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Following Jesus

Beyond Loneliness: Is There a Cure?

January 7, 2019 by

“Graham is at end of life,” I was informed by the matron as I came onto the hospice ward for my afternoon shift.

I had met Graham the previous week when I found him sitting alone in the coffee lounge. Almost blind, his muscles atrophied from disuse, he was suffering the final stages of a terminal disease. There was a strongly unpleasant body odor in the room.

I greeted him as I walked by, but his response gave me pause.

“I thought there would be people out here to talk to. . .” His voice faded out, the sentence left unfinished. His eyes scanned the air in a vain attempt to focus on my face.

There was a melancholy aura around Graham that afternoon. I’ve seen it often in the local hospitals and hospices I frequent, as well as on the train or tube. It’s a sort of vacant hunger for human contact, for love. There’s shame written on those faces as well, a dejected resignation to the fact that their lives aren’t worth much in other people’s eyes. For these people, life is something that must simply be endured.

I suppose you would call it loneliness, if you had to give it a name.

man at a bus stopPhotograph by Bulkan Evcimen

We all have mental images of loneliness. Ask me to portray a lonely person, and I’ll think of Graham as I saw him last Saturday. He lay in the hospital bed near the window, his face obscured under a large oxygen mask as he breathed erratically. The oxygen concentrator hissed rhythmically nearby, but other than that, the room was silent. There were no visitors at Graham’s bedside, nor flowers to cheer his room – no sign of connectedness with anyone at all. He was totally and utterly alone.

Graham’s story is not as unique as we might like to believe. Loneliness is becoming endemic, especially in developed nations. We live in an age where increasing longevity leaves a growing number of elderly folk alone after the death of a spouse. But it’s not just affecting the elderly. There are single-parent homes and people living alone because of broken relationships and divorce. And there are singles who, lacking a soulmate, are forced to go it alone.

A February 2018 BBC headline asked, “How should we tackle the loneliness epidemic?” The article points out that, ironically, “we’ve never been so connected, but for millions, this is the age of loneliness,” and goes on to liken the adverse health effects of loneliness to those occurring from well-documented risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. And in April 2018, the Independent warned that “loneliness is on its way to becoming Britain’s most lethal condition.”

It is in looking beyond ourselves, to the needs of others – and they to ours – that our loneliness will be turned to joy.

As a chaplain, I’ve learned to detect loneliness in others and I’m eager to reach out a hand of friendship. But to admit that I myself am lonely – more often than I care to confess – is much harder. After all, I live in a loving Christian community, surrounded by the bustle of activity and the lively sounds of children. But they are not mine. At fifty years old, I remain single (not by choice but circumstance), and both my parents have died. My siblings and peers are all married; with their own child-rearing accomplished, they’re now enjoying their grand kids.

Weekends are the most difficult. I watch families set off on Sunday-afternoon outings, heading to the beach or for a cookout in the woods. There’s an ache that is all too familiar as I realize, once again, that this kind of familial “belonging” will never be mine.

Loneliness hurts. And it can destroy us if we wallow in it, allowing ourselves to become its victims.

But there’s a simple antidote to loneliness, and that is love. No matter how alone we may feel, there are others hurting, too. I’ve learned, over time, that loneliness recedes the moment I turn my attention to others. Some find fulfillment in overseas mission work, volunteering, or supporting a church or charity. Others of us can look closer to home. Overcoming loneliness can be as simple as taking the neighbor’s dog out for a run or reading a story to a child.

woman with a little girl

Capitalist societies promote independence and individualism, but there’s no getting around the fact that, as members of the human race, we are interdependent and we need one another. Our planet is comprised of myriad forms of life that, together, create interdependent organisms and ecosystems. From the beginning of time, creation has existed in harmonic symbiosis. But we humans have fallen far from God’s original plan for this world.

As Christians, we are tasked with embodying the coming kingdom of God when every tear will be dried. The prophet Isaiah gives us glimpses of this kingdom when he describes the coexistence of wolf and lamb, and a child playing fearlessly near a cobra’s den (Isaiah 11: 6–8).

The fulfillment of this prophesy is attainable already now when we care for each other and work together to restore the broken links of our humanity. The early church, where the believers shared all things in common, was a harbinger of God’s kingdom. We, too, can build bridges of fellowship and love with those around us, whoever they may be.

In my recent book, Broken but Blessed: Journeying from Pain to Peace with Unlikely Guides, I’ve written extensively about the transformative power of weakness. Living in intentional community as I do, I am repeatedly awed by the way one person’s weakness becomes another’s salvation: the rebellious teenager who finds life’s meaning as she cares for an elderly person or the childless couple whose house becomes a home for a lonely widow.

Elisabeth Elliot, whose husband was martyred on the South American mission field shortly after their marriage, advises, “Offer up your loneliness to God, as the little boy offered to Jesus his five loaves and two fishes. God can transform it for the good of others.” And, she adds, “Above all, do something for somebody else!”

It is in looking beyond ourselves, to the needs of others – and they to ours – that our loneliness will be turned to joy.


Read Rebekah Domer’s series on the Beatitudes.


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About the author

Rebekah Domer

Rebekah Domer

Since Rebekah’s upbringing at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York, life has taken her on many diverse assignments, from the...

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  • I have been in a place alone just now - breast cancer, "cancer brain", problems breathing even with a few steps, and now a mild heart attack. I must confidently say, while I cannot get ahold of Bruderhoff friends, and since so many of my friends are dead or in Africa, I am happy that Jesus is there. I am not lonely, only alone from people I know and love - But not alone- Jesus, His Spirit, and Father are strong, present, and real - a small but powerful community of presence for now-and beyond. What people call "dreary winter" is actually beautiful as I look out the window and behold the patch of woods beneath my window. Spring has come inside me - a chance to become more of what God intends. Thanks for your article - another person discovering the ever-deepening Joy of God's presence- and sharing it to the whole world! Thank you Rebeka. Please send my greetings to your family and the Bruderhof people you know I know.

    Carolee Uits
  • Have chosen to share this article because in our urban settings loneliness is epidemic and is woven into other growing problems including addiction and suicide. Excellent short commentary, hopefully causing people to think about their responses in their own communities....

    Scott W
  • I truly appreciated this article and honest sharing. I also have been lonely, much after years of losses of my own making. What draws me into this conversation is the oppeness to the true experience. I have not had the authors' willingness to admit my loneliness, caught in my own mire of not wanting others to see me "less than". I can see now this has not been helpful to me or my world and plays into orher damage I have done. While this article doesn't make me lonely, it certainly bursts open the door to experience my own pain. And I thank you for that. " Be still" I am doing. "And know that I am God" not so much. Lots to put into my meditation practice.

    Jeanna LeSuer
  • Found the blog very moving and authentic.

    Mary Dicker
  • To Ruth Sill: Ruth, "The joy of interaction" says it all! Thank you!

    Rebekah Domer
  • Response to Mary Foley: Mary, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. You are very brave to continue reaching out in spite of cancer and chemo. God will reward your efforts. I like your idea to call people. That's a great incentive for others! Let's keep inspiring one another in this new year!

    Rebekah
  • I agree loneliness is a serious symptom of societal issues. There are so many reasons why a person can feel lonely. I recently underwent my second bout of cancer/chemo and this time I did feel really lonely even with family support. This is my journey and it isolates you under the pretext of thinking no one truly understands. My mantra was “Be still and know that I am God.” I learned a valuable lesson from my brother. He called me every day and that was my lifeline. I can no longer be a chaplain at our local hospital because of my low blood counts and danger of infection but you are right about focusing on others to open yourself up and not be isolated. We need to initiate conversation and find outlets to reach out to others. We need to cultivate the habit of calling someone to see how they are doing. That’s my New Years Resolution. Call, call, call and don’t be afraid of bothering them. I was a teacher for many years and experienced the pain of seeing lonely children. Your right that it is not a symptom of seniors but kids also need to learn how to start a conversation and reach out. Waiting for someone to reach out to you may never work. BUT Jesus is always waiting to hear our knock on his door. I am so blessed and grateful for my gift of faith. Thank you Rebekah for your sharing. Blessings for the New Year. Mary Foley

    Mary Foley
  • Rebekah, good to see your blog as always. Beautifully and honestly written. I so agree with your words, "loneliness recedes the moment I turn my attention to others". I too, can focus on the lack in my own space or time, but turning my focus to others, that lonely feeling slips quickly away, and often is replaced by the joy of interaction. blessings to you in this New Year..

    ruth m sill
  • Dear Rebekah, Well written, as always. I am sure anyone who stops to look around can spot lonely people in all different places, situations and stations in life. There is great guidance in your story to consider how interaction with others is a gift in and of itself. It is an attribute those who come to know the members of your community are struck by. We could all learn from it. ~ Rosalie

    Rosalie V Gambino