. I had some free time, and I was hoping to catch an earlier flight home. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I spent most of the day walking up and down the terminal, watching people and trying out different corners for reading.
Throughout the day, I probably saw hundreds of people, if not thousands, passing in and out of the gates, hurrying to get their luggage, walking right past me. But besides the clerk who sold me my lunch, I sensed that no one really saw me. I blended right into the crowd of people and was insignificant to everyone.
I noticed, though, that I longed for a connection with someone else. I tried not to ignore anyone I encountered. I offered friendly smiles and thanks to the housekeepers who were doing a great job keeping everything clean. I smiled at the restroom attendants and the mothers and children who were traveling together. Yet, I was never able to enjoy a real, human conversation (except for when I found a quiet corner and called my mother who was a whole time zone away).
At one point during that day, I walked by a whole row of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at an upscale bar. Everyone was silent. Well-dressed young professionals and middle-aged business people sipped drinks and ate their lunches, but no one spoke. Instead, everyone peered into their devices, staring at their screens. I noticed a man and a woman of similar age and style of dress, both handsome and classy looking, sitting side by side. In my imagination, they were two single people bored with dating apps and lonely but too disengaged from the people around them to notice the potential connection sitting just inches away from their elbow. They missed the chance to interact, to discover their attraction, to realize their potential for romance or even life-long commitment. It’s not impossible: I’ve encountered several happily-married couples that met by chance in a public place.
I felt sad for all the missed opportunities to love in the world, for all the lonely souls remaining disconnected and unknown, for all of us being less than God made us to be.
What I observed that day was not unusual; it is less common nowadays for strangers to strike up a meaningful conversation with others than for people in crowds to be staring at screens. And, although I felt sad about the scene that day, it doesn’t deeply disturb me that our styles of behaving as social creatures are evolving; that we like to read articles, play games, and interact with others on our devices when we’re in crowded spaces. What difference is that from when people read newspapers, did crossword puzzles or wrote letters while they were traveling? What does disturb me is the effect that our screens have on our spirits and health, on how we may be missing chances to love our neighbors as Jesus has asked us to do.
And, it isn’t problematic that I was alone in the airport that day. Being alone is neutral and a descriptive fact. Yet, Church tradition and Scripture teach us that it is not good to be alone — or lonely, more specifically: that this is not the way God designed us to be.
The word “lonely,” though, is not neutral. It describes a subjective feeling: a negative psychological and emotional state that comes from a feeling of being disconnected, from lacking closeness with other people. In other words, if no one else is with you, you are alone. If you are feeling disconnected from people and feeling sad about it, you are lonely.
Loneliness is the gap between the needing to belong and not belonging to others, to a group. It is an experience of being isolated, separate, disconnected; of feeling like a misfit. It is a feeling of emptiness and lack, a space between you and other people — people you could be closer to emotionally. Annie Lenox sings about loneliness very well.
It is key to understand that loneliness is a personal, interior and subjective, which means that we all experience this type of sadness differently. We are probably the only ones who can diagnose this feeling in ourselves.
The ironic thing about loneliness is that none of us are alone in having this feeling. As I have written about before, loneliness is so common that it has become a serious public health problem.
For some of us, loneliness can be something that storms around violently, creating disasters in our lives. We may evacuate the places of security and safety, the places where it is smart to be. We may allow it to consume us, to infect us like a disease and debilitate our courage and confidence. We’ll stay in our comfort zone and avoid interaction, because we stop trusting that we have something to offer others. We begin to doubt that others even want to be around us.
There is no way to completely avoid feelings of loneliness. But we can make choices about how we navigate through them.
And yet it is worth mentioning here that solitude can be healthy and sacred, that is is necessary for spiritual wellness. I can admit that I live in the tension between community and solitude.
The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate me to reach out; to get closer to the tribe, to the community. Study helps us see it: being in strong relationships with others helps keep us safe, accountable and provides purpose and meaning in our lives. The more people who know and care for you, the more likely you are to survive.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I feel lonely: these feelings God is giving me are signals. As awful as the feelings are, I can read them as a sign. God is calling me to connect with my family, to work on getting closer to a neighbor, to reach out to a friend. I am invited to serve others; I am designed to be a social creature.
For me, it is helpful to keep in mind that none of us are made to be lonely, that this is not the will of God. Rather, God made us for each other, and true love requires relationship, connection. In the second creation story, as soon as God formed the first person, he made a statement about him: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) This announcement leads to more creative activity on God’s part (for that is God’s nature: to be creative and self-giving, to express love): the first man has a companion, a person to relate to and grow with.
The expansive relationality of God and humanity’s call to imitate it comes through in the first creation story too: God creates both genders together in God’s divine image and likeness. God gives these first humans a particular dignity and worth before announcing the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)