In grade school, I was a troublemaker.
When our math teacher warned that the next person who spoke would be kicked out of the test, I was compelled to ask if he meant ‘now’.
During French class, sounding like a crazed Julia Child, I asked loudly and repeatedly, “Ou est le salle de bain?” Although surely I knew the bathroom was across the hall.
I excelled at making my classmates laugh. Which might lead you to believe that I was beloved by all.
Nothing was further from the truth. I was so lonely that I joined the swim team so I could earn the right to sit at the popular kids table during lunch.
Although I became a state swimming champion and received an athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan, I never made it to the popular table.
Even now, so many years later, people often confuse my ready smile with ease and extroversion. But my closest friends recognize when I’ve retreated into my house for too long and need to be called back into the world.
Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. (Psalm 25:16)
Loneliness is insidious and invisible to the casual observer.
I take it for granted in my own life, but recently I was surprised to find it surface in friends who I assumed were surrounded and nourished by loved ones.
But that’s the mask of loneliness.
It hides behind busy-ness. Your lovely friend who volunteers for every committee, the one who is known as a people-connector, or the quiet one who smiles and nods as we sit around a table talking not noticing her silence.
Being lonely has nothing to do with being alone.
It is all too often that after an evening spent with friends, I come home and realize that the blue dog of loneliness has slipped into the house behind me and is now curled at my feet as I turn on the TV and pick up my knitting.
Or at the end of a meal, just as companionable conversation begins to approach real intimacy, we glance at our watches, pay the check, and reach for our coats.
We don’t do it on purpose. We don’t notice the nudge of need, except for that closing of our throats as we try to tell someone how we’re doing.
But we stop ourselves, embarrassed at the burden of our vulnerability.
We are in the company of friends so how could we feel lonely?
But recall, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus went up the mountain to pray. He knew what he faced and so he asked his disciples, his closest friends, to wait with him, to keep him company on his last night on Earth, on the last night before he would suffer unspeakable pain and degradation.
He was only gone an hour, not more, just a short time to pray and ask his father if this cup of suffering could be taken away. He knew the answer, of course it could not.
He returned to his friends and found them asleep.
Alone and heartbroken. Jesus understood he would face the darkness alone.
(And therefore you must share your loneliness with Jesus. He understands your desolation and despair. His heart will hold your pain and replace it with love.)
Companionship is when we share a meal, a walk through snowy woods, a movie.
Intimacy is manna from heaven created for souls to find in each other and in our relationship with God.
Which loneliness seeks to devour. It isolates us and tells the lie that we are no longer loved or needed. That the one who died or left us was the only one who could save us. It builds walls around us so that all we hear is the echo of our emptiness.
But loneliness is a paper tiger. Easily, effortlessly destroyed with time and attention.
The most effective weapons against loneliness are unremarkable.
Looking someone in the eye when they speak to us.
Listening without interruption, without hurrying to make a comparison.
Giving the gift of undivided attention. Asking how they are doing and waiting for more, after they tell us they are fine.
It’s not easy to open our heart to the loneliness of another person because we might unearth our own.
We want to skate across the surface of our relationships. And most of the time that is all we need.
But we should open our heart to seeing a friend or acquaintance who may on occasion, if only for an hour, need the soul-linking of real conversation. To know they are seen and heard, and no longer invisible.
Time and attention are the blade of our most fearsome weapon. Love.
And when we are the one who is lonely, we must gather our courage and reach out. Find our most trusted friend and say, “I am lonely, can we talk?”
And know that it is okay, because. We are all lonely. We are all afraid of the dark. We are all souls longing for connection.