I recently saw a graph charting the amount of time throughout the decades that people have spent alone, one-on-one, and in groups. The “alone” line has increased dramatically in the last few years. What happened to make this one of the loneliest seasons in history?
If I look at my own life, I can see some dramatic changes that correlate. If you can believe it, when I started college, my cell phone was basically just for texting and making calls. I was okay with letting my thoughts wander while I quietly ate my lunch in the student union. I was okay with striking up a conversation with another undistracted stranger.
Now I often find myself hunched over my phone in line at the grocery store or sitting in my car checking TikTok for some fresh hits of dopamine before I set out on my way. It’s like I’d rather have something take up the space in my mind than be alone with the quiet of my own thoughts anymore. It’s not necessarily intrusive thoughts that I’m avoiding; it’s the feeling of loneliness. I actively distract myself from the possibility of feeling lonely.
On its own, college is one of the most stimulating and engaging experiences life has to offer. New people, new opportunities, new distractions, new responsibilities. We don’t even need phones to feel pulled in so many directions, exciting or otherwise. There are so many choices to make about where we spend our time and attention. It can be overwhelming and cause us to shut down or return to our phones for more doom scrolling.
I believe most people go into college expecting that on top of graduating with an amazing job offer in hand, they’ll also make lifelong friends and even find love. These are reasonable and normal hopes. It’s uncommon to find a successful scholar who doesn’t also desire a fulfilling social life. For some, all those things happen without fail. Most people, though, go through seasons of longing and loneliness.
I’m more than a decade out of college myself, and I still haven’t “found love.” I’ve been through many seasons of loneliness since graduation, some harder than others. I’d love to be married by now, but instead I’ve been given the opportunity to learn how to develop good community and how to draw closer to God in times of solitude without a partner by my side. (I even wrote a whole book about it!)
No matter our relationship status, we were made to be in community. But we were also made for solitude. We need to learn to strike just the right balance because we weren’t made for loneliness. Look at Jesus’ time in ministry: for the most part, he’s surrounded. But the authors of the Gospels make sure to let us know that he got away when he could (e.g., Mt 14, Mk 6, Lk 4-6).
So how do we overcome the inevitable and increasing loneliness in our lives?
Take It All In
Start by facing the reason for your loneliness and its impact. It’s okay that you feel this way! There’s probably good reason for it. God can use your loneliness to teach you many things, if you make the space for it.
Try turning your phone on Do Not Disturb or airplane mode. Put it in a different room. Find a comfortable place and let yourself feel all the emotions that loneliness brings up in you. Explore with God the reasons why you feel the way you do. Maybe it’s your mindset; maybe it’s a lack of community. Ask him for the things you’re lacking. When you come to some clarity about your loneliness, there are usually two simple options. Step deeper into community and deeper into solitude. These things can happen in tandem with one another.
Take Relational Risks
There should be whole courses on how to make friends and keep them, don’t you think? We don’t foster the skills of friendship enough within Christian community either. Our greatest command is to love God and our neighbor, but it’s tricky.
Even as an extrovert, I struggle to take relational risks. It feels so costly! We worry about rejection and feeling super awkward. When it comes to initiating with someone who lives across the hall from you or asking a classmate to get lunch after a lecture, the pros usually outweigh the cons. Chances are that the people you might like to be friends with also want new friends too. If it’s extra hard for you to initiate, try putting yourself in a position where you don’t have to! Join a club or an intramural sports team. Go places where you know you might find like-minded people. Start there.
Also, go to therapy. There’s a lot of unpacking we all need to do when it comes to our relational hang-ups and traumas. These can get in the way of us being open to new community. Sometimes it feels easier to be lonely than to wade through the pains of healing our relational wounds. But take advantage of the wisdom and help of professionals.
Take Intentional Alone Times
Loneliness and being alone are so different. We’re supposed to be alone regularly. How else can we develop a sense of self and sort through our own desires, opinions, hopes, dreams, and even personal callings? When I refer to being alone, I mean alone with Creator God. Remember, Creator made you and loves you as is, even if you’re unformed or unproductive (Ps 139). What grace!
Once we learn to be alone — the holy place where we are wholly loved and wholly known in God’s presence — we unlearn the loneliness. When we make solitude a regular rhythm in our lives with God, lonely seasons are less frequent.
So which is it for you? Do you need to sort out your loneliness and embrace it to learn more? Or do you need to lean into community and solitude?
Bridget Gee is a first-time author of the newly released book, “Single, Just Because” (InterVarsity Press). She lives in Arizona but serves as the Spiritual Formation Coordinator of InterVarsity’s Study Abroad Team, which means she leads pilgrimages in Europe for students, staff, and partners.
"In this winsome and confessional book, Bridget Gee challenges the ways Christians conflate singleness with waiting. Instead, she invites you into a pilgrimage where you discover love, silliness, fullness, delight, connection, and even loss and loneliness as a context for life with God. This story leads to a deeper and more human vision of discipleship," says InterVarsity alumni director Jason Gaboury.
But the phenomenon of highway hypnosis reveals that there are many, many ways in which you are not the boss. You are so not the boss of you, in fact, that your conscious mind can take a full daydream holiday while you’re driving and some other part of you will manage that unbelievably complex task quite well.