I was out on the streets with a handful of people from my local church one Saturday morning asking if anyone wanted prayer for anything. My heart wasn’t completely in it. And it showed. My pastor approached me to ask if I wanted a chat. I was reluctant at first, but I softened and arranged to see him and his wife that afternoon.
I was generally feeling low, largely because I was out of work at the time, and so I expected this to be the focal point of our chat. But as I talked more and my pastors listened, something else unexpectedly emerged from the messy depths within.
I was talking about friendship and – with close friends living in distant towns, cities and countries – how much I missed community and being amongst people I really connect with and can open up to. The more I talked the more a battle began. My words were growing increasingly stuttered as my eyes began threatening an outpouring of tears. I tried to fight it. I did, for a bit. But I couldn’t win the battle.
And I never saw it coming.
I quickly looked away in embarrassment, using the palm of my hand to halt the flow and pretend I wasn’t really crying. It never works. I looked worse than I did before. My pastors looked on with smiles and words that yelled: “It’s OK, let it flow.” They – along with the obligatory-offered tissues – helped me settle into my discomfort.
I returned from our chat bruised, but awakened. I realised that in recent months I had drifted towards an island, far from the mainland.
I was lonely.
Being a self-proclaimed introvert I guess I never saw this as an issue day-to-day, but over time this shutting off was having a detrimental effect. God created us for community – yes, to eat and play games, but also to walk together, hand in hand, with the sure assurance that our hearts – and all the beauty and mess they hold are meant to spill over into each other. Yes, we need God first and foremost, but we also need one another.
But somewhere along the way I got into the routine of rarely eating and playing games with others, let alone sharing the beauty and mess that lay within.
I watched with interest and sadness the BBC One programme, The Age of Loneliness, shown in January. It highlighted how much of a problem loneliness is in the UK, for people of all ages and background. Among those featured were an elderly widow, a mid-30s singleton, a mother and a 19-year-old university student. The causes were varied, from divorce and longer life expectancy, to relatives moving away and the internet’s effect on friendships and dating.
Dorothy – an elderly widow who sadly died shortly after filming – fittingly described loneliness: “You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t touch it. You can only feel it when you’ve got it. It could be you, it could be me; there are millions of us out there.” This is certainly reflected in the statistics. An article in The Independent last year referenced a survey by the Mental Health Foundation that discovered that one in 10 of us feels lonely often. It also highlighted that Britain has been voted the loneliness capital of Europe.
The BBC programme focussed on 14 individuals in total, one of whom was quite content with her self-created “alone-ness” lifestyle. As for the others less comfortable in their seclusion, there were glimmers of hope for some, with volunteering, internet dating, mums’ groups and writing, among others, providing an avenue through which to alleviate the loneliness. But it wasn’t so easy for all of those featured.
And that perhaps captures an appropriate understanding of loneliness. It’s horrible and complex, no doubt affecting us all at different stages of our lives. Practical solutions do of course help, but what works for one may not for another. There may be other factors involved, too, which aggravate or heighten loneliness that needs to be worked through. The key also is the quality rather than quantity of our relationships; we can be surrounded by people, both physically and technologically, and still feel acutely alone. It takes a lot of time and effort to develop such quality bonds with people.
And even if we do find ourselves in a better place, the problem can quickly rear its head again.
For me, I am trying to be more proactive. It comes in waves, sometimes hitting me like a knock-out punch. When it did so again recently I called a close friend to tell him. He began by making a joke about Tottenham – he’s an Arsenal fan – and then he listened before offering some advice. I’m not sure I would have called him a year ago. The chat did the world of good, joke included.
Aside from that, I’m trying to invest more time in developing stronger relationships with those that are around me, as well make visits to see friends. I’m also looking to be less: “I’m fine, thank you,” with my family and church on those occasions when I’m not. It’s not easy and sometimes the only thing I feel like doing is withdrawing to my island. But I’m getting better.
If this post finds you in a similar position, take courage. I hope there are people near to confide in, as well as a few practical things you can do to offer a glimmer of light. And for us all, let’s always be looking around at our churches, communities, news feeds and timelines, to see who may need a phone call, text, visit, an invitation to dinner, or whatever it may be. We may just be surprised that amongst those who need it the most are those we would least expect.
“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together” – Bishop Desmond Tutu.