“Great,” I thought to myself. “One more opportunity to be lonely.”
I was drying my hair, thinking about the day ahead. My schedule for the day included attendance at two large events. I felt anxious about both, and wondered why. Both were happening in familiar places where I’d been a number of times. I knew that I would see people I knew at both. In fact, at least at one of the events, trusted colleagues would also be there.
So why did I feel anxious?
Lonely Among so Many
That’s when I realized it: loneliness. Even if I wouldn’t be alone at these events (at least, not once I got out of my car and made it to the room where the event was happening—which, let’s be honest, can feel like an eternity of alone time), I might still be lonely. I might still be the only one like me in the room. Or there may be just a few of “us”— and insert “us” here: women, single people, adults without kids, women in full-time ministry.
There are times in my life when I feel loneliness much more keenly than others. This was one of those times when the nerve was particularly raw. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that I’d be more anxious about walking into what might be a “lonely” situation— where I might stick out, where I might not be understood, where I might feel isolated in my experience, or where I might feel like I need to keep my guard up the whole time.
As I finished drying my hair and took up my straightener, I thought about this “opportunity for loneliness.” I know better than to think that I’m going to run out of such opportunities any time soon, or be able to avoid them altogether, as I might be tempted to do. So I wondered, what if this really was an opportunity? What if there was something in this, something worth moving toward, even being excited about?
Opportunity in Loneliness
What if God has something for me in this lonely place? What if this is an opportunity to learn something about His world, to more deeply trust His presence, to pay attention in a different way than I would if I weren’t feeling lonely?
What if God has someone for me in this lonely place? What I all-too-quickly forget is that someone else at this event will probably be feeling lonely in their own way. Maybe their reason for loneliness isn’t as visible, or maybe it is. Maybe they, too, are feeling like the only one in their particular situation. Maybe this place and these people are new or unfamiliar to them, and they’re feeling insecure. When I walk in those doors, who might need a kind word, a buddy, or someone to SEE them? How could I look beyond my own loneliness and offer that to them?
I wish I could say I’d fully formed these thoughts by the time I arrived at the event, and that they gave me confidence and enthusiasm as I walked in. The reality is I was running late (per usual), so deep thoughts were put on hold. But as I look back on it, I recognize that God did indeed have something for me in that lonely place.
He had kind people who were waiting with a warm welcome.
He had more familiar faces than I was expecting to see.
He had an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while, who inquired about something going on in my life, and that made me feel seen and valued.
And as I sat in that room, looking around at a wide variety of people—most of whom I knew by name and title, some with whom I’d shared classes and meals, and some with whom I’d worked very closely—I had to ask myself why on earth I would anticipate this to be a lonely place. And the reality is this: I struggle to believe that these people are for me. I struggle to believe that I actually matter to them. I significantly underestimate their care and respect for me. I doubt my own sense of belonging among them. And all of that contributes much more to my loneliness than being one of only a few __________ (fill in the blank) in the room.
Loneliness in the Church
Last year we did a survey of our congregation. One question asked people to describe their experience at church on Sunday mornings. They could check several statements, one of which was “I often feel lonely at church.” There were individuals who checked that box. And it made my heart ache, but it also didn’t surprise me, because while I wouldn’t make that an overarching descriptor of my church experience, there are Sundays when I feel deeply lonely. Now I find myself wondering who else feels that way— and if my own loneliness could lead me to be more sensitive and attentive to them.
Do they struggle to believe that we are FOR them?
Do they actually believe that they matter to us?
Do they underestimate our care and respect for them?
Do they doubt their sense of belonging among us?
I don’t think that loneliness can be cured this side of Heaven. And to be honest, I think sometimes we NEED opportunities for loneliness. But I also think we can seek to be companions in loneliness, and to do our part to battle loneliness rooted in lies or insecurity. And above all, we can remember the One who never leaves us alone in our loneliness.
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” – Jesus, John 14:25-27
About the Author:
Jenilyn Swett is a daughter of God who is passionate about hospitality, teaching and learning, and helping others to know God and themselves better. She believes that all of those things go hand-in-hand, and can be best accomplished when good food, a whiteboard, and fresh flowers are involved. She received her MDiv from Covenant Seminary and serves as the Director of Adult Ministries at Crossroads West in St. Louis, Missouri.