Are you feeling lonely right now? As we go down this road of sheltering in place, it would be unusual if we weren’t feeling isolated.Even in my retired state, I’m used to being around people at church and the gym. I find I’m missing the little conversations with store clerks and restaurant workers.
I don’t usually like to admit to being lonely, but right now I’m feeling cut off. But I’ve had lonely times in my life before and I’m sure I’ll have more.
Last summer I was reminded of one of the loneliest times in my life. I was in Birmingham for the Cooperative Baptist Assembly annual meeting and stayed in a hotel right down the street from an apartment building where I lived in the winter and spring of 1985. I was fresh out of seminary and moved there to be in a chaplaincy training program at the Baptist Medical Centers.
My apartment was a one room furnished efficiency in an old building right behind the Five Points area of downtown Birmingham. I walked the few blocks there from my hotel and was amazed at how little had changed in the thirty-four years since I left. In fact, there was still a record store below the building!
Standing on the sidewalk looking up at my old apartment window brought back many feelings. That winter of 1985 was the first time in my life that I was not in a school setting, surrounded by others my same age and with similar interests. Facebook, cell phones and free long distance had not yet been invented, so keeping in touch with friends and family was difficult. I was excited for the new adventure, but I was not prepared for how alone I would be.
Monday through Friday I was busy with my Clinical Pastoral Education group at the hospital, but I left on Friday afternoons feeling terrified at the long empty weekend stretching before me. I took myself out to eat, read, wrote some letters, and watched a few shows on my tiny borrowed black and white television. I visited a few churches, but going by myself made me feel more alone.
I look back now on that winter as one of the wilderness times in my life. Like the Israelites wandering for forty years in the desert or Jesus battling the Devil for forty days and nights, times in the wilderness cause us to struggle. But they can also be sweet times with God. I learned some things about getting through loneliness that continue to help me in the down times that still occur.
First, I’ve learned to lean into my loneliness. Often our first reaction when loneliness comes is to find something to do and people to be around. While there are definitely times when I need people, sometimes there may be other things going on. I need to have some quiet time to listen to my heart and to hear what God is trying to tell me.
So, when depression creeps in, I take an inventory. An easy self-assessment tool is called HALT: am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, I meet the physical needs and then take the emotional ones to God.
Have I had changes in my life that are causing me to grieve? Am I angry at someone? Am I overworked? Recognizing any of these and taking them to the Lord takes the pressure off. Praying gives me perspective.
Secondly, my time in Birmingham taught me that I need people and that I must be proactive in finding friends. When I was in school, friends were always close by, but life changed when I was on my own.
Since retiring last year, I’ve made a point to go to an exercise group at the gym, be involved at my church and make lunch dates. But I’ve also learned that when I feel loneliness creeping in, I need to get outside if at all possible!
During those months in Birmingham, I spent hours walking around the beautiful old neighborhoods near my apartment. When Adam was a baby (another lonely time in my life since we had recently moved and Keith was traveling with his job) I got out and pushed Adam in the stroller with our German Shepherd on her leash. I met our neighbors and felt better after the exercise.
Social media is wonderful for staying connected, but as we’ve all seen during this time of isolation, it’s still not the same as those big and small conversations we are used to in our daily lives. I would encourage you to be creative in “seeing” people right now. Sunday afternoon I took cookies to a few friends and stood at a safe distance and visited. I felt more “normal” afterwards! Walk around your neighborhood, visit a nearby park if it is open, play in your back yard – but get out of the house!
Finally, I learned that most lonely times are only for a season. That year in Birmingham, I found a church and as the weather warmed, I joined a hiking club where I met a girl my age looking for a roommate. I moved in with her in a large sprawling complex on the newly developed south end of Birmingham and a few months later met a sweet guy from Kentucky at the swimming pool. Today I’m still married to that guy and have a rich life full of close friends and family whom I cherish.
For those who have lost a spouse or other close family member or friend, the loneliness may not ever completely go away. The empty spot stays painful but having good friends and meaningful activities can ease the grief over time. One of my favorite verses is Psalm 34:18:
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
I learned during my wilderness time in that little apartment in Birmingham that I didn’t have to be afraid of loneliness. As we all deal with a “new normal” in the next few weeks, remember that God is with us and that this time will pass. Lean in and make it through!