On Feeling Lonely
Living in Nashville, also known as “Music City,” can create some unique opportunities. For me, one of these opportunities is getting to serve about once a month as backstage chaplain to musicians at the historic Ryman Auditorium.
One evening, I met a successful artist who has several hit songs and travels worldwide, singing to sold-out, adoring crowds. In our conversation, I asked her what it was like being a performer—especially having reached the level of acclaim that she had. While having fortune and fame may seem glamorous from a distance, she admitted that relating to others chiefly through a microphone, screen, or written page could be a painfully isolating experience. Her response, sadly, is all too common among those who carry the privilege and burden of celebrity.
With a pained look on her face, she told me that being a performer had become a source of sorrow for her. The frequency and pressure of life on the road had caused her marriage to crumble. She felt guilty for being away from her daughter as much as she was. She didn’t have many friends because she no longer knew who she could trust. Did people want to be in her life because they loved her for who she was, or did they just want to use her for her money, her name recognition, the access she has to elite social circles, or the doors she could open up for them? Then she said:
In about five minutes I am going to walk out on that stage. Thousands of people’s attention will be fixed on me, and they will sing along with all of my songs. Then, tomorrow night I will do it again, and then again and again. You might think, ‘What a life! She’s living the dream!’ But the truth is, being the person on the stage makes me feel like the loneliest person in the room.
In this vulnerable moment, she was putting into fresh words what God has been saying since the beginning of time: It is not good to be alone. No amount of fans or sold out shows will ever be able to substitute for our need to have friends. It is far better to be known and loved than it is to be followed, tweeted, and applauded. While not a bad thing in itself, this woman’s celebrity had become an inadequate substitute for intimacy and connection. As one song from the Indigo Girls goes, performing—whether from a stage or an athletic field or an executive office or a pulpit—instead of interacting personally, will inevitably lead us to “reap the praise of strangers, and end up on (our) own.”
My backstage friend’s story is the story of us all. Like her, the surface appearance of our lives often presents a more connected, relationally full, emotionally satisfying picture than how things really are. Whether from a stage or behind a pulpit or through a screen, we look a lot more together than what we feel in our hearts. Our performances and profiles betray our reality. We, too, can feel alienated, isolated, and sometimes friendless. The curse that was first pronounced on Eve in the garden—that relationships would be a struggle even under the best conditions—also touches our lives. Isolation can become painfully familiar to us, even at our own dinner tables.
The words of twentieth century novelist Thomas Wolfe resonate…that the central and inevitable fact of human existence is loneliness. Whether we are introverts or extroverts, married or single, standing on the stage or sitting in the cheap seats, preaching sermons or listening to love songs, we all share the struggle to connect.
But why is loneliness a thing?
Why does feeling lonely seem like the norm versus the exception for so many of us? According to the Bible, we experience loneliness not because there is something wrong with us, but because there is something right with us. We experience loneliness because we know, deep down, that we were made for more connection, intimacy, and love than we seem to experience. We sense that this is not how it’s supposed to be. This is true experientially. It is also true theologically.
As the first chapters of Genesis reveal, when God created the universe, he declared it all very good (Genesis 1:1-31). But God still saw something missing with creation—just one thing preventing his perfect world from being complete. “It is not good,” God said, “that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It is striking that God declared this negative assessment in Paradise… before sin entered the world! God’s perfect world still had one missing piece: Adam had no companions.
Being made in the image of God, we humans are likened to our Lord who is both One and Three—the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is one of the great mysteries about God—he is an inseparable, eternal, intimate, and affectionate community. If we, who are made in his image, remain islands unto ourselves, if we keep our relationships on the surface, if we push others away to a safe distance, we will fail to thrive. This is true because we cannot be vitally connected to a God who is One and Three while remaining disconnected relationally from each other. He has made us for community, not for isolation; for interdependence, not independence; for relational warmth and receptivity, not for relational coldness and distance.
The answer God provided for Adam’s loneliness in Paradise was Eve, a come-alongside companion, a “helper corresponding to him”(Genesis 2:18). Scripture reveals high regard and honor for those called “helpers.” In fact, the other main character in Scripture who is given the name “helper” is God as he strengthens, protects and provides for his people. Together, Adam and Eve would share life and serve God’s purposes. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, 2:18). When Eve is presented to Adam for the first time, Adam’s artistic inclinations surface, and history’s first love poem is composed:
This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed (Genesis 2:23-25).
This word from God—that it is not good to be alone—is ultimately less about marriage, per se, and more about companionship. Otherwise, we would be forced to conclude that both the apostle Paul and Jesus were incomplete as human beings. And of course, they weren’t.
Even still, both Paul and Jesus recognized that it was not good for them to be alone. Each became deeply tethered to others, nurturing and enjoying an abundance of friends that included both men and women. Paul took traveling companions with him almost everywhere he went. In every town he visited, he developed deep, lasting friendships. Many of these he would mention by name and with great affection in his New Testament letters. As for Jesus, he had twelve intimate, male companions—the disciples—including his most intimate circle of Peter, James and John…plus several women including sisters Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdalene.
If Paul and Jesus needed friends like this, so do we.
This is true because even in Paradise, and even when you are God, it is not good to be alone.