General

The Case for Community (Loneliness Pt2)

Have you ever had one of those days (…weeks…maybe months), where you just feel DONE with people?  One of those days where you feel like you’re hitting your head against a wall every time you try to have a conversation or build a friendship or hang out with someone or work on a project together?

No? Just me? 😉

I was the kid in school that when the teacher announced that there was going to be some sort of group project, I was the first one in line at her desk begging her to “Please, just let me do it by myself. I don’t care if it’s more work, I’d rather just work alone, please!”

My whole life, I have self-identified as an introvert. I need lots of quiet and alone time to cope with life. Lots of time for reflection and introspection. I have always been described by others as independent. I never felt like a social butterfly, never won homecoming queen, but I usually had a few closer friends and I felt like that was fine and good.

This is one of the reasons why I was so shocked when, after I had my first baby, feelings of loneliness and an almost literal ache to be around people set in. My story is a little complicated by other life factors, but from what I hear from others, my story is not that uncommon any more. I went to college away from home, went to graduate school somewhere else, got married, and moved to another, entirely new location. And although I was excited to begin all of these new adventures, I didn’t realize at the time how isolating each one of them can be. Or how much my independent self would long for community.

Maybe your story is a little different. Maybe you still live in your hometown. Maybe you are single. Maybe you don’t have children. Maybe you are some combination of any of the options of moved/not moved/move often, married/dating/single, parent or not. Even if your story is entirely different from mine, I would bet that at some point, you have felt the loneliness that I mentioned. That dull throbbing ache that makes you wish to be near someone, to be known.

For this post, I would like to briefly affirm any of you who have felt (or are feeling) these aches. I want affirm that there is nothing inherently wrong with you when you feel this way and that, in fact, you were made to feel this way. That for as much as we all joke about the idea of becoming a hermit in the woods somewhere and living “off the grid” in a log cabin ala Ron Swanson, humans were never made to function in isolation. I also want to make the case (mostly to my “I’ll just do the project/life on my own” self) that community is GOOD and NECESSARY.

Science has shown that humans function better within a community. We survive better when we work as a team, but beyond that, we are mentally and emotionally more healthy. But it’s more than just an emotional issue. In a recent NPR broadcast, the host of the show Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam, cited a study and stated that

“Again, the toll of social isolation isn’t just emotional. An analysis of nearly 150 studies has found that people with strong social relationships had about a 50 percent lower mortality risk than those with weaker ties. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her co-authors concluded that those with weaker social relationships had a greater risk of death than people who were physically inactive or obese. Let me put that another way. Spending time building and nurturing your friendships might be just as important to your health as eating right and exercising.”

This quote is from a show titled “The Lonely American Male” . It is an interesting broadcast about how males in particular are feeling more and more isolated and depressed and are having a harder time forming friendships.

I would argue that the problem of loneliness is even older than America and social media and cultural norms, and that that ache for friendship lies deeper inside of us than somewhere that can be found on an MRI.  I would argue that the first “case” of loneliness occurred during the creation of the world.

Most people know the gist of the Genesis story: “God created …. and it was good….God created…and it was good” God made everything good and he made man in his own image and likeness, which was good. God makes this lavish and bountiful garden and gives man the good work of caring for all of this newly created world.  And there stands Adam, with everything he could possibly ever need, amidst beauty untainted and God makes an almost shocking proclamation: “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) Everything is right and good…except this. Man was not meant to be alone.

Why not? Why not just allow Adam (and man) to exist in perfect communion with God and the created universe? Why specifically call out community in this way?

It is because we are image-bearers.  Our Creator and God is not just one person, but three in one. It is in the triune God that perfect community exists. Perfect intimate knowledge of the other, perfect sacrificial love, perfect service, perfect obedience, perfect leadership, all formed in one. As image-bearers of God we were made to reflect this communion and we cannot do it on our own. We can not be all that we were meant to be on our own. There is no “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” or DIYing your way through life. You exist in a community and more than that, you were MEANT to exist within a community.

Community serves many practical purposes that can be quite obvious (shelter, food, other survival needs, etc.), but it also serves the grand purposes of growing and shaping ourselves. Recently, in her podcast, JourneyWomen, host Hunter Beless interviewed author and teacher Tiffany Bluhm on the topic of loneliness (I HIGHLY recommend giving this a listen, they are way more wise than I am: JourneyWomen Ep. 56 Loneliness). Ms. Bluhm shares so many nuggets of wisdom, but one thing that really stuck out to me was her description of real community. Community is meant to be more than sharing drinks and jokes and going out for dinners. It’s more than finding a topic you can all agree on. Real community, she says, gets you “out of your own echo chamber.”  Real community builds relationships that are deep and honest and reveal the ugly parts of ourselves so that we are fully known. It is in this type of community that you actually combat against jealousy and comparison and feelings of exclusion. (In contrast to many social-media based platforms, which seem to feed those monsters.)  In real community, you have to expose yourself and in that, you’re giving others the opportunity to love you, to grow and learn and for you to return that unconditional love.

You may be thinking this sounds a little Pollyanna of me. That is all well and good, right? This image of perfect community where you both support and challenge one another. Where we serve each other and grow. And no one is selfish and no one gets jealous and we don’t reject each other or hurt each other.

In part 3 of this series on Loneliness, I do want address some of those questions of “but how do we even foster or find community?” and address the brokenness of the current (and perhaps since always?) society and ways that we can make changes that encourage more deep and ‘real’ relationships in our lives.

But that’s in part 3. 😉

For now, I want to end this case for community with a summary and a quote.

To summarize:

You are normal to want community. To want to be known. It is a necessity we were created with. Humans NEED one another. Not in just a biological “it sure is helpful to hunt in packs” way, but in a mental and emotional ache for friendship-type way that effects every aspects of ourselves. To be who we were meant to be, to truly live, we need other people in our lives and we need to be a part of other people’s lives. God does this perfectly in the Trinity, for which we are image-bearers. We do community messily. But it is a necessary and beautiful mess.

All that being said, as necessary as community is, it will most likely never leave us filling fully satisfied. To quote Tiffany Bluhm once more, “Friendships cannot fulfill us, but are a vehicle to display God’s work and to receive God’s work. [They] cannot be our source.”

Ultimately, all of us all have a “God-sized hole” in our hearts that only He can fill and an ache that only He can satisfy. Community, real community, is just one of the ways in which that is worked out and demonstrated.

 

**Next week: How do we fight for real community? Some solutions that have worked for lonely old me.**

General

Loneliness Part 1: The Problem Exists

Loneliness has been on my mind a lot lately. My oldest son has just started school and as I watched him walk away from me and into a classroom of his peers, his back pack slightly too big for his little body, jaw set and head bowed down in a determined stance to be independent, my biggest fear for him wasn’t that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the academics or that he wasn’t safe without me. My biggest fear for him was that he would be lonely at school away from his family and in a room full of strangers.

My son’s teacher (after I pestered her with yet another e-mail, God bless her) has assured me that my son has dropped his “strong and silent” act and has started playing with kids on the playground and talking to the kids at his table. It took a few weeks, but he’s making new friends. Kids are resilient like that.

I remember being a kid and being so scared that I would be alone. That no one would like me. That they wouldn’t understand my strange sense of humor or wouldn’t be interested in the same things I was interested in. That I would somehow stick out as “other” and be rejected. I think we can all relate to those feelings on some level. I’m not sure if any of us are completely confident about being thrust into new situations without a frame of reference or a buddy.

After some reflection, what I am realizing that I STILL have those same feelings 20 years later. This is not to say that I still run and hide when asked to speak in front of a group of people. I also do not openly sob when someone says they do not want to hang out with me (…most of the time…at least not publicly… 😉 )  I also care a lot less about what people think about my hair or how I dress.

A surprising thing about becoming an adult is that the problem of loneliness, of feeling different and isolated from a group of friends and the desire to be known in a community doesn’t go away. Nor does it fix itself in a few weeks.

What I hear from a lot of other adults, (moms especially, but also dads and child-free adults) is that feelings of loneliness can prevail for months on end. That making friends in your late 20s and beyond is much more difficult than when we were all kids.

I can think of several reasons why making friends is actually harder as an adult: we have less structured, planned “play” time with people our own age; we often live far away from people we have things in common with (or far away from people in general if you’re in a rural area); we fill up our schedules with all of the “must” dos likes working, volunteering, grocery shopping, taking care of our homes and children and spouses and we don’t have the margin for spontaneous lunch dates or feel guilty for getting a babysitter or taking time off work to just meet with a friend. I’m sure we could all add to this list of why adulting makes being a friend hard. There seems to be so much more nuance to finding a friend and so much less time to figure it out all.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to elaborate on these thoughts on loneliness.

I want to talk about where I believe these feelings come from and how they are justified and even purposed (and one might argue “good”?) and I want to talk about some solutions and ways that we can prioritize community and specifically friendships (which are messy) in our lives.

For today, however, I just want you to know that if you feel lonely, if you feel like you’re the only person in the world without a close group of friends. If you feel unknown and that makes you feel uncentered and scared. If you yearn for a friendship where you can depend on people, ask for help, and give help in turn. If you just wish you had someone to eat dinner with, let alone Thanksgiving: you’re not alone. You are not weird. There is nothing “wrong” with you. Your desire for community is part of what makes you a human and it doesn’t have to always be this way.

Motherhood

These Are The Days

Ask most moms what piece of advice they hear most often and I bet the answer is some version of “Appreciate these days! They go by so quickly!”

I’ve tried really hard not to be that mom because I remember being at the grocery store, covered in spit-up, running on three hours of sleep with a screaming baby in my cart, trying to pick up the one thing I forgot (for the second time that week…on a Tuesday…) and feeling absolutely DONE and defeated and having a (well-meaning) older woman tell me to “appreciate the moment”.  In that particular moment, telling me to “enjoy this time! They grow up so quickly” simply added another layer of guilt and shame, and if I’m perfectly honest, anger to the tapestry of emotions I was experiencing at the time.

“Great. One more thing I’m not doing correctly,” I would think to myself as I tried to grin and nod at whatever well-meaning person. I would then be flooded with doubts.

“Am I the only one failing so hard at this? Was I even meant to be a mom?” and sarcastic quips like

“Well that’s real nice, Nancy, but right now my hormones are making my body leak all kinds of fluid and flooding my brain with ‘kill or be killed’ type messages when my baby screams so maybe you should just like back off or offer to help a sister out, OKAY?”

And yet, here I am, five (almost six!) years have FLOWN by since my first days of appearing in public as “Crazy Spit Up Covered Lady”. I’ve added two more babies to the mix and my youngest is more toddler than baby. And much to my chagrin, it takes everything in me to not say to every mom I see “Appreciate these days!! They fly by so quickly!!” (Insert facepalm here)

I caught myself a few times almost saying this to someone (okay, okay, I DID say it, please don’t hate me, Past Self) and reflecting on that later, it gave me pause. I started to question if I was following my own advice. Was I appreciating my CURRENT days?

So often, I found myself counting down the hours, the MINUTES, until bed time; feeling annoyed when I had to interact with my kids or break up their fights; getting frustrated that they wouldn’t just play quietly by themselves so I could get some “adult” things done like call the dentist or read a book. I found myself feeling like I was “wasting” time or being “inefficient” when I sat down to play with them on the floor and questioning if there wasn’t something “more important” I should be doing, like making dinner or cleaning the bathrooms.

I started to ask myself, “What was the point of parenthood?  What was my goal?” To survive until bed time? To make it to the end of another day? That can’t be right.

One of the Bible verses my children and I sought to memorize lately was Philippians 4:4-7 which, in the New Living Translation says:

” Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.[aDon’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Was I rejoicing in the Lord and all that He has done for me when I begrudged my children for wanting to be the focus of my attention? Was I remembering that the Lord God is near, when I failed to show my children the grace that I had been given by God? Was I allowing His peace to guard my heart and mind when I lost my temper at my children for interrupting me with arguments and needing to be disciplined or taught? What had I expected parenthood would be like? (That is a whole other topic I could/should write about.)

This is not to say that anyone should strive to (nor could possibly) cherish every single moment of parenthood. There are times when I just need some time alone to remember who I am and recharge my batteries. There are times when I feel like if I have to clean up one more pair of poopy undies I will lose my ever-loving mind. I get frustrated and angry when things don’t go my way because I am human.

But I am also redeemed.

I am someone who has made a lot of mistakes and whose mistakes have been seen, but forgiven and washed away. I am someone who has been provided for. Who has been given three beautiful and relatively healthy children for at least a time and I can do better to remember the joy they bring me. I can do better to remember that I prayed for these children with all my heart and that the Lord heard that prayer and responded with a “Yes.”

Ecclesiastes chapter 3 verse 1 tells us that

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

My current season is filled with a lot of tears, a lot of bodily fluids, and a lot of temper tantrums. It’s filled with a lot of messes, and car seat buckling (and unbuckling and buckling and unbuckling and…). It’s a season of self-sacrifice. Of daily dying to myself and my agenda and allowing a very tiny human to dictate how our day will unfold, while also trying to maintain some semblance of a schedule. 

This season is also filled with lots of kisses and cuddles. Of soft baby skin and fluffy hair. Of the sweet scents of babies and toddlers. It’s filled with “Mama I wuv voo”s and tiny toes. Tiny shoes and sweaters. Baby giggles. Lots of firsts (steps, words, experiences.) It’s filled with the joy of watching your children grow and develop and feeling the weight of responsibility you have to teach them how to be in this world.

This season is fleeting. And I truly do not want to just survive it. I want to deeply experience and enjoy every moment I possibly can.

That’s the funny thing about seasons. When I begin a new one, it’s exciting and I can’t wait to embrace everything about it, but then about mid-way through it, I’m done with it and I can’t help but start dreaming about the next season and longing for change. That’s the tricky part: fully embracing the season you’re in, for the entire duration of that season. Sure, there will be days when you feel like you can’t take another day of the status quo, but hopefully when we’re armed with the knowledge that a new day is coming (and bringing change with it), we can be encouraged to enjoy the season we are currently in before it passes.

These are the days.