Loneliness forced me to pay attention to my emotions this year.
As a kid, loneliness was one of my most faithful companions. My friends or I moved away every 2-3 years. But I hadn’t been lonely in a while.
Earlier this year, academics and my on-campus job were hard work. They also made it more work to see friends. Extroversion can be high maintenance, man. I was doing all the time just trying to be myself. I cried often. My logical default mode didn’t know what to do with all this emotion. I was horrified to be so fragile, scared to be out of control.
After graduation, I got a job back home. I’m grateful to live with my family, but I rarely see my coworkers, and it’s been hard to mostly start over with friends. When I was invited to join a group for pizza and acoustic guitar, gratitude spurted out of my eyes.
Reading the book Feel encouraged me to ask: What do my emotions tell me I’ve been focusing on?
At a friend’s house recently, I mentioned that I was lonely. I wanted to process with someone. But I’d been storing up so much that soon I was listing all the reasons it’s difficult to make friends. I could feel myself nearing that breaking point. When she tried to offer solutions, I dismissed them. The required lifestyle changes would be too great.
Then I realized: I was reciting reasons for self-pity. Instead of enjoying each moment with my friend, I guilt-tripped her for not spending more time with me. I might even suspect her kindness was just the result of my manipulation, and refuse to keep what I’d stolen.
People can relate to loneliness. But when it becomes self-pity, it isolates and overwhelms. Self-pity is love’s counterfeit. It gives you the attention you crave by focusing on you. But it’s jealous. It prevents you from seeing others’ needs, from loving and being loved. Self-pity casts your pain as affirmation, and makes you cherish it. It’s like drinking alcohol to get rid of a hangover.
Friendship or dating can feel like the answer to loneliness too. But you end up grabbing onto other needy people, and leeching off each other. So if you can’t trust your scarce friends or yourself, then what?
Jesus faced this problem. He was surrounded by needy crowds who mooched off his power and followers who didn’t “get it” most of the time. One friend betrayed him, one denied him, and the rest deserted him. Dying of torture, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
But even on the cross, Jesus didn’t succumb to self-pity. He gave instructions for his mother to be cared for, he assured the criminal beside him of a heavenly destiny, he asked for sour wine to fulfill a prophecy. His feelings were right and loving.
He focused on only his Father’s affirmation. I discovered Jesus’ Father speaks only twice in the gospels. Once right before Jesus starts his ministry, and again right before Jesus culminates it in crucifixion. If it were me, I’d want instructions for how to control crowds and preach effectively. Maybe tips on what to say on trial or how to block out pain.
The Father says this: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
It’s not that the Father isn’t giving him guidance about what he’ll do. In fact, these words echo other stories:
- In Psalm 1, the LORD promises King David that he will make the nations his inheritance, saying “you are my son.”
- When telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the LORD says, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love… and sacrifice him… on a mountain I will show you.”
- In Isaiah, the LORD says, “Here is my servant… my chosen one in whom I delight… [he will be] a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison.”
Embedded in the Father’s statement of love were references to Jesus’ destiny: “I will sacrifice you, my only son. You will inherit the nations, giving them sight and freedom.”
But the Father didn’t actually say any of that. Out of those stories, he chose to speak only these words: “This is my Son, whom I love; in him I am well pleased.”
My pastor likes to say, “When you know who you are, you will know what to do.” My father recently left a Post-It near my bed. Usually I use Post-Its to remind me what to do. He repurposed this one to remind me who I am. That’s what Jesus’ Father told him too. From your being comes your doing.
Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry. That’s what Henri Nouwen called it in his article of the same title. He too knew about loneliness. He was a priest who longed for intimacy and, it seems, privately questioned his sexuality. All this as an Ivy League professor and then an assistant for people with mental disabilities.
Nouwen says when we run around begging for affirmation, we’re not free. I realize I am fragile because I depend on people to affirm me. I preserve sweet birthday cards to chew over when I’m down. But I can’t serve others – or even be a good friend – if I’m looking for them to serve my own emotional needs.
Instead, the secret is to listen to the same voice Jesus did. “To pray is to listen to the One who calls you ‘my beloved daughter,’ ‘my beloved son,’ ‘my beloved child.’ To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being, to your guts, and let that voice resound in your whole being.”
We have to forgive each other for not being able to love unconditionally, Nouwen says: “If you can forgive that another person cannot give you what only God can give, then you can celebrate that person’s gift. Then you can see the love that person is giving you as a reflection of God’s great unconditional love.”
Jesus came to literally free prisoners, heal blind people, and forgive us. But he also came to heal us from self-pity so we can forgive others. He came to free us with the knowledge of our belovedness, so we too will notice God’s love for others.
Maybe instead of trying to make friendship harder, God’s been trying to make solitude more convenient. To silence all the other voices so I listen to this one: