The story is told about Dorothy Parker, poet and theater critic, who occupied a small, dingy cubbyhole of an office in the Metropolitan Opera House building in New York City. At that time she had few friends and no visitors. As a result, she became lonely and depressed. When the sign writer came to paint her name on the office door, she persuaded him to write instead the word Gentlemen.
At one time or another, everyone experiences loneliness.
This is not only true of singles and the recently divorced, but married couples as well. Even writers of Scripture experienced severe periods of loneliness. "Look on my right hand and see—there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me" (Ps. 142:4). And Jesus himself experienced abandonment, "All of them deserted him and fled" (Mk. 14:50).
Although loneliness is a part of being human, the pain of loneliness does not need to be a permanent desolate prison of isolation.
Here are strategies to combat loneliness and develop a fuller, richer life.
The first step out of loneliness begins by prayerfully conducting an examination of conscience. Many individuals have been disappointed and hurt early in life by people important to them. As a result, they have an established pattern of operating like the Lone Ranger. Due to past hurts, they protectively remain distant and detached from people who want to be their friends. Consistently, they sabotage any possibility of friendship. Set aside some time to meditate, reflect, and pray about your loneliness. During that time, here are some key questions to ask:
- Am I convinced I do not need other people?
- Do I have difficulty risking myself and trusting others?
- Am I unwilling to expend the energy it takes for developing and maintaining a relationship?
- Am I too busy to cultivate friendships?
- Am I devoting all my time to just one other person?
- Do I operate on the false assumption that being adult means being alone?
- Do I have unrealistic expectations about a relationship?
If you come up with a "yes" to most or all of these questions, you are probably creating barriers to intimacy.
Make a commitment to change. Ask for God's help. Then begin taking small steps for opening yourself up and connecting with people.
Studies show there is a close connection between loneliness and the absence of self-disclosure. People who do not share themselves or talk about their inner feelings are more lonely than those who do. An effective way to decrease loneliness is to increase self-disclosure. However, in order not to be hurt by the sharing of inner feelings, it is wise to follow some basic rules says Dan Kiley, psychologist from Tucson, Arizona, author of Living Together: Feeling Alone.
Dr. Kiley offers these suggestions for increasing self-disclosure:
- Ask your soul if the person in question is trustworthy. Your soul may not give you a clear answer, but you'll get a hint. Follow it.
- Use remote feelings first … talk about your feelings from a year or two ago rather than yesterday. Then, talk about yesterday's feelings before sharing today's.
- A few hours after the sharing, ask yourself how you feel about disclosing the information. If you feel good, share more feelings; if not, back away.
- [To determine if the self-disclosure is helpful or harmful] pay close attention to the other person's reaction. If he or she is supportive, that's a good sign. If he or she is critical or judgmental, that's a bad sign.
People struggling with loneliness should look critically at their home surroundings.
Do they bring feelings of serenity, peace, and joy? Is it a good, comfortable, soothing place to be? "For so many people, the home they live in is a reflection of the emptiness they feel inside," observes therapist Susan Jeffers, author of Dare to Connect: Reaching Out in Romance, Friendship, and the Workplace. One man, divorced four years, lives surrounded by boxes from the move out of his marital home. His loneliness and depression are deepened by coming home to reminders of endings rather than new beginnings.
"Others live in homes that are far beneath the standard of what they want to enjoy," says Dr. Jeffers. "They claim to be waiting for someone to come along—and then they'll fix up the place or move somewhere better. What a waste! They could be surrounding themselves with symbols of self-love right now! Why wait? Create a home that you look forward to coming home to. It doesn't require a lot of money to do that. It requires creativity and self-respect."
The prophets and Jesus along with today's poets, writers, artists, and mystics have always done their most creative work in solitude. An effective way to value time alone is to view it positively.
Try to understand that solitude can be a great time of personal healing and creativity.
"In my experience, real healing has always necessitated that I take time to be alone with myself to do nothing, to look at the scenery, to read, to daydream, to watch television, and particularly to rest," says author and therapist Judy Tatelbaum.
In her book You Don't Have to Suffer: A Handbook for Moving Beyond Life's Crises, she advises:
"How much time alone each of us spends may vary. I take time by myself every day, and I notice that my spirituality and creativity emerge during or after the time I spend alone."
A cycle of isolation can be effectively broken by making the first move. Rather than waiting for an invitation to dinner, invite someone to have dinner with you in your home. Rather than waiting for an invitation to a party, why not throw the party yourself? This is, in fact, a biblical way to live ... We are consistently called to serve others: "We want you to be generous also in this service of love," writes Paul (2 Cor. 8:7 TEV). And the author of Hebrews advises: "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God" (Heb. 13:16).
"Notice the control this puts in your hands …” says Dr. Jeffers. "Extend the hand of friendship to many people so that if a few disappoint you, there are always others. There is a wonderful old adage: 'Have at least eight friends. If you need something, seven of them will be busy!'"
One of the most effective antidotes to loneliness is in helping others.
The Bible says there is healing through helping: "Those who are kind reward themselves" (Prov. 11: 17). Try volunteering your time at a shelter, soup kitchen, hospice, or other social service agency. You will not only take the focus off yourself but you will see others battling greater issues than yours. Volunteering can also lead to important friendships with people who share a similar concern.
"Every Friday for 90 minutes at lunch I become the Beverage Lady at a local soup kitchen," says Amy L. Flowers, a psychologist from Macon, Georgia. "I serve coffee, tea, and juice to people whose problems are much bigger than mine—poverty, homelessness, paralyzing disabilities. Having direct contact with folks with real problems is a big stress-reliever. Volunteering also feels wonderful. … I return to my own life feeling refreshed and uplifted. I've been the Beverage Lady for 2 1/2 years now, and I don't think I'll ever stop."
In the end, perhaps the best advice for reducing loneliness is that offered by Ralph Waldo Emerson who stated simply, "The only way to have a friend is to be one."
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.