What Community Can — and Can’t — Do for Loneliness
There’s an adage I sometimes see in the health and wellness community that, loosely paraphrased, goes something like: “If you put the effects of quality sleep into a pill, you could sell it for $600 a bottle.” As our culture begins to publicly wrestle with pervasive and persistent feelings of loneliness, people have begun to talk about community in the same way.
Being a part of a caring and enjoyable community truly does make a difference in our holistic health: emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally, and more. And when it comes to loneliness specifically, community is certainly the first and most important piece of addressing that need.
But in our culture’s ongoing conversation about loneliness, I’ve observed that community sometimes takes on a silver bullet quality, as if simply belonging to a community could be the sole and comprehensive answer to the problem of human loneliness. Even a short reflection on the history of human experience shows us how untrue this is.
Loneliness is a remarkably durable, stubbornly persistent feature of life, no matter what kind of community we do or don’t have. In this isolated and anxious age, we need to have properly calibrated expectations for what community can — and can’t — do for loneliness.
What Community Can Do
Satisfy: Connection, relationship, and belonging are fundamental human longings. We experience acute loneliness when those core needs go unmet for any length of time – and it often doesn’t take long for us to feel it. Community is God’s way of providing for those needs.
Strengthen: As we spend time rooted in healthy community, letting down our guard and releasing our fears of rejection, our experience of belonging and connection becomes more substantial. We internalize the implied messages of the community: You belong here. You are cared for and seen. You are valuable, loved, accepted.
Over time, those truths become easier for us to believe and trust. They strengthen us against loneliness, becoming like brick inside of our hearts and steel beams in the scaffolding of our minds.
Show: Community can also show us the rhythms and patterns of living that can ward off loneliness. Strong, healthy communities provide examples of relationships characterized by honesty, generosity, and vulnerability. They embody the habits of practical, emotional, spiritual relationships that help us feel that we are truly not alone but rather are seen, known, and loved.
Likewise, if we’ll allow it, community will also turn a mirror back on us. It can reveal to us the places where our own relational habits — the particular social patterns, interpersonal instincts, and self-defense mechanisms we’ve built over the years — actually still keep us lonely, even in an otherwise healthy community.
What Community Can’t Do
Solve: Community can satisfy our healthy appetite for connection and need for belonging. But “satisfy” isn’t the same thing as “solve.” Even when we’re rooted in community and connected in deep, mutually vulnerable relationships, we’ll still sometimes feel lonely.
Loneliness isn’t part of an elaborate math equation where you can just plug in the proper variables and then perfectly solve. It’s more like a hunger, one whose appetite can never be fully satisfied by even the richest, healthiest set of friendships. If we expect community to solve, rather than simply satisfy, our loneliness, we’ll ultimately be disappointed.
Shield: Community can take the edge off our loneliness, making it bearable and less painful. But just as community cannot solve loneliness, it also cannot shield us entirely from what loneliness feels like when it comes to us. Put more simply, not only will we still get lonely in community, we will also still feel it. No community is omnipotent enough to reach into our personal experience of loneliness and anesthetize what it feels like.
This illusion shatters when any idealized community is revealed to have limits to its powers because it’s populated by average, normal people with average, normal capacities. And when it does, the age-old questions of loneliness always crack open again, and we’re thrown back, not gently, into our own heads and the seeming impenetrability of its walls: I thought these were my people, that I belonged here, that I would be safe here and always known and never be hurt! If they can’t understand and see me perfectly, does that mean part of me will always be invisible and misunderstood forever?
Healthy communities strengthen us so that these messages and feelings can be withstood, and their power lessened. But they can never fully shield us from them.
Substitute: One tension of community is that while God has ordained it to satisfy our need for connection, it also cannot substitute for our connection to God himself. No matter how strong our community is, no matter how rich it is in devotion or strong in mission, the spiritual life of the community isn’t the same as our own spiritual life. The communal and the personal greatly overlap, to be sure, but they aren’t identical.
Just as God has ordained community to ease loneliness in some ways, he has also ordained some experiences of loneliness to be comforted only in himself. Discerning which needs belong to our community and which belongs to the Lord can be difficult, but it’s a vital spiritual skill to develop. Many cases of anger or disappointment with our communities come from asking them to do what only God can do, and vice versa.
Community is a gift. By God’s grace, it will make our lives immeasurably richer and healthier. But it will never make them perfect. And knowing that makes all the difference for our loneliness.
"To be human is to be lonely," writes InterVarsity staff leader Jason Gaboury, repeating the words from his spiritual director that set him on a surprising journey with God. This book is a gift to all of us in this time of extreme disruption, prolonged uncertainty, and, yes, intensified loneliness.