It's Hard to Admit That You're Lonely
It’s hard to admit that you’re lonely. Something about that word feels embarrassing-- like you don’t have what it takes to keep the world happy with you.
If we lived isolated lives, being lonely would make sense; but most of us are surrounded by people from early morning till late at night. Marriage, kids, work, church, soccer practice, grocery shopping—we’re constantly engaging somehow. Add social media, and it’s possible for us to be in some sort of conversation twenty-four seven.
Push a button, and I can Skype with my son in college or text my mom who lives 14 hours away. When my husband is staying in a hotel hundreds of miles away, he can call me on unlimited minutes. Some days it feels like my entire life is a flurry of dialogue. I chat. I debate. I rant. I empathize. I teach. I mother. I love. How could I possibly be lonely in a world like that?
There must be something wrong with a person who has that much opportunity to connect, right? How can anybody feel lost in a sea of humanity? But last night I did feel lonely.
I was sitting in my bed, scrolling through my Facebook feed while my husband sat next to me reading something else on his phone. As my thumb ran over one status update after another, I felt my heart reaching out for some sort of connection. (Ironic, right?)
The inauguration was yesterday, so quite a few of my friends were posting snarky comments for or against Donald Trump, using their statuses to try to prove a point to friends and families in longstanding arguments. Because I live in the South, dozens of posts openly claimed God’s involvement in Election 2016, and I saw Trump honored as a national messianic figure.
Women were comparing Melania Trump’s style sense to Jackie O’s which caused long arguments to begin in comment sections. Someone would slam Melania’s nude photo shoots, and then there would be a rebuttal starting with, “Well, at least she’s not…” and finishing with some nasty accusation about Michelle Obama. When another insult about Melania Trump would hit, the same person who had derided Obama would remind us all that the Bible tells us not judge because we all need a second chance.
I began to feel dizzy reading all of this.
Conversation after conversation was a convolution of self-righteous anger, self-righteous insult, self-righteous correction. Little old ladies who remember a different America felt giddy, as if their effort over the past few months had been work of defending and reclaiming a nation for their great grandchildren. Twenty-somethings who wouldn’t want that old country back if they could have it felt like they were standing up for a new era of social justice by resisting what has come to us.
On all sides, grace was demanded for political favorites and condemnation was demanded for political opponents. The Bible was cut-and-pasted into personal preferences. The faith in God that is supposed to serve as the hub of the soul’s wheel in all matters was contorted to prove political points, and I felt the same despair settle in my heart that has threatened to sink it for the past year.
I almost jumped into the conversation, then I decided it wasn’t worth it. People are too hardened in their views. Nobody really listens.
Then it fell into my heart, that conclusion I keep trying to fight against. "You're alone."
I clicked on one of my own public status updates about the election and changed the privacy setting back to “friends only.” Then I set it back tighter, blocking six or seven over-confident friends who tend to be quick to judge and fairly insensitive.
“They’re still young,” I thought, trying to protect my own heart against anger toward them. “They are walking through trauma… a sick child… a divorce…they’ve never traveled much… they’re old. For that one, I bet there’s actually a legit emotional disorder of some sort…”
Writing that down looks so severe, but I was making those excuses because I wanted my heart to say soft toward my friends. I imagine they make the same excuses for me sometimes. I hope they do.
If I'm being completely honest, there's something else, too.
Even though I know that God is real, He never seems more fictional to me than when I see the body of Christ behaving as it has the past few months. I want to find an explanation for this human madness so that I can hear my God clearly again.
Yesterday I listened (for the fourth time) to a forum on Civil Discourse in the Public Sphere, hosted by Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church. Nicholas Kristof (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times) explained how the news services of America have changed over the years.
Apparently wire services once attempted to sell objective, balanced news stories to both right and left-leaning publications. At that time, it was economically beneficial for journalists to provide moderate news because buyers fell all along the political spectrum. This changed, however, when news stations began to realize that there was a demand for biased news stories.
Companies found they could make more money by feeding bias than by telling the pure truth, which caused networks to grow more extreme. Feeding anger and fear became an essential part of keeping viewership up.
As a result, we are now left with an American public that trusts MSNBC or Fox News without ever realizing how political extremism helps news stations make a big, fat profit. We trust them without seeing how they are using us. We grant them our emotions without understanding that our emotions equal news media dollars.
This has had a profound impact on American culture. Our friends and family members go home in the evenings and flip on the television to spend hours filling their minds with news stories that lean one way or another. We drink down the “we” vs. “they” mindset that keeps the major networks rich. We burst out from this extremism into public engagement and feel like experts. We rant. We roar. We attack. We perpetuate the cycle. And while we become more militant, more confident, more aggressive, we also become more isolated from one another.
In May of 2014, Janice Shaw Crouse, wrote an article called “The Loneliness of American Society.” In this essay, Crouse names the elephant in the room: more Americans claim to be lonely now than at any point in our national history. More than one fourth of Americans claim to “have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences.”
Yesterday during the inauguration, Donald Trump said, “You will never be ignored again,” and regardless of whether we can support his politics or his character, studies show that Trump won the election because he knew how to speak to people who felt unseen. Somehow he was able to connect with a significant, silent part of America that had believed it was invisible. He conferred dignity to people who felt ashamed of having no voice. He reached out to those who felt lonely, and he said, “I see you.”
Watching him work this strategy has been interesting. As someone who wants to tend the broken, I have to ask, "What does his victory say about loneliness in America? What gaps did Trump expose that need to be addressed by people who know Jesus?"
Because most of the time loneliness is something we don’t talk about, right?
If you and I met at some sort of conference, you probably wouldn’t approach me and say, “Hey. I’m Jane, and I’m so lonely I don’t even know why I’m here!"
You wouldn’t say, “I was so excited about going to all the seminars and meeting people, but honestly, I’ve spent the past forty minutes wandering around the lobby, staring into my phone. I see groups of women over there talking, but I just bought a $5 coffee and drank it while checking Instagram, right here in the middle of all these people because I have no idea how to start engaging. I should have just stayed at home.”
And if you are a guy, it’s probably even harder to talk about your loneliness. At least in my part of the country, guys still tend to project self-sufficiency and independence. Most of the men I know consider their wives their primary relationship, and while that’s a good starting place, a single friendship isn’t usually enough. Even if a man has male friends he enjoys, it’s hard to find time to hang out when life is busy.
My husband was a pastor for ten of the loneliest years of our lives. It was a perfect storm, really. He worked day and night trying to take care of people, which meant we were often too tired to do anything but crash when the down times came. After getting burned several times by people who wanted to use friendship to subtly steer the body, we began to fear being vulnerable with church members.
The church should be the most honest, open place in the world, but after an elder once pounded his hand on a table and yelled that my feelings didn’t matter because I was the pastor’s wife, an iron door in my heart slammed shut. I realized that I was on stage all the time.
My husband faced secret, intense competition from other staff pastors, betrayal, suspicion, and engineered corrections from the elders. Church leadership would demand that we be more vulnerable and open, but when we would try to trust people with our real selves, that never ended well.
Only after we left ministry did we feel freedom to develop real friendships again. My husband started meeting with other men regularly, and I felt permission to start telling the truth about how I was actually doing.
As awful as that season of life was, I’m thankful for the experience now. It has helped me understand how people can develop survival strategies, then get trapped inside them. Before long, you feel like a stranger in the middle of a crowd. You have to carry the real you like a two-ton weight inside your chest, just wishing someone could see what you can’t ever say aloud.
I don’t know what’s making you lonely as you read this post. Some of you are divorced, and some of you wish you were. Some of you are still single after years of trying to find a life partner. Some of you feel awkward socially, and some of you have been asked to leave jobs you loved. Some of you are deeply wounded by political rifts in your friend groups and families. Some of you have embarrassing diseases you are secretly trying to manage, and some of you are choking in financial debt that you are too ashamed to mention.
I’ve been in ministry long enough now to know that if all of us could somehow sit down in one place and pour out our individual stories, though the details would differ, many of us would still say, “Oh. I know that feeling. I know it so well.”
Over the next few weeks, I'm going to zoom in to address some different types of loneliness. But for now, I just wanted to drop the topic into the airwaves and say, "I get it." As you sit in your rooms, scrolling through your phones, discouraged because it's so hard to connect in a world of constant connection, you don't need to feel ashamed. Being around people all day (and night) isn't the same thing as being seen or known. If your soul is restless, if your heart is discouraged, it's okay to admit that. In fact, I think your condition is part of a national epidemic. And admitting that is a really good starting place for change