Perspective

What can the generous do when everyone is lonely?

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted many people’s lives, especially our relationships, leaving us more lonely than ever. Just how much does loneliness impact us, and how can we heal ourselves and help others to heal as well?

Prior to the outset of the pandemic, Barna conducted a study with the Boone Center for the Family where I work. We found that about 30 percent of US adults, and slightly fewer practicing Christians, were experiencing loneliness. Since COVID-19, another study shows that upward of 50 percent of US adults are lonely. Loneliness is a pandemic of its own kind. 

Anatomy of loneliness

Before getting to the good stuff, learning how to take action against loneliness, let’s consider the anatomy of loneliness. Christians understand that the triune God is a relational God. He enjoys relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Thus, as humans created in God’s image, we are relational creatures at our core. When our need for relationships goes unmet, we feel it. The feeling of loneliness is like a light on your car dashboard, meant to get your attention to fix something that is malfunctioning. The feeling of loneliness is designed to motivate you to take action to meet your relational needs. 

The feeling of loneliness is designed to motivate you to take action to meet your relational needs.

5 positive ways to respond to loneliness

1. Assess the location of loneliness
Loneliness can occur in relationships with God, self, or other people. Relationships with God and others tend to be self-explanatory. On the other hand, you may not readily think about your relationship with yourself. How do you relate to you? Do you spend time discerning your thoughts, feelings, and values and responding to them by offering empathy, validation, and other types of care? Doing things by yourself that you enjoy is another way of cultivating a healthy relationship with self. 

Social distancing practices have made meeting relational needs more difficult. Keep reading. We’ll give you some ways to help with loneliness in yourself and others.  Use the inventory found at the end of this article to reflect on the quality of your connection with God, self, and others and identify where your loneliness resides most. Step #3 will give you specific ideas to address where your loneliness is found.

2. Accept loneliness
It may sound strange, but loneliness has to be accepted. Here’s why: Because we live in a fallen world, things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. Sin creates disconnection with God, self, and others. Loneliness is not an indicator that something is wrong with you in particular. Loneliness is a part of the fallen human condition. We accept loneliness when we allow ourselves to feel loneliness without attempting to escape or immediately eradicate the feeling.

It may sound strange, but loneliness has to be accepted. Here’s why: We live in a fallen world … and sin creates disconnection with God, self, and others.

3. Address loneliness with others, God, and self
If you’ve identified a source of loneliness, reach out  – whether in relationship with God, yourself, or others. If you’re lonely in relationships with others, you may reach out to initiate a regularly scheduled video call, phone call, or social distance walk. Given that many of our structures for connecting with others have changed amidst the pandemic, creating new structures to facilitate regular interactions with others can help. Who could you reach out to with a phone call and offer time together, even if not close up?

If your loneliness is found in relationship with yourself, consider spending intentional time in reflection, journaling, listening to music, making art, allowing your mind to wander, or caring for your physical body by going for a jog or walk. Recently, I started listening to music that I enjoyed during college as a way to stimulate reflection and connection with self. Another idea is to look through old photos. Is there someone who you could encourage to do the same self-healthy practice? Often pastors and other leaders are prone to loneliness given their focus on caring for others.

If you’re lonely in relationship with God, give yourself the freedom to pray from where you are. Acknowledge to God that you feel lonely, that you miss hearing from him. This type of authenticity forges real connection that helps to diminish loneliness. He is the source of all comfort. Sing hymns and meditate on their truths. Read or re-reading a Christian book you love. Return to spiritual practices of solitude, gratitude, or lament. Also, consider who might benefit from your encouragement to focus on strengthening their relationship with God.

4. Don’t aggravate loneliness – the pain cycle
Sometimes, when we’re lonely, we can unintentionally do things that aggravate or exacerbate our loneliness. You might notice that loneliness can trigger painful feelings about yourself. When you’re feeling lonely, try asking yourself, how am I feeling about me? You may recognize that you are feeling unloved, insignificant, unworthy, out of control, or a different painful feeling. 

People may respond to such painful feelings in negative ways: blame, shame, control, or escape. Unfortunately, these behaviors often wind-up creating greater disconnection with others. We call this pattern a pain cycle. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you here. The next step will tell you how to get out of that pain cycle.

5. Another word on addressing loneliness – the peace cycle
To exit the pain cycle, we can respond to our painful feelings about self with truth. If you feel out of control, you can remind yourself that God is in control and that you have some control too. Or, if you’re feeling unloved, you can remind yourself that you are loved by God, your family, and friends. You get the idea.

Once you’ve responded with truth to your feelings, it’s time to live out of that truth. Living out the truth may look like nurturing others (instead of blame), valuing self (instead of shame), practicing balanced give and take (instead of control), or staying reliably connected (instead of escape). Responding to painful feelings with truth and living out of that truth creates a peace cycle … and often works to draw people toward you, creating relational connections and decreasing loneliness! 

As a part of how we reflect God’s image, we’re all relational creatures who experience loneliness at times. The relational disruption we’ve experienced from COVID-19 makes it extra important to be generous toward ourselves and others in support of meeting our relational needs!

Loneliness inventory

Having a hard time knowing whether loneliness is an issue for you or where it’s coming from? Sometimes seeing it on paper can help. Try scoring the quality of your relational connections on a scale of 1 to 10 for each of these questions. And consider sharing this inventory with a friend who may be struggling with loneliness.

How is my relationship with God?
How is my relationship with myself ?
How is my relationship with my spouse?
How is my relationship with my children?
How is my relationship with my family?
How is my relationship with my close friends?
How is my relationship with my colleagues?
How is my relationship with my church community?

For more information about how the Pain and Peace Cycles can address conflict and other painful feelings, in addition to loneliness, or to help those you lead with these emotions, download our free e-book for ministry leaders.

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