Dealing with loneliness

Loneliness is one of the most universal human experiences. The contemporary society makes us acutely aware of our own loneliness even in the Western world. We become increasingly aware that we are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry. Pornography seems one of the logical results — intimacy for sale.

One's history of intimate social interaction and one's current social experience both fundamentally affect perceived quality of life, which directly relates to our social relationships and depth of loneliness. In a research study on loneliness, variables of city size or employment status did not relate to level of loneliness. But, satisfaction of living situations and close relationships with spouse or team members did relate. Those whose religious commitment was very personal and intimate had less loneliness.

Often we speak a language that reveals a desire to be close to others, but the real pain of loneliness is felt where we can hardly allow anyone to enter. Loneliness can be described as a fog which arrives out of nowhere to envelop the soul and cause it to feel lost or wayward. If loneliness lasts for a long period of time, it can erode the ability to work well and produces a number of problems, both in relation to personal matters as well as in the area of ministry. Loneliness can often turn to self-pity and paralyze the soul. Missionaries often carry burdens, heartaches and discouragement. Because of a fear of being misunderstood, few persons speak honestly about their inner difficulties. 

In our own culture, the small rejections of everyday — a sarcastic smile, a flippant remark, a brisk denial or silence — may all be quite innocent and hardly worth our attention if they did not constantly arouse our basic human fear of being left totally alone with darkness. Now compound it with another culture and not having confidence of interpreting the actions and non-verbals of persons in another culture.

Mental suffering in our world sometimes comes from the false expectation that we are called to take each other's loneliness away. No friend, no spouse, no community will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. When we burden others with these cravings, we may inhibit the expressions of free friendship and love. True friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other.

We all need a friend, someone who is loyal, who will listen, who will give corrective feedback, who will share freely. This is often a "given" in a marriage relationship. Singles need to know that such help is available for them as well. Singles need someone who is committed to their good who will help them sort through the factors that enter in to any decision. Singles need opportunities to give as well as to receive in friendships.

Henri Nouwen says, "Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first 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. (Movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit)

Receptive solitude — we can develop the sensitivity that helps us listen to our own inner voices. And unless our questions, problems, and concerns are tested and matured in solitude, it is not realistic to expect answers that are really our own. What happens in solitude can then become what we share with others as a gift. Solitude not only deepens our affection for others but also is the place where true community becomes possible. Without the solitude of heart, the intimacy of friendship cannot be creative and our relationships with others become needy and dependent.

Christ knows intimately what loneliness is all about. He knows what it is like to have family members who didn't believe in him. He knew what it was like to be ridiculed when He was doing what He knew to be right. The religious leaders didn't like Him. His disciples let him down when He needed them the most. He also spent 40 days alone in the desert without another human being present. But most of the time he could enjoy times by himself because it was a time of intimacy with His Father. The secret to his life on earth was the consistent intimacy between himself and the Father. That is also true for us as well.

Now that may all be well and good, but loneliness is still a real factor in overseas missions. All of us have a need to belong. To whom do we turn for that need to be met, especially for singles in missions in places where there are difficult factors involved?

Useful strategies:
  • Daily devotions
  • Asking people to pray
  • Find one close friend where you can share confidentially and intimately
  • Call someone on the phone when you're feeling lonely
  • Our needs can be met through meeting others' needs of loneliness
For singles:
  • Ask a married family about having an open door policy
  • Make sure the team is having weekly team meetings
  • Celebrate birthdays
  • When sick, seek help from others
  • Talk about problems in taking holidays with team
  • Talk as a team about appropriate touch — single women have a need for male friendship and appropriate touch!