What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear — Dag Hammarskjöld
The second chapter of Genesis teaches that at the core of our make-up is a need for human relationships and the sharing of selves: “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” But then, the third chapter of Genesis teaches that one of the most devastating consequences of humanity’s alienation from God is our alienation from each other: “they knew that they were naked so they made coverings for themselves.” One of the implications of this relational alienation is that loneliness, to one degree or another, is our new normal.
In myriad ways, modern society aggravates this post-Fall loneliness, in our atomized living arrangements, our solitary commutes to work, our screens, our cultural divisions, our lack of shared spaces, the list goes on. Some groups are especially vulnerable—singles, old people, and gay men, for example—but no one is immune.
Too much loneliness can drive you into a deep, depressive hole. It’s physically unhealthy, as bad as chain-smoking or obesity. Measured against God’s design, it’s also deeply unnatural for no one else to know about the hopes and fears rattling around in your mind every day, and for your meals to be consistently accompanied by screens and not faces. Too much loneliness can literally take the life out of you.
There’s something more to be said, though, because it turns out that just enough loneliness can move us towards new ways of connecting with others that we may not have otherwise explored. When leveraged well, just enough loneliness can push us out of our vortex of self-centeredness, towards empathy and service.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that it’s easier for unmarried people to serve God wholeheartedly because they don’t have to divide their attention between what God wants and what their spouse wants. Perhaps we could also say that it’s easier for lonely people—those with more unscheduled time and greater openness to new relationships—to serve others devotedly. To say it another way, having a happy family to come home to every night provides innumerable benefits, but it also provides the spiritual dangers of complacency and indifference to the world’s pain. Just enough loneliness can push us out of ourselves, out of our living rooms, into the lives of other lonely people who need to be reconciled to God, and who need the gift of human company.
If you experience loneliness, try not to waste it. Use it well, in order to better understand the sufferings and shortcomings of others, and to serve others without needing to impress anyone. Don’t share your meal with a screen if you can share it with a neighbor.
To Christians who are single and celibate, whether as a temporary season or as a long-term vocation, this idea is especially poignant. To me it feels both painful and encouraging to think that God can use our loneliness to help us become better servants and lovers of our neighbors. I would love to say that empathy and service take away that loneliness, and that you’ll find the kind of relational connection you’re longing for among “the least of these.” But the truth is that they often don’t, and that you probably won’t, because service means giving of yourself without looking for repayment. What you will find, though, is God’s blessing (Luke 14:13-14). In that blessing there is a deep, sober joy.
I think of Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who fell in love with men various times over the course of his life and yet fulfilled his vows. Only his closest friends knew of his homosexuality. He spent the last decade of his life living and working among the mentally ill, and writing about the spiritual life. His loneliness was painful, yet it was that loneliness which drove him to a radical level of service, and to a profound depth of insight into the love of God. Both in spite of and because of his loneliness he was well-acquainted with the blessing of his Father and the joy therein.
More than anyone, I think of Jesus: the only righteous one in a world of sinners, the only one who loved God in a world of idolaters, the only one who saw the truth in a world of blind guides. He understood even their thoughts, and yet no one understood him. Who has known loneliness like the Son of God among men? Yet by his wounds we are healed—and by his loneliness we are known, accepted, received, and beloved. May we learn something about loneliness, and love, from him.