Loneliness Kills... Looking at causes and solutions
Loneliness kills, literally.
A five-year study in Germany found that loneliness actually leads to physiological, and not just mental degradation. Our panel meets the issue head-on and offers helpful insights.
IMPACT: Is there anything wrong with feeling lonely?
DL: As human beings, we have an innate desire to know and be known, to love and be loved for who we truly are.
The problem is that, because of sin, we are not only separated from God, but are also separated from one another, and from all of creation (Gen 3:14-19).
Our nature has become corrupted, our hearts’ desires twisted. Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mk 7:21-22).
In our own lives, we understand the deep pain and indignity that comes from a sense of loneliness. We all struggle in this world because of the contradiction created by sin. We want to be loved and accepted for who we are. But we are afraid that if we reveal ourselves, others will reject us.
JH: Being lonely is part of the human condition. We all struggle to stay connected with God, so feelings of being lonely will come. Also due to the Fall, we do things to hurt each other. Finally, each of us is unique, so there is a limit to feeling fully understood by another human.
SCL: First of all, I think we need to make a distinction between being lonely and being alone. Dictionary.com defines the word “lonely” as being characterized by “a depressing feeling of being alone”, being “destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship... and support.” Being lonely is thus a negative and involuntary situation of being alone, and a disconnectedness. This is inconsistent biblically; as DL has pointed out, God has created us for relationships: with Him and with one another. God Himself is in community as He is a triune God. Therefore, being lonely is not natural. It’s “wrong” because that is not God’s intention for us. We are made for relationships.
DL: I’ve a question for the other two panellists. What would you say about people who are introverted, as opposed to people who are extroverted? A person who is introverted by definition draws strength from being alone, while a person who is extroverted by definition draws strength from being with others.
JH: Good question, DL. I am an extrovert married to an introvert. We both get lonely. That is existential. Introverts still need deep relationship. But you are right in terms of how we draw energy and what we enjoy. Loneliness has a connotation of an undesired state.
Being lonely is part of the human condition. We all struggle to stay connected with God, so feelings of being lonely will come. Also due to the Fall, we do things to hurt each other. Finally, each of us is unique, so there is a limit to feeling fully understood by another human.
Impact: Is loneliness inevitable? What is the difference between loneliness and isolation (“alone-ness”)?
JH: People are isolated due to disease (very much so in the Bible times), social rejection (today’s homeless for example or incarceration), and at times, personal choice (depressive tendencies and other mental states). These states of isolation are painful for the person and effort should be made to restore them to community, as we were made to thrive in healthy relationships.
There is a form of isolation that is actually constructive. This is where someone withdraws either: to protect others (think Ebola or TB) or to pursue something which he or she feels the presence of others would be a distraction or hindrance to. But this isolation must be planned and purposeful, and for a time.
SCL: Isolation may be a deliberate attempt to escape from life’s difficulties, or an involuntary situation due to a lack of meaningful and supportive relationships. People who are isolated tend to replace their lack of relationships with human beings with a relationship with something else, such as substance addictions - online gaming, pornography, gambling, drugs, work etc. I daresay that given a choice, no one wants to be isolated.
On a more positive note though, voluntary isolation may be a deliberate act of withdrawal for reflection, rest and restoration, a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of life, a return to the rhythm of work and rest that God has instituted for us by way of the Sabbath.
DL: Spiritually speaking, loneliness is the result of sin, which spiritually isolates us. In many ways, our cries for an answer to loneliness speak to a very deep desire in every human heart for unconditional love.
Whether in our own lives or the lives of people around us, we have seen many examples of how this search for love can go wrong, leaving people feeling even more broken and lonelier than before. People have tried to find love in romantic relationships that have gone terribly wrong, in sexual gratification, or friends who lead them astray. Others have rejected any deep relationships for fear of being hurt.
Yet the message of the Gospel is that we need not necessarily have to be lonely or isolated in any way. God through Jesus has reconciled all things to Himself, whether on earth or in heaven, by “making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:19-20).
As Joni Eareckson Tada sang in her song, “Alone Yet Not Alone”:
Alone, yet not alone.
Not forsaken when on my own.
I can lean upon His arm,
And be lifted up from harm.
If I stumble, or if I'm thrown,
I'm alone, yet not alone.
IMPACT: Does the size of our families made a difference to whether we end up being lonely?
JH: I think family size affects our social development in areas such as communication, ability to manage multiple relational dynamics and so forth. But from my observation and experience (I come from a large brood-family while my husband has only one other sibling), personality is the larger factor here.
SCL: I think loneliness is not measured by the number of relationships we have, but rather, by the depth and meaningfulness of our relationships. We all want to be known and cared for by someone. So, even if we have only one other person close to us, we can be satisfied and not feel lonely. Conversely, we can be in a social gathering and still feel lonely.
DL: I do not have the social science statistics on this, but I think that having larger families generally teaches children to learn to interact with others. Older and younger brothers and sisters, through their day-to-day interactions, learn and teach one another many things which people who are the only child in the family may not have the same kind of opportunity to learn.
JH: This is why wise parents should create opportunities for their children to have meaningful and sustained social interactions - such as with cousins or in a cell group or youth group. Encouraging and supporting these relationships are critical for the child’s relational development, where they can learn give-and-take, compassion, collaboration and more.
IMPACT: Can you be married and lonely? “Sometimes the 6 inches between two bodies in a bed is the largest distance in the world.” Connected but still lonely.
JH: Absolutely. Marriage can in fact heighten the feeling of loneliness - because precisely - we expect to no longer feel alone! Blame the media’s messages about romance. With the expectation of companionship, mutual love, and sexual excitement, many feel let down by the realities of life. “Living with another person who has been raised differently is very hard.”
Yet, marriage is by far the most consistent relationship of presence there is. The person is there in your life. The challenge is to work at appreciating and nurturing the person and the presence.
More importantly, being lonely in marriage does not mean the marriage is weak or bad. Feeling lonely in marriage, as will happen, can be a trigger point for a person to widen his or her circles of relationships, as well as interests. There are other dimensions of partnership, connection, and sharing that can be celebrated as these bring stability to life.
SCL: Certainly, married couples do feel lonely within their marriage. In fact, the high divorce rate attests to the fact that married people suffer not only loneliness, but often, from such intense emotional stress that divorce seems like the better or only option.
Marital conflicts usually arise due to unmet emotional needs and expectations of each other.The problem arises when such needs and expectations are not properly communicated. Good communication is essential in a marriage. While expectations are legitimate, God also exhorts married couples to love one another, by choice - and loving another means showing empathy, care and meeting the other person’s needs as well.
DL: One can be married and lonely at the same time. Part of this comes from a misunderstanding that marriage is a “solution” to loneliness. Men and women should not be entering marriage hoping that marriage would “cure” their loneliness. This is not the Biblical view of marriage. Marriage is based on the mutuality of love and submission of husband and wife, reflecting the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for His Bride, the Church (Eph 5:22-33).
Furthermore, there is a false idea in culture that being single equals being lonely. Jesus in His earthly ministry was single, and so was Paul during his entire life. Whether one is single or married, the Bible makes it clear that Christ has to be our all in all.
There are many forms of relationships that God has created that we should value as well. These include friendship, familial relationships and, importantly, the community of believers. The fellowship among believers is described in familial terms, as “brothers” and “sisters” with a Father in heaven for a reason: We are related by flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
While Jesus is with us all the time, the church as His Body has to be the physical place where people can find genuine love and acceptance for who they are, no matter their background or circumstances. It is a transformative love that constantly leads us to become more and more Christ-like.
IMPACT: I am reminded of the latest National Polls on Healthy Aging which finds that a third of seniors are lonely (Time Health Newsletter March 4, 2019). Being less mobile and having fewer friends left, are more elderly than younger ones facing loneliness?
DL: This is difficult to answer because I do not have the data. However, I think in modern Singapore society, we are seeing that both elderly and young people are battling loneliness, and this manifests in many different ways.
A 2018 release from the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) showed that the number of elderly aged 60 and above who took their own lives peaked at 129 in 2017, the highest since suicide tracking started in 1991. But a 2018 UK study found that young people feel loneliness more intensely and more frequently than any other age groups. 40% of people aged 16-24 said they feel lonely often or very often, compared to 29% of 65-74-year-olds and 27% of those aged over 75.
JH: I think it’s pertinent to note that the two groups that are surfacing as suffering most from loneliness are youths and the elderly. This is related to how our society is structured. We are a society that values productivity, busyness and performance. In this regard, the elderly are easily forgotten and overlooked.
As for youths, our values of productivity, busyness and performance impacts them in two ways. Parents are often busy and distant.. Youth is a phase of exploration and although they seem to need space, in truth, they need as much an anchor in their parents and their faith. But these can be weakened due to social realities.
Furthermore, we place such an emphasis on academics but academic excellence is not for everyone, and even those who do well may find it rather empty. Again the season of youth is a time for identity formation, and the presence of real persons is crucial.
This relates to the shift in our culture towards an online and virtual space, where many youths who are digital natives find life more ‘real’. It can be very confusing for them indeed.
IMPACT: Can technology actually aggravate the problem?
JH: Yes, the pace of our society is way too fast for many elderly. I was very concerned about Sg going cashless in this regard.
IMPACT: Good point. Loneliness is not just a problem for individuals but the community.
SCL: It is probably easier to spot the elderly who are lonely as they tend to be isolated. Having said that, loneliness can be experienced even within a community. Within the church for example, people are usually busy, yet many feel lonely. Many people tell me that the church only values them for their service. If they take a break from serving due to personal struggles, they have to give an excuse as no one really cares what is going on with their lives.
JH: As city pastor, I have had such folks share the same with me -- feeling ‘used’ by the church. Of course, it involved a complex interpretation and interaction… but yes, it happens. Glad they can go to you SCL.
SCL: Loneliness starts from childhood and usually carries into adulthood, and can happen at any age. The level of activities does not necessarily reflect whether one feels lonely. We can be mingling in a social gathering and still feel lonely. Loneliness is an inner experience, and is a result of poor or inadequate attachment experiences with the main caregivers from infancy. Attachment research shows that early attachment experiences between infants and their caregivers (usually the mothers) set the stage for the child’s emotional and psychological developmental health. This has also been affirmed by the recent spate of findings and publications in neuroscience research.
JH: In the end, no matter where we began, how we feel right now, what we may still be going through, GOD is the one hope. In Him there is healing, restoration, the possibility of reconciliation, and the promise of a full and abundant life.
God the Father is the perfect parent we need.
Jesus is the perfect brother and friend.
The Holy Spirit is the perfect encourager and advocate.
We have Provision, Presence, Purpose through a personal relationship with God once we put our trust in Jesus as our Saviour and LORD.
GOD is the one hope. In Him there is healing, restoration, the possibility of reconciliation, and the promise of a full and abundant life.
DL: Loneliness is clearly an issue in our time. The challenge for us as the Body of Christ is to be a place of authentic fellowship for everyone from every walk of life. We do falter and make mistakes, but that should not stop us from working towards creating a community where no one feels lonely.
Darius Lee (DL) enjoys the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. During the period of more than one year spent in Israel, he travelled to many places within the country, as well as the West Bank. In his free time, he enjoys trying out new recipes for food.
Jenni Ho-Huan (JH) is a city-pastor who enjoys serious conversations peppered with mirth. Together with her husband, they serve local churches in the areas of health and growth. She lives in central Singapore with her mighty-teen and little-warrior and Chats their cat. Jenni hosts The Cathedral Podcast where her guests and she discuss faith & life issues.
Soh Choon Lee (SCL) is a counsellor in private practice, and an adjunct lecturer with the Singapore Bible College.