I'm not ashamed to admit it: I spend a lot of time alone. I'm a never-married 30something woman who has no children, who lives alone, and who spends most days in an office by myself. And in all my years of alone time—eating alone, driving alone, sleeping alone—I've learned a valuable lesson: Alone isn't the same as lonely.
I'll be honest, some of this truth sunk in by default as I felt and observed loneliness in the most unusual places. Several years ago I attended a Chris Tomlin worship concert with friends. Standing in this crowd of a couple thousand people, with eyes closed, arms raised, and voices joined, I felt a searing stab of loneliness.
I'd been experiencing a "dark night of the soul"—lobbing questions heavenward and sensing nothing but silence in return. So standing there amidst people who seemed so sincere while singing "How Great Is Our God" made me feel like an outsider in this community of faith. Like an orphan looking in the window at a family feast.
Likewise, several years ago I walked with a friend through a very lonely time in her marriage. Due to some unusual receipts and phone records she'd found, she began to suspect her husband of only a year was cheating on her. It took many lonely months for her to recover from his emotional affair.
And not too long ago I received a phone call from a friend who's the mother of twin toddlers. She'd been watching her girls solo over a three-day weekend while her husband was out of town on business. Now that he was back, she was lonely for some grown-up girl time, which I tried my best to provide at an impromptu gathering at our neighborhood Starbucks.
In these and many other experiences, I've observed a key distinction: Alone is the absence of people, while lonely is the absence of connection. Loneliness is a disconnect with the community we were created to crave.
Oh sure, lonely and alone sometimes occur simultaneously. I've had my fair share of lonely Me Nights during friend-shifts, after break-ups, when I've gotten lazy about my social life. When I let them, these lonely moments are needed nudgings to reach out, to risk new friendships, to lean into God more. In my weaker moments, I just cry it out.
But I've also experienced some Me Nights that are altogether splendid. I love munching on takeout from the Chinese restaurant around the corner and watching a subtitled flick I couldn't get anyone else to sit through with me. In this scenario, I don't have to be coworker, friend, daughter, sister, aunt, church member. I get the delicious freedom just to be. Alone, all of your personality is able to unfurl and fill up all the spaces of your home. Like airing out a well-used blanket. Like stretching muscles after a long flight.