Just Tell Me What I Need to Know: Loneliness After College
“To be human is to be lonely,” Friar Ugo said to me, his voice cracking with age. For 40 years he served as a Jesuit missionary on the African continent. Now he was sitting across from me, a 30-something campus minister, trying to make sense of God and my deep loneliness.
Despite the gentleness, even fragility, of his appearance, Friar Ugo’s words pierced the space between us like a spiritual searchlight. My heart began to beat in my ears and I pressed my lips together in defiance. Say something else . . . I thought. Anything . . .
That moment, and the conversation that followed, would change my life.
Loneliness is all around us. Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone, describes the fragmentation and isolation of American community before the rise of social media. He says, “Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs.”
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are changing the way we see ourselves and the way we have relationships. Human beings have never been more connected and we’ve never been lonelier.
A quick theological consideration of the problem of loneliness demonstrates its significance. In Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” The weight of this statement is even stronger when we remember the poetry of Genesis 1, which contains the refrain “God saw that it was good” seven times.
The repetition of the phrase alone is striking, but there are two additional amplifiers that we may not be aware of. First is the number of repetitions. In Hebrew the number seven is shevah from the root shaba, which means “to be full.” Seven is the sum of three—a biblical number suggesting glory, weightiness, or perfection—and four—a biblical number suggesting creation. In Isaiah 6, the cherubim sing “holy, holy, holy” to signify God’s perfection in holiness, while the four corners of the earth and the four rivers flowing out of Eden signify the created order. The sum of three and four is thus meant to summon our attention. God saw that it was good seven times. It was perfectly, completely, fully good.
This is affirmed in the second amplifier, what in English is translated “very good.” In biblical Hebrew, doubling the word signifies quality and perfection. So literally, the phrase reads as “good good.” Creation is not just good. The phrase gathers up all the creation that has come before, and in the beholding vision of the creator God, it is good . . . good.
Now consider again the “It is not good for man to be alone” statement in Genesis 2:18. The contrast is like a verbal slap. The action breaks. It’s the first point of tension in the whole narrative of Scripture. For man to be alone is not good.
Anyone who has experienced loneliness knows a primal disorientation. Quiet anxiety gives way to restlessness. We look for distraction. Anger and resentment simmer in successive waves. Isolation is so powerfully disorienting that solitary confinement is classified as a form of torture.
As I sat in that chair across from Friar Ugo I could feel the primordial weight of loneliness pressing in on me. I knew the story of Genesis 2. Not good for man to be alone. So I thought, God fix it! I wanted Friar Ugo to tell me how God was going to take the isolation away. Instead he started talking about something else.
“Have you ever considered,” he asked, “that the loneliness you’re experiencing is an invitation to grow your friendship with God?” I hadn’t.
Friar Ugo went on, “Loneliness is part of the human condition. It is the experience of many around the corner who are living on the street. It is the experience of many around the world, separated from home, family, and land because of war or disease. And—” he paused—“it was often the experience of our Lord himself. You can look to me . . . or to something else . . . even to religion to try to make you feel better. Or,” he said, clearing his throat, “you could see this as the beginning of God’s work of transformation in you.”
And then we sat there . . . in silence.
I pressed my lips together again, but something in his invitation had already stirred inside me. What if loneliness was a doorway to a deeper life with God? What would that mean? How might this idea reshape the experience?
After a short prayer our conversation ended. Friar Ugo didn’t share stories of his isolation in ministry. He didn’t talk, for example, about being forced to leave a country and a context he loved and not being allowed to return despite years of continued effort. He didn’t describe his experience of returning to New York after 40 years on the mission field. He simply prayed, and then I stepped out into the cold NYC morning with lots of questions. What would it look like to respond to God’s invitation in the midst of loneliness? Was this a biblical idea? If so, what might Scripture have to teach about loneliness as a place of transformation?
To my surprise the Old and New testaments are full of examples of women and men who meet God in the midst of loneliness or isolation.
Abraham experienced loneliness in his desire for family: “Oh that Ishmael would live in your sight” (Genesis 17:18).
The stories reveal God’s transforming presence and power in the lives of individuals and communities. They meet God in the midst of loneliness and are changed. Some walk away with a limp. Some walk away with deepened courage.
We can learn a lot by sitting in the ashes with Job or in the wilderness with Hagar. Entering these stories reframes our understanding of loneliness by demonstrating God’s presence and purpose. It enlarges our heart to connect with the isolation of our spiritual forebears and perhaps to connect more deeply with others who face similar loneliness and isolation. Through these stories we are taught to hope in God’s future.
It is not good for us to be alone. And yet, in the hands of God, loneliness can transform. As you experience seasons of loneliness, perhaps God has an invitation for you. Here are some questions to consider.
How has God used loneliness or isolation in my past to shape my character?
Which of the above mentioned stories in Scripture resonate with my experiences?
What work might God be doing in me as I experience loneliness or isolation?