by Corinne Gnepf, LCMHC, NCC
We all know that feeling, the sudden experience of loneliness. One conversation, one glance at an interaction between people, one photo, or a memory of a relational loss can be enough to pull us into loneliness. Loneliness can be a shorter and fleeting experience or a much longer unwanted companion. No one is exempt from experiencing loneliness. It does not matter if single or married, male or female, young or old, as a part of the human species we all experience loneliness at various times and to various degrees. It is also a very subjective experience, though one that is distressing, and it “occurs when a person’s social relationship are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired.” Though being alone and feeling lonely are similar, they are not the same. A person can be surrounded by people, be embedded in a family or community, but still feel lonely because the quality of the relationship does not meet the need for emotional connection. On the other hand, a person may spend much time on their own, but be comfortable in their own company and not feel lonely because of a few quality, deep, meaningful relationships.
WE ARE CREATED FOR HUMAN CONNECTION
God himself stated that aloneness is not good (Gen 2:18) and then he created human companionship[LG1] . To have someone to be with, share the responsibilities of life, and the experiences of the seasons with, was the good plan from God for people. However, if we believe and treat marriage as the remedy for loneliness — and this is a common belief and expectation — we forget that loneliness is a consequence of sin and has been part of human experience ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God and had to leave the garden. The disconnect from God has left humanity yearning for connection. Even though we might be living among many people, be part of a family, a community, have friends, or have a spouse, we still experience loneliness at times.
LIVING OVERSEAS CAN COMPOUND LONELINESS FOR US ALL
Though loneliness is a universal experience, cross cultural living can be like loneliness on steroids. Leaving the familiar support of relationships and being known behind, moving to an unknown place and to peculiar people (locals and team members alike), we are faced with many opportunities to feel lonely. Even after years in a place we are not exempt from moments of loneliness. Because the only constant is change, saying goodbye is a reliable but complicated part of life. Saying goodbye to friends who have been very essential is hard and those friends will leave massive gaps in the relational and emotional fabric of our existence. To experience loneliness is human and normal but to be living overseas increases the triggers for loneliness further. And being single often adds another dimension to the experience of loneliness. Generally, singles do not have the companionship of someone who knows their story inside and out, who is a given company during times like lockdowns, or on vacations or holidays.
Unfortunately, I have heard the same story enough, although in a variety of versions and with different nuances, in which people moved overseas and found themselves largely on their own to figure out the uncountable details and necessities of life in their new culture. Perhaps they were expecting team leaders or a team to welcome them, to walk with them through the maze of a new life, only to see those people leave for months only two weeks after their arrival. Covid-19 and the pandemic has affected everyone. However, it has deeply affected those who were newly arrived in their host country and were cut off from viable relational resources before they even had a chance to establish them. These stories have been shared by couples, families and singles. Each time, I have ached for their painful experience of being left alone to fend for themselves as they figure out culture, living, language learning, community and relationship building. Singles on the field also have a higher need for close relationships than those who are married because they left every meaningful, close and fulfilling relationship behind whereas married people make the transition with at least their spouse.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THIS INEVITABLE LONELINESS?
Whether you are a team leader, a team member, or on the sending side of an organization, please, please make sure that new people will be welcomed, walked with, and have extra care for at least six months after their arrival. Keep in mind that they don’t have the language, the social commodity of contacts, the reliable and trustworthy relationships yet. If you are welcoming people, you have to commit to being there for those precious people. You have to make space for these people in your ministry schedule, and not just give them the crumbs of your time. If you are sending people please have in-depth conversation and ask many questions about who, when, what, for how long, etc. people will be available to walk with the newcomers. This is important for any new person, but all the more for singles. They come by themselves. They don’t have anyone yet who holds their story and knows their strengths and weaknesses, who knows how to encourage them. Please be intentional in inviting singles into your community, friendships, into your family. A single worker shared with me how significant the moment was when a family on her team gave her a key to their apartment and told her to come whenever she wanted. She belonged. Where loneliness was a frequent visitor for this person in the beginning and middle stages of making a new home and life in a country far away, with good support loneliness became an occasional experience.
BE LOOKING FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED EXTRA CARE
As we are getting closer to the Christmas season, let us be aware of the people around us and their needs for connection, to be invited to a home, to be included in activities or celebrations, or simply to be part of an ordinary mealtime. Ask the singles in your community about their plans, neither assuming that they are lonely nor that they’ll be just fine. Look out for a couple or a family that might really appreciate and need an invitation. If you are single, do not assume that the families have all their relational needs met, that nobody feels lonely. Reach out to each other, have conversation about how you are doing with loneliness in this season as well as in general. Those conversations and actions will have a positive impact on everyone’s well-being.
In his book “Loneliness”, Moustakas describes loneliness as a deeply personal and all-encompassing experience. “Being lonely is such a total, direct, vivid existence, so deeply felt, so startlingly different that there is no room for any other perception, feeling, or awareness.” Therefore, simply telling someone, “But you are not alone” does not help, in the same way that not being alone doesn’t always take loneliness away either. What is needed is a felt experience that ‘someone sees me in this place and comes down into that pit of my emotional experience’. We need to be willing to meet people in their experienced loneliness and connect with them on what they express they need, not what we think they need.
WHEN YOU ARE FEELING LONELY
And when we are the ones feeling lonely, we need to open ourselves up for experienced connection, even if it is not exactly what we want it to be[LG2] . Acknowledge that you might shut out someone’s attempt to connect with you because it does not feel right to you. Give the person the benefit of doubt since connection in different cultures can feel very different. Be specific about what you need with those around you. People cannot read your mind; they may never know how much an invitation for a tea or coffee means to you. Affirm people when they do what helps you, because it increases their likelihood to repeat it again. Don’t give up on initiating contacts, don’t wait to be rescued out of your loneliness. Be kind towards yourself in your pain of loneliness. It is uncomfortable, hard, and isolating to feel lonely. Giving yourself grace and compassion validates your experience without keeping you stuck there. A guided self-compassion meditation can be helpful in those moments.
Earlier we talked about the deeply felt need for connection because humanity experienced the disconnect and separation from community with God as a result of sin. All the reaching out, offering connection and friendship, seeking to develop deeper relationship with one another is good and important. But if we leave out what treasure we have in God and his gift of connecting with humanity again through Christ’s death and resurrection, we won’t be thoroughly satisfied. God works in and through our loneliness and he can redeem it. Throughout Scripture we see that loneliness isn’t something we need to fear but that God does redeem it. The invitation to abide in the fellowship of the Trinitarian God is powerful, mystical, and often a challenge to practice and to trust. Loneliness can also be redeemed through our participation with God’s work. Reach out to someone today and tell them that you love them and show them that you mean it.
Finding God In My Loneliness. Lydia Brownback
Braving the Wilderness. Brené Brown
Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick
All Along You Were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living. Morgan Harper Nichols
 Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/science/loneliness
 Loneliness by Clark E. Moustakas, p.8