We have a moment in our weekly church service where the whole room is silent for a minute following the sermon. It’s a chance to be quiet and listen. One day we were invited to hold our pain out before God. I closed my eyes and pictured holding a glowing white ember in the palms of my hands, so scorching to the skin, I could hardly bare it. From the silence of my heart, I found my soul confessing, I am so lonely.
That benediction was over a year ago, but I find myself returning to this topic, curious about its underlying current. Loneliness seems to weave in and out of my days, flowing around even the most rock-solid relationships in my life.
Here’s what I am starting to understand about this hot ash I hold in my hands, this beguiling river that streams under my feet...
Loneliness can be hard to perceive. It is possible to appear one way and feel another. I seem to excel at ambivalence. Someone recently told me, “You exude joy. That’s what it’s like to be around you. If you’re upset, you are going to have to tell someone, because they aren’t going to pick it up from your body language.” I was reminded of this at church recently when someone remarked, “You seem really happy,” Oh no! I thought, I’m actually sad AND I’m happy to see you! The pain of loneliness can be eased momentarily in the presence of others, but once they leave, there you are again, standing in the river alone.
Loneliness, on some level, is inevitable. In Oh, The Places You’ll Go! The great Dr. Seuss writes, “All Alone! Whether you like it or not, alone will be something you'll be quite a lot.” Loneliness is a human emotion that everyone experiences, but there are studies out there showing that those with physical disabilities experience a higher level of loneliness than the general population (1). There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is practical barrier such as driving. This task is impossible for some, and challenging for others.
Prematurity may also be a contributing factor. One study suggests that preemies born in the 1980s, especially before 34 weeks gestation, are not only more likely to be disabled, they are also more likely to: be timid than their peers, struggle with adult relationships, have fewer romantic partners, and experience lower self-esteem (2 & 3).
Social economics paint a similar picture. Dr. Al Condeluci, Ph.D., has done extensive research on social capital and disability. Social capital is the value that is added to our lives because of our relationships. He estimates that while the typical person has about 150 important relationships in their lives, a person impacted by disability may have as few as 25 (4).
Loneliness is not always dependent on whether or not there are people in the room. Loneliness happens when you’re eating lunch and you realize everyone at the table will go home to families and children, but you’ve gone home to an empty house for the last decade, and the chasm between you and them is widening. It happens when you are with your doctor who has spent her career treating people with CP and she looks at you and says, “I don’t really know what it’s like to live with the fatigue you face, I don’t have cerebral palsy.” How can you be so close, but so far away?
Loneliness is an invitation to remember God is with us. God is with you. God understands your unique life and its challenges. God sits next to you at the table when you eat alone, offering satisfying friendship. God stands between you and your friends helping to bridge the gap when life experience doesn’t stretch that far. God comforts you in your pain and gives you rest in your fatigue. God will give you grace to live your life, the life you have, even if it isn’t the life you want.
Loneliness is best eased with love and friendship. Victor Anderson, Ph. D. (2011) writes, “The relational challenges experienced by disabled persons point to a deep need for friendship and companionship. Relational needs are seldom met with an occasional contact...feelings of aloneness that are controlled in one hour may be ferociously unleashed in the next. Yet true friendship serves as a balm repeatedly applied and rubbed deep into the soul,” (p. 236-237; 5).
If you know someone who is impacted by disability, move towards them; It is likely they are lonely. People don’t want to admit it aloud because loneliness is a need that can not be met independently; it cannot be hired out. Offer a hug, invite them to dinner, look them in the eyes and say, “I see you, and I am so glad you’re here.” Small interactions, done repeatedly over time, interrupt the flow of loneliness and help people remember they are not alone in life.
No matter who you are, there are a million reasons why building relationships with people is a challenging task. There is never any sure promise of success, but I can think of about one reason why we should try to move towards each other anyway, in spite of any statistics, scientific studies, or life circumstances. It’s simply this: love changes people.
The last time I was deeply hugged by another human being, I came away realizing I had a greater capacity to love humanity than I realized or was currently employing. I believe if you love someone, they will not only be filled, but also empowered to go and love others. As my friend Steve Wiens says in his new book, Whole (2017), “True restoration for one person leads to restoration for another ” (6).