I have never been more alone in my life. I was paddling my SUP down the Whanganui River in New Zealand. Ever since I had pushed off from the bank five days before, I had been totally on my own. The steep wooded valley sides ensured that I had no phone reception for the duration of the journey. To this day it is still one of the happiest experiences of my life. I was alone, yet never once did I feel lonely. Conversely some of my loneliest moments in life have been when I have been surrounded by others – a crowded college, a busy restaurant, a packed music festival. So, what actually is loneliness, and why do we find it so difficult?
We might assume that loneliness is an age-old problem, but it’s not – at least according to the Cultural Historian, Fay Bound Alberti. In her fascinating book, A Biography of Loneliness, she notes that the concept of loneliness, in it’s modern negative sense, didn’t really exist in the English language before 1800. It’s not that people we never alone before that, but their experience of it wasn’t perceived negatively in the way that it is now.
Indeed, according to numerous surveys, the experience of loneliness appears to be increasing. And it’s not just a problem for the elderly who are living alone. In fact, the loneliest demographic in the UK today is students aged 18-24. Those who you might expect to be most connected also seem to be most alone. This loneliness has massive consequences both psychologically and physically.
The journalist, Sebastian Junger, notes something very disturbing about the experiences of American military personal returning from war zones. Their experiences of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are greater than those from any of other nation. Junger came to realise that the problem was not so much with what happened when they went away – there is no reason to think that those in the American military should have necessarily had more traumatic experiences than those from other countries. The problem lay with what happened when they came home. Fighting in a war they had a sense of purpose and camaraderie. Yet returning to one of the most individualistic countries in the world they lacked both direction and, most crucially, a sense of belonging.
Loneliness also has implications for our physical health. The biggest factor in determining someone’s life expectancy is not the amount of exercise they do or how much they might smoke or drink. The most reliable indicator of life expectancy is the quality of a person’s relationships.
So, what is making us so lonely? It would be easy to lay all the blame on the internet, and it is certainly not without its problems. Watching an endless feed of carefully curated highlights from other people’s social lives can certainly compound our feelings of loneliness. However, the modern problem of loneliness predates the invention of the internet.
Fay Bound Alberti suggests two reasons for our modern experience of loneliness:
Firstly, Darwin’s theory of evolution profoundly changed the way we view other people. In a world where only the fittest survive, it is all too easy to go from stop seeing other people as community and instead to view them as competition. We can’t all succeed, so our success depends upon someone else’s failure.
The other reason, she cites, is the decline of religious belief in the West. She explains that up until 1800 it was more common to describe the state of being on one’s own as ‘solitude’. However, whereas loneliness almost always has negative connotations, solitude was seen as a positive thing. The difference is that while solitude means being cut off (for a time) from human connections, this was normally done with the intention of developing one’s connection with God.
Could it be that the problem of living life without any thought with God (as so many living in the West do) is that when we are alone, we really are alone with no one else to turn to? And perhaps it also means that we end up seeking from others the kind of love, belonging and intimacy that we were meant to get from God himself? Perhaps our disappointment in others is at least partly because we are asking too much of them. What if we were designed to connect on the deepest level with the creator of the universe? No friend, neighbour, colleague, lover or even spouse will be able to fill that void.
If it is the case that we were created to connect, not just with each other, but also with God himself, how might we rediscover that connection? How could it become a personal experience and not just an abstract concept?
In her moving novel, Beautiful World, where are You? Sally Rooney’s four main characters provide a profound reflection on the challenges of living in contemporary society. All of them are seeking connection and belonging in world that as left them feeling both alone and adrift. One of the characters, Alice, despite her suspicion of institutional religion and her fear of seeming weird to her friend, acknowledges that she finds herself being drawn to consider afresh the person of Jesus – not just a character from literature or even just a historical figure, but as someone that she could actually love in a meaningful sense.
As I consider the accounts of Jesus life, I’m struck by the fact that he although he is often alone (a deliberate decision to enable him to experience solitude with his heavenly Father) there is only one occasion when he seems to experience what we might call ‘loneliness’. During his crucifixion Jesus is abandoned – not just by his friends and followers, but seemingly by God himself. The Christian contention is that Jesus, who knew the deepest connection with God, somehow gave up that connection so that we might gain it. Through Jesus’ disconnection we can find reconnection with God himself.
The French Mathematician Blaise Pascal believed that ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ He himself had come to experience this profound connection with God that enabled him to see time alone not negatively as a loneliness, but positively as a solitude – a time to connect with God. Not that this should become our permanent state like it did for the 5th Century Syrian ascetic, Simeon Stylites, who spent 37 years living on top of a pillar in an effort to live in total solitude! Being reconnected to God also helps us to connect with others. Becoming a Christian means becoming part of the church – not an old building where we get bored but a real family where we find real belonging.