What Distance Reveals

As I write this, we are now roughly 120 days into “new normal”, a phrase we’re all saying, hearing and resenting. Throughout our Dealing with It series, we’ve outlined some common, painful experiences in the life of a person, things we felt were relevant to address because our current global situation has fostered these experiences: Depression, Disappointment, and Doubt. This week we approach the most definitive of the “Painful D’s” for our cultural context: the pain of Distance.

For most of these articles, I’ve asked the question, “What does this experience reveal?” In other words, what lies beneath the surface of the pain? If pain is an alarm system meant to grab our attention in order to suss out a underlying cause, what does the pain felt in Distance indicate? To me, the pain of the last three months has been indicative of many things, some good and others not-so-good.

 Distance has revealed idolatries. It has revealed attachments to things I must be more open to letting go of: personal liberties, plans, entitlements, the status quo, means of self-sufficiency and entertainment, and even some ideologies I had previously held.

Distance has also afforded opportunities otherwise not possible in the “old normal”: an extended season in which to slow down and sort through priorities, chances to get to know my neighbors better, time and space for creative pursuits, and the perspective to evaluate, investigate, and question things I had previously taken for granted. I have learned and unlearned a lot because of Distance.

 But I think the broader, more universal experience revealed in this season of Distance is the loss, separation, and feelings of loneliness many of us have undergone and are undergoing right now as a result of pandemic life. Though I have found Distance to be revealing of many things, I will be focusing primarily on Loneliness in this blog.

Aloneness to Loneliness

In a way, I feel like I’m one of the least-qualified people to write about loneliness because, unlike the other three topics of this series, this is not something with which I’m well acquainted. Not only am I an introvert of introverts and thus deeply value my time alone, I am also a person surrounded. I am married. I co-house with six other adults. I’ve been a part of a church community my entire life. I am almost never alone.

However, I am  well acquainted with feelings of loneliness that might better be described as disconnection or alienation. The painful feelings of Distance I feel in relation to others has little to do with physical proximity. In fact, I’d say that physical proximity tends to exacerbate whatever lonely feelings I may be experiencing. We’ve all had that moment, even in the best of community, in which we find ourselves surrounded, yet the people who are “with us” aren’t with us.

Whatever flavor of loneliness we experience – be it for want of company or a sense of belonging – we are obviously not alone in feeling alone. In 2018, health insurance company Cigna conducted a survey of 20,000 Americans which yielded these findings:

  • Nearly 50 percent of respondents report that they felt alone or left out always or sometime.
  • More than half of Americans (56 percent)—reported that they Sometimes or always felt like the people around them were “not necessarily with them.”
  • 40 percent of Americans said they “lack companionship,” that they   are “isolated from others,” and that “relationships aren’t meaningful.”

That same year, the British government appointed its first official Minister of Loneliness. Before that, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy described loneliness as an “epidemic” and one of the most concerning public health issues in the modern world. All of this was well before coronavirus, which seems to have disrupted just about every facet of our lives and social rhythms, from restrictions on gathering to loss of employment to separation of families. Whatever simmering embers of loneliness that existed in our society before now has likely been whipped up into a hot-burning flame.

We weren’t meant for it. The author of Genesis makes it clear that among all the things that God deemed “good”, the first “not good” was Adam’s aloneness (Gen 2:18). God Himself, being a Triune God of three Persons, is in constant community, and we are made in His image (Gen. 1:27).  Scripture insists from the onset that we are made for relationship and community, emphasizing and re-empathizing this again and again, especially in the New Testament when outlining the roles and functions of the church.

Though we are meant to be relational, communal, social creatures, this default state of aloneness is universal and inherent to the human condition. In his book The Four Loves, Lewis writes:

“We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness.”

So we know two things:

  1.       Loneliness is sub-optimal
  2.       Loneliness is experienced by everyone (well-connected or isolated)

But is loneliness always an evil? Is it always indicative of some sort of relational dysfunction? Must it always be extinguished?

I believe many followers of Christ – and Christ Himself – would say that loneliness, though painful, has purpose and serves as an opportunity.

Loneliness to Solitude

Priest and theologian Henri Nouwen once described two kinds of loneliness:

“In the first loneliness, we are out of touch with God and experience ourselves as anxiously looking for someone or something that can give us that sense of belonging, intimacy, and home.”

This is a sort of loneliness that produces a dysfunctional response and a distorted view not just of relationships, but of other people. We start to view others not as fellow hearts and souls but as means to end our discomfort or sense of insecurity. Side characters to our protagonists’ storyline or NPC’s to furnish our experience. Compulsive socializing starts here. Serial monogamy starts here. A lot of marital infidelity starts here. “Church-hopping”, social-ladder climbing, and the impulse to get into the “inner circles”, cliques, or in-crowds begins here in this anxious grasping in loneliness.

On the other hand, Loneliness can also be self-propagating. If we feel like we’re “on the outs”, we sometimes move away from others. Some of us may even perform a “disappearing act” in which we intentionally distance ourselves to “see who will notice” and search us out. When others don’t take the hint, we resent them and isolate further. Weird, isn’t it?

This first kind of a loneliness is a person who has made the ceasing of their lonely feelings the objective of fellowship and community. It is a “what-can-I-get-from-them” mentality, and a recipe for guaranteed disappointment. Be it a global pandemic or just mismatched schedules, we are not always available to each other in exactly the ways we’d want.

But even in the best of circumstances, to approach our relationships like this will not satisfy. Nouwen writes:

“The best of community does give one a deep sense of belonging and well-being: and in that sense community takes away loneliness. But on another level, community allows you to experience a deeper loneliness. It is precisely when you are loved a lot that you realize a second loneliness which is not to be solved but lived. This second loneliness is an existential loneliness that belongs to the basis of our being. It is where we are unfulfilled because only God can fill us.”

It is not uncommon for people to get involved in church community and find that though they fit in well and are well-liked, there is still a lacking. Married couples eventually find this out, too. Even the happiest of marriages cannot assuage the deeper loneliness found at the level of the soul; a combination by-product of the Fall and of our need for God. It is a loneliness indicative of liminal space – living in a state between brokenness and the hope of restoration.

“The paradox is that quite often in community you get in touch with this second loneliness. In community, where you have all the affection you could ever dream of, you feel that there is a place where even community cannot reach. ” – Nouwen

Sounds kind of bleak, doesn’t it? What does this mean for the lonely Christian, the one in healthy community, fellowship, and intimacy but yet still suffers from “aloneness”?

Nouwen argues that when you discover this “second loneliness”, it is an invitation into Solitude, meant to be embraced and integrated into our Christian life. Why is Solitude important? Thomas Merton writes:

“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness…comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he truly enjoys the companionship of [others], because he loves them in God…”

Though it is true the humans are made for companionship, it is not our final destination. Our final end is to be in relationship with God, the only relationship that perfectly accounts for our loneliness in all its forms. We engage in intimacy with God through intentional periods of Solitude, just as Jesus Himself went away regularly to be alone with God (Luke 5:16). We do this not to escape from people, nor to “transcend” the need and duty to know and be known by others, but because we are returning to the Source of Love. We go to God in our “aloneness”, empty at first: but when the love of God is received, not only are filled again, but we have something to bring to the others, and serve them in their loneliness.

One might imagine a target shape of three concentric circles:


Now imagine we’re looking at this shape, but from above. In fact, it’s a three-tiered water fountain, with the spring of the fountain in the very center of the topmost (centermost) circle. When God is that relational center, His love flows out from the topmost level, into the next level which is ourselves. When we receive God’s love, it flows up and out over our tier and into the third tier, which is Others. But if we were to substitute “Others” or “Self” for the center, the flow of Love does not work properly. “God” must be at our community core, and we commune with Him in Solitude (John 15:5).

The mystery of Solitude – intentional aloneness with God – is that is makes true intimacy and companionship possible. We are free to love without our own appetites crowding our hearts, trying to “get something out” of our relationships, because we are satisfied in our communion with God. We are also equipped to meet the relational needs of others, now plugged into the Source of love, letting it flow out of us into others. Fellowship stops being about “what we get from others” and instead what we may give to others (John 13:35).

A person satisfied in their communion with God is free, then, to be in true community. The other is not social furniture nor a consumable resource of time and attention, but a fellow heart and pilgrim-companion. We find that we can be “alone, together” when we practice Solitude.

It ‘s no joke that these are some lonely days, being separated from each other as we are now. This is a painful experience. However, we have a choice to make the most of an opportunity in the suffering: we may choose to surrender to isolation and resentment, or we may choose to “find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude…from outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” (Henri Nouwen)

In truth, we may have been given a great gift in this social recession. It is often a struggle to find time and space for Solitude in the “Old Normal”, but in this crisis, we have been spoon-fed the resources in which to dive deep with our Lord in Solitude. This could be a great blessing, if we choose to accept it as such and not just inconvenience, interruption, or irredeemable pain. Distance can hurt, but it is from a Distance that our hearts may grow in love for God and for one another.

For more thoughts on Distance and Loneliness:

Leverage Your Loneliness
Jesus Understands Your Loneliness
Four Lies We Believe When We Are Feeling Lonely
When I Was Forbidden to Attend Church
What Blessings Can Come from Social Distancing?
The Christian Response to Coronavirus