Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Loneliness

TITLE: On Loneliness
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 27 July 2011

TEXT: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matt 11:28)

Last week, I preached on Solitude and Community, at the gracious invitation of a pastor friend. It gave me an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite topics on the Christian life: the art of being rather than doing. As ‘solitude’ and ‘community’ are huge individual topics by themselves, I like to devote the next few weeks of SabbathWalk to Solitude and Community. Key to my meditation on ‘solitude’ is to recognize with our whole being, that God loves us as we are, not as per what we have done. This week, I deal with the issue of loneliness.

1) Loneliness a Natural Condition

There is no shame in being alone. Loneliness is a condition that exists in all groups of people. One can try to hide it, but over time, it reveals itself. In our world, loneliness is detested, and resisted like a plague. Why? Why are people afraid of being lonely?

When I was in school, after buying my food, I try to look for people that I know, to eat with them. More accurately, it is to avoid being labeled a ‘loner,’ or one without friends. I don't know why. Being seen eating alone carries a peculiar stigma. The fear of loneliness runs deep, so deep that Dietrich Bonhoeffer has observed:
Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, London: SCM Press, 1954, p57)

For some, the fear of loneliness deepens from melancholy to a sense of hopelessness. This poem by Rebekah Johnson describes eloquently, but ends in a disturbingly depressed mood.
You have an empty feeling that comes from within
You long to share your feelings but no one will listen 
You reach out for open arms, but nobody is there 
Your tears fall to the ground, but nobody cares 
You pick up the phone, but have no one to call 
You feel overwhelmed; your mind is a crawl 
You lay in your bed in the light of the moon
Just so you don't see those who aren't there for you
The flames spark inside you and heat up your fear 
Your thoughts are suicidal, your days are so drear 
Emotional fires burn up in your head 
Fires of love and pain and regret 
Consumed in your own darkness, you slowly fade away 
Your once blue and sunny sky has turned to clouds of gray.
Lonely Despite Being Among People (Credit:

Unresolved loneliness leads to desperation. Desperation leads to depression. Unfortunately, many people avoid this condition in at least three ways.

2) How We Run Away From Loneliness

Firstly, we surround ourselves with people. One of my Regent professors once remarked to a female student, that her attractiveness must have made her ‘very lonely.’ The student was shocked at first, but glad that someone understood her. It is no surprise that some of the loneliest people on earth are not only the rich and the famous, but the prettiest girl or the most handsome boy. In an Facebook age, some of us deceive ourselves into thinking the number of friends we have on our account equals to healthy companionship. I know of friends whose friends number more than a thousand on Facebook.

Interestingly, being most connected may only mean deep loneliness. An Australian survey reports that despite their very impressive number of Facebook ‘friends,’ a large number of people within the ages of 25 and 34 are very lonely. Entitled: “Generation Y so connected, but o so lonely,’ the article suggests:
The frequently lonely were much more likely to try online dating, and to use several forms of social media (particularly Facebook) to maintain friendships.
While some use online means to address their loneliness, others try marriage. Some get married only to find that their struggle with loneliness when they were single, has been transplanted to threaten the very marriage as well.  An insecure single person will make a marriage even more insecure.

The second way we try to flee loneliness is to bury ourselves in activities. We are busy here, busy there, busy everywhere. Sometimes, we try to numb our fear of loneliness by burying ourselves in work and busyness. In a success-driven culture, we find solace in the results of our actions. If something succeeds we feel good. When we get things done, we feel accomplished. Yet, some of the most successful people are also the most lonely. Think about leaders at the top of their organizations, how their loneliness has driven them to commit acts of adultery. We do ourselves no favour when we link self-worth with worldly success. When one fails, it brings down the other too. Henri Nouwen puts it very well.
When we start to be too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth.” (Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude, Ave Maria Press, 2004, 22)
It is so tempting to let our activities define us that we momentarily forget our natural condition. Students feel fulfilled when teachers give them a good grade. Workers feel accomplished when their bosses give them a good evaluation. Salespeople feel ecstatic when they hit their sales quota. We feel good when surrounded by high achievers toasting us as part of the elite. Perilously, we put our own happiness at the pen of the teacher, the opinions of our bosses, the results of our work, and the acceptance by people. Unfortunately, the more we link our accomplishments with our self-esteem, the more brittle our hearts become. In fact, when the link between success and self-esteem solidifies, we become vulnerable to depression. This is why the poor, the low achievers, and the marginalized in society are often treated with disdain. In the eyes of a success-driven culture, they are deemed unsuccessful, unwanted, and unworthy. But take away the success. Take away the jobs that define us. Take away the busy activities that we normally do, and we will realize that both the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the young, the old, and the rest of society will reflect the same condition. Using activities to flee our loneliness is only delaying us from recognizing our lonely condition. That is why some people, when they become old, when they retire from their work, they harbour thoughts of suicide after dwelling with deep feelings of unworthiness after being deemed no longer useful to society anymore.

Thirdly, we try to escape. The cause is drug and alcohol addiction. It has been well documented that alcohol and drugs are common means of escapism. Alcohol makes us forget. Drugs makes us high. This week, the popular British singer, Amy Winehouse became another victim of these addictions. Her father has plans to start a foundation to tackle the problems of drug and alcohol addiction. This is another of the many sad stories we have heard regarding addiction.

Why is it that people gravitate so easily to such things? The laws against drugs and against drinking are only tackling the problem at the surface level. What motivates people to do drugs in the first place? What makes drinking so desirable? Perhaps, alcohol and drugs are some of the most popular ways to escape from the problems of the world. More profoundly, escape mechanisms try to flee from our utter sense of deep loneliness.

KEY POINT: The three common avenues people seek to flee from loneliness: Friends, Activities, and Escapist mechanisms. Problem is, those avenues are temporal.

3) Our Hearts like a God-Shaped Vacuum

The famous physicist, Blaise Pascal has described the human heart in terms of a ‘God-shaped vacuum.’ In other words, Pascal has shown us that no other idols can ever fill us satisfactory. None of these can ever fill our ‘God-shaped vacuum.’ No amount of friends or Facebook connections. No amount of success stories. No amount of escapist mechanisms. One of the ways that we have made ourselves weary and heavy-laden is the ways we try to flee from our inner sense of loneliness and restlessness. Jesus calls us to go to Him. Jesus invites us to be with Him. Jesus desires to fill our loneliness with living waters that will satisfy our thirst.

Jesus has said:
"but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:14)
Let me invite you, my reader not to flee loneliness. Do not cram activities into your lives just to numb your hearts from a need for meaningful connections. Do not accumulate lists of people just because you need friends. Likewise, do not flee from loneliness by escaping life through artificial means. There is something better. Loneliness as a human condition can be transformed. As we slow down. As we stop. As we experience silence, turn them into solitude. When lonely, pray.

There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is the pain of being alone; solitude is the joy of being with God. Loneliness is inward looking; solitude is outward-seeking. Loneliness fears being seen alone; solitude revels in the companionship of God. Loneliness smacks of much emptiness; solitude enjoys the fullness of seeking God. Loneliness leads to desperation to numb the negative feelings; solitude anticipates the powerful presence of God. Loneliness focuses on seeking one's glory and self-fulfillment for the sake of self; solitude seeks God's glory, and to magnify God's goodness in spite of self.

Pain of being aloneJoy of being with God
Fear of Being Seen AlonePeace in being alone
Feelings of EmptinessFeelings of Fullness

Loneliness is not a bad thing. It is part of being human. It is how we deal with the loneliness that makes all the difference. Elizabeth Elliot who has been twice widowed knows what it means to be lonely. She says: "Turn silence into solitude, and loneliness into prayer." That is great advice. When lonely, pray. When lost, seek God. Here is a tip from Oswald Sanders on what to do with our thoughts when we are lonely.

"We choose the thoughts on which we will meditate, for it is our wills that control mental processes. A will firmly engaged with God can swing the intellectual processes around to think on holy things. The best thoughts to entertain are the thoughts of God. Thus, regular reading and meditating on scriptural truth is one of the best ways to exclude thoughts that create or feed loneliness." (J. Oswald Sanders, Facing Loneliness, Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1990, p173-4)
May the Holy Spirit grant you discernment, as you move from loneliness to prayer; from prayer to a spiritual encounter; from a spiritual encounter, to God filling your God-shaped vacuum to the full.

Thought: If your heart is a God-shaped vacuum, what are you currently filling your heart with?


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