Loneliness is rampant on the college campus today. iGens are known for their digital connectivity, but relational connections are deeply lacking. As InterVarsity campus ministers, we get to see how things have changed as millennials have all graduated, and outreach on campus has evolved. Campus is quieter. Making friends can be harder. But our need for community hasn’t changed. We are still hardwired for love and friendship. But it’s possible that our fear of relational risk and intimacy has increased in the past decade.
We are lonelier than ever and yet still deathly afraid of being truly alone.
I’m about to take my long-awaited sabbatical, a season where I get to rest and be restored in the Lord so that I can come back more prepared to do this amazing work with InterVarsity! I would be remiss not to admit that I am a bit nervous to have such an open schedule and all that opportunity to be alone with God. Since I’m used to being inundated with media and distraction, I’m afraid of the “lonely place,” the quiet space that I’ve been avoiding. I think we’re all afraid. Afraid to go there, to the “lonely place.” But we are also afraid to go to the “not lonely place.” So where are we stuck? On our phones!
But we are not called to live life alone or in fear. So how do we get ourselves unstuck? Here’s some advice on how to deal with loneliness (both short-term and long-term):
Take a break from media—both social and entertainment. I am a firm believer that social media and media binging are huge contributors to the widespread anxiety, depression, and loneliness in this generation of students on campus. Often we fool ourselves into thinking that we are not lonely because all our friends and entertainment are at our fingertips. Giving yourself the chance to really feel your loneliness can be a great motivator to get out and engage with the world in a more natural and relational way.
Commit to regular periods of unplugged time. Every spring break, my students rave about the quality time they had at Campus by the Sea because they didn’t have cell service. A lot more laughter, play, eye contact, and time for deep interaction happened. Keep this in mind when you are spending time with your friends; don’t let your phone distract you. And create boundaries with your friends that neither of you will look at your phones when you’re together.
2. Show Up
Something that happens a lot these days is that people bail last minute on events they committed to. We just have so many options it’s overwhelming! When you’ve committed to an event—or even to help put it on—but the week happens to be difficult and full of other hurdles, it’s so easy to go back on your commitment.
I’m guilty of it too, but we are doing others and ourselves a disservice when we make a habit of not being people of our word. We need community. We need each other. We rob ourselves of the possibility of finding rest and life in the presence of friends. So, when you say yes, do the work of making sure it can be a true yes. Take care of yourself, get your homework done, and make healthy choices, so you can show up in community.
3. Be Vulnerable
A part of showing up in community is showing up ready to engage well—whether or not you’re in a good place. Real life isn’t Instagram. We won’t get away with just showing our “best” selves in person. It ultimately won’t lead to genuine connections. We need to experience the love and grace of true friends who receive us even when we’re not at our best.
The call to be vulnerable is absolutely an invitation to risk. Ask your friends for advice. Ask them for what you need. Do you need them to include you more? Or send you a check-in text every so often? Let your friends know that you feel lonely. Chances are, they will want to do something to help.
4. Practice Holy Aloneness
The most important way to combat loneliness is to practice what I like to call “Holy Aloneness” with God. You came into the world alone; so for a time, only God knew you were being “knit together in your mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13). There in that sacred place, he loved you and wanted you, even though you were a formless blob, offering nothing of value to him. How crazy is that? And someday, you will leave this life on earth alone. No one can go with you. But God will be there too. He is the author of your life and breath. Because of this, we owe it to ourselves to regularly enter that sacred space alone with God so that we can experience his unconditional love.
It’s only when we are grounded in our identity as his children that we can begin to believe that we are never truly abandoned. In Psalm 25:16–17, David cries out to God in his loneliness, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish.”
You can trust God with all your cares. Connecting with him daily should be nonnegotiable because he will give us the strength to unplug from our distractions, show up in community and engage vulnerably, and even be on mission to invite others into kingdom community, despite our fears.
If checking in on social media, watching your favorite TV show, or crushing candy is a daily occurrence, then spending 15 minutes alone with the God who made you should be a no-brainer.