What We Can Learn From Loneliness 

 

When I feel lonely, I usually want that feeling to go away as quickly as possible. I might get coffee with a friend, binge watch Parks & Rec on Netflix, or do anything else that will distract me from the discomfort until it goes away.

These distractions work for a while. That feeling of sadness settles into the background with other thoughts and feelings taking my focus. But (and there is always a but) that loneliness returns even stronger than before. Apparently, the back of my mind serves as a weight room where unresolved emotions go to beef up.

Loneliness, like other uncomfortable emotions, is trying to teach us something. And the more we ignore it, the harder the lessons can be to learn. Here are three teachable moments I’ve found in times of loneliness:

Identity

Loneliness is a natural side-effect of being an individual. No one experiences the world exactly the same way. No matter how many friends you have, how many people like the same movies you do, or how many people get your jokes, there are parts of you that no one will understand exactly the way you do. That may all seem a little discouraging, but there’s a teachable moment our loneliness gives us:

Loneliness teaches us to examine who we want to become.

In our digital age, the images and suggestions of who we “should” become or what we “should” believe are endless. It’s tempting to think our lives should look more like the lives of the people we see on television or social media. What loneliness can teach us is that no matter how many workout programs we try or how big our following on Instagram is, we will never be someone else. Loneliness gives our identity space to take shape.

Expectations

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to blame my loneliness on other people. A close friend wasn’t there for me when I wanted them to be, or they were there, but not in the way I needed them to be. It’s easy for me to feel lonely when people around me can’t anticipate exactly what I want and need from them. In these cases, loneliness provides another teachable moment:

Loneliness teaches us to examine the expectations we have of others.

Loneliness might be a signal that our expectations for people are too high. As unrealistic expectations go unmet, the more our loneliness increases. Even when our expectations are appropriate, it’s difficult for anyone to meet our expectations if they are not clearly communicated. In my experience, loneliness is more often a signal for me to clarify what my expectations really are so I can communicate them to the people around me. Loneliness, if we allow it to, may give us the mental space we need to do the difficult work of clarifying our expectations to those around us.

Idols

We are all designed to live life in relationship with God. It may sound cliché, but there really is a space in our lives that only God can fill. However, attending to that space can be difficult. In the poem “Via Negativa” pastor/poet R. S. Thomas describes this space as “the darkness between stars.” It requires a slower pace than we’re used to and it’s usually filled with a silence we’re not immediately comfortable with. Because this space can be slow and quiet, it’s tempting to fill it with things that are immediate and loud. The Bible calls these things we try to put in God’s place idols. And there we find another teachable moment:

Loneliness teaches us to examine our idols.

Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and events on my calendar can feel comforting in the moment, but there’s a loneliness that always returns. Again and again, these things are found to be too small to fit in the God-sized space in my soul. Loneliness can teach us about our idols, and what we’ve tried (always unsuccessfully) to put in God’s place. This may be the most important lesson loneliness teaches us: there is a space only God can fully enter, nothing else. Loneliness is often our experience of “the darkness between stars,” the place where God is longing to meet us.

Loneliness is not always a comfortable emotion. We may want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. But, if we allow it, it can become a great teacher. At first, we may need help from a therapist or other professionals to discover what our loneliness is trying to teach us. But in feelings of loneliness, and the sadness it brings with it, we may discover who we are and how we relate to others. Loneliness can become a sacred space we enter into to meet deeply with God.

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