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.
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.**