It was christmas eve, and I was still reeling from the finality of my divorce two weeks earlier after twenty-three years of marriage. As my teenage daughter, Lisa, and I settled into a rented apartment, I was determined to salvage some kind of meaningful celebration from the rubble of the previous year.
Christmas had always been big at our house. Lots of decorations. Two fully decorated trees. Lisa and I usually spent several Saturdays before the holidays decorating our home and baking dozens of fancy cookies for our annual open house. Christmas Eve was reserved for our own family celebration, and Christmas Day we often spent with relatives.
Obviously this would be a very different Christmas. There was no tree. Finances were tight. There would be no open house, so it was hard to get excited about baking cookies.
I strung Christmas lights around the house plants, turned on Christmas music, brought out the eggnog, and read aloud the Christmas story. Then we opened our few gifts. By seven o'clock, we were done. The whole evening lay ahead of us.
I suggested Lisa and I go to a movie so at least we would be with other people. The theater was only a block away. A short walk later, we settled into the plush seats to watch some forgettable movie, only to realize we were the only two people in the entire theater. Sitting in that dark, empty place on Christmas Eveeven with Lisawas the loneliest moment of my life.
No one plans to be lonely. But one day you find yourself in a marriage unable to connect with your spouse, in a new city isolated from all that's familiar, or surrounded by people in a church sanctuary while you feel as though you're the only person on the planet. And you're surprised at how much it hurts.
The psalmist David knew what it felt like to be alone and afraid. In Psalm 25:16-17, he cried out to God, "Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have multiplied; free me from my anguish." The psalms that follow show how giving his heartache to God didn't necessarily change David's circumstances, but it did bring him comfort.
While comfort from God can help us through the dark moments, most of us still wonder why we're lonely. The truth is, sometimes loneliness is simply the byproduct of changing life circumstances. For example, my best friend, Beth, moved a couple hours away to a much smaller town for a new job. She's always had close friends but now lack of proximity makes it hard to maintain old ties. Her loneliness hit home late one night when her year-old son, Preston, developed a severe allergic reaction to poppy seed coffeecake. As a single parent with no friends nearby to call for help, she sped to the hospitalalonein a panic.
"I'd been judgmental of lonely people in the past because I'd never really experienced loneliness," Beth admits. "Now I know how it can grip you. When the nurse in the hospital asked, 'Is there someone we can call to be with you?', I had no one to call. I fell apart."
Sometimes, loneliness is the result of our own failure to cultivate relationships. Thirty-six-year-old Joann is single, working in financial sales for a Fortune 100 company. She's from a small family and has a small circle of friends, so most of her social contact happens at work. The weekends, she says, are the hardest.
"Sometimes a whole weekend goes by and no one calls," says Joann. "I know I could pick up the phone and call someoneand eventually I do. But instead of turning outward, as I know I should, I usually turn inward."
Another friend, Nancy Smith, a psychotherapist, says, "Loneliness is a hard thing for most people to talk about. There's a sense of shame connected to it. The most common misconception I find in my practice is that women believe it's their fault and that it will last forever."
While for most of us loneliness doesn't last forever, a certain degree of loneliness is part of the human condition. Christian author Elizabeth O'Connor, in Cry Pain, Cry Hope, says, "If we could dare to face and accept the fact that we are ultimately alone, then we would know that every other person is also alone. It doesn't matter how surrounded they are by friends and family. If we could know with certainty that well-guarded secret, perhaps we would move towards others with more compassion, be less ready to judge, less quick to do those things which will cause others to withdraw from us."
While identifying why we're lonely doesn't make loneliness go away, it does make it easier to shift our focus from the problem to possible solutions. Only you know what will work best with your circumstances. However, here are a few possible antidotes:
Be good to yourself.
"When you're in a good place emotionally, jot down three things you can do for yourself when you later find yourself feeling lonely and out of ideas," suggests my friend Joann. She divides them into inexpensive activities such as renting a movie, calling her sister, or giving herself a home facial, to more expensive activities such as buying a new outfit or planning a special outing.
For me, taking a leisurely bubble bath surrounded by aromatic candles and a great CD playing in the backgroundor reading a good book in front of a roaring fireis a good start. I'm also a serious nature photographer, so a couple hours hiking through a nearby forest preserve with my camera always lifts my spirits.
Be intentional about meeting new people.
"Don't go out with the agenda, I've got to find a best friend," Nancy says. Instead, she suggests a more realistic approach: discovering ways you can increase human contact. Nancy's always been interested in learning Spanish, so last year, when three of her closest friends moved out of state and she struggled with her own loneliness, she signed up for Spanish language classes and planned a vacation trip to Costa Rica with a tour group.
"Today I handle loneliness differently," Nancy explains. "I don't force myself to do something that doesn't feel right. Instead of desperately seeking people with whom I have a lot in common, I try to focus on breaking through my isolation by taking that first step. I also make sure I don't blame myself for the loneliness. I tell myself, It's hard reaching out and taking a risk, but I can do it."
Recently I moved out of the area where I'd lived thirty years, forcing me to find a new church. To meet new people I signed up for a few one-time service opportunities. It gave me a chance to check out various ministries and see where I might be most comfortable using my spiritual gifts. It also gave me a chance to make initial contact with several new people, some of whom I began to pursue as possible friends. I also tried to get plugged into a small group as soon as possible.
Ask for what you need.
Even though I only moved thirty-five miles, it felt as though I'd moved five hundred miles away! Suddenly I felt adrift, without the anchor of old friends and familiar surroundings. As I shared with an old friend how I hadn't expected a short-distance move to be such a major adjustment, she systematically began to "solve" my problem with a long list of recommended solutions.
"Wait," I said. "I don't need you to 'fix' my life. I'm already taking steps in that direction. I just need you to listen. I'm hurting and I need a sympathetic ear. I may not solve the problem the way you would, but I need to know you love me anyway. If you want to do something besides listen, call me up and ask me to go to a movie sometime."
Often there's no getting around asking for what you need. "I told my sister yesterday, 'I'm going through a hard time in my life right now,'" Joann reveals. "I said, 'I know your life is busy, but I need to hear more from you for a while.'"
Keep your loneliness in perspective.
Beth says dealing with her loneliness taught her about the resilience of the human spirit. "I've realized I will get through this. I have survived. I have something to contribute to others. And because I was alone with no one to 'rescue' me during the hospital experience, I've realized I'm responsiblewith God's helpfor rescuing me. Once I got past the self-pity of being alone, then I got serious about doing something about it myself. Plus, I've been more willing to dump those difficult situations in God's lap and say, 'This is your problem.'"
Coming to grips with loneliness is a life-long process; God doesn't always provide a quick fix. Sometimes he wants us to face it, to see what it's telling us about our life. After all, God is an expert at turning wilderness experiences into growth opportunities.
I've always considered myself a strong, competent person. I hate feeling vulnerable. So when I had to sell my home, buy a new one, and make dozens of important decisions in a short timealoneit left me feeling insecure and a little off balance. But God used that time to draw me closer to him.
Ultimately, for believers, that may be the secret blessing of loneliness. Psalm 34:18 says, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." In our loneliness, we're once again reminded through Scripture and prayer that God's been there all alongas he promised.
Verla Wallace is an author, speaker, and spiritual life coach. You may contact her through her blog, Pilgrim on the Loose, at www.pilgrimontheloose.com, or at email@example.com.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.