"One: Still the Loneliest Number" – A Conversation On Loneliness

Loneliness, and discussion of it, seem increasingly common in recent years. I often see articles on the subject popping up in news feeds. The "Sunday Morning" television show aired a story about loneliness just this week. England recently appointed a "Minister for Loneliness," and various officials are concerned it may even be a public health epidemic.

All this talk and concern while we are more connected to people than ever before, thanks to the state of our technology. But our numbers of "friends" and "likes" online apparently aren't as fulfilling as we might have hoped. For all our texting and tweeting, we somehow remain a society expressing a profound disconnect.

As it happens, this is exactly the kind of topic you might hear about at a monthly public discussion called Theology at the Bottleworks hosted by Midrash St. Louis. TATB is a place to come together for civil discussion of various hot topics in a room full of diverse backgrounds, opinions and views—and a fantastic way to break out of the "one of us" bubble to learn how others process life.

So, back in December, loneliness was the very topic we took on. I was able to participate in several additional meetings around the Bottleworks discussion as well, and as it's percolating in my own mind I want to share some related resources and thoughts.

>> One is an article I posted a few years back which some have found helpful for their own struggles with loneliness:
"Eight Questions to Address Loneliness"

>> We also did a follow up podcast about the TATB discussion you can hear via Soundcloud.

While the causes of and responses to loneliness may vary widely, there should be serious consideration how we as individuals, and Christians/the Church in particular, might better address the issue. So here are some points which developed in and around the conversation.

Never abandoned, always pursued
The Lord keeps reminding us, "I'll never leave you," and, "I'm always with you." Jesus pursued His people to His own death. We have to believe this first. Then we can image God by pursuing others. How are we doing here?

Knowing and being known
The sad fact is that many people feel they aren't truly known by anyone. Thankfully, no one knows us better than our Creator, another truth to which we can cling. But when it comes to human companionship, we can dodge depth. We share the day's mood online to rouse responses, then stare at some device in the presence of others rather than spending time in real conversation. Not helpful. Neither is asking, "How are you?," as a greeting and ignoring an honest response. Our knowledge of each other can't grow unless we all move out of the shallow end of the pool. Are we actively interacting?
Patience before appropriate authenticity
I'm amused at how online curation is often criticized with annoyance that people are just painting the picture of a "perfect" life that's really not. Sure it can happen, but suddenly we're not being "authentic" if we just share our fantastic travel pix without all our bad stuff too, never mind the appropriateness of sharing every detail in the public square. Unfortunately, some have countered with the "authenticity" of chronic complaints or angry opinions... Definitely not better than your lovely vacation photos. Ironically, no matter what persona we post, we do the exact same stuff in person all the time. We always start with a certain public face. No one shows every side of their life in a first or even fifth interchange, nor should we. Too much too soon can push others away. There really is a time to speak and a time to hold that thought. While we can share anything with the Lord anytime, we need patience with ourselves and others to grow in and gauge a relationship before revealing our inmost thoughts and struggles. It takes time to go deeper. Are we willing to put in that time?

Hearing and being heard
Are we making ourselves available to hear other people's concerns and points of view? Are we ready to take turns in a conversation and let the other guy actually speak? Are we responsive when someone sincerely asks for our time, help or friendship? Are we willing to listen with discernment and without immediate judgment? James 1:19–20 reminds us to "be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger..." Otherwise we can immediately ostracize others, especially those who don't look or sound like us, rather than listening to love them well. (So glad TATB gives the opportunity to put all this into practice. We even ended this night early to allow people to spend more time together. And they did. Genius.)

Community and belonging
Another common thread is the need for a place to belong. The places where past generations spent time together aren't as readily available. But the Church again has something unique to offer. We know God is making a new people group, a collection of those who love Him coming from all nations and persuasions. Psalm 68 reminds us God is "father to the fatherless" and "defender of widows." If He really "sets the lonely in families" (NIV) or "settles the solitary in a home" (with others - ESV), then the Church should be that family and home, a welcoming community doing all the above just because we love Jesus and want the people around us to love Him too. Are we fully inviting others in? Do we invite even familiar believers into deeper community? Is the invitation on the Lord's terms or ours? Are we loving as He's loved us?

Loneliness is a complex issue, and these are just a few points to process as we think about ways to help the many it affects every day. What other ways can we help ease the sting of loneliness? Feel free to share ideas in comments—and, more importantly, in person!

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