Imagine being stranded—to invoke a place well-known in hypothetical situations—on a remote, uninhabited island. Shivering and weak, you are out on the Pacific Ocean, miles from civilization. Would you be lonely?
Or, you live safely inland in a high-rise residential building in London. Constant noise and activity envelop you. If you ever have an unexplained urge to find another human being, it’s one of the easiest things you could ask for. Would you be lonely?
Alarmingly, you are about as likely to be lonely in the second scenario as the first. In fact, loneliness is such a problem in London and the UK that the British government has created a new role: Minister of Loneliness. And lonely people are not contained to London.
What explains this widespread malady?
The Search for Companionship
Picture a colony of bees, complete with male drones, female workers, and a queen. It’s spring. The bees live in a fertile area. Well within a bee’s several-mile range of travel grow alfalfa, clover, and dandelions—filet mignon for functional bees. Yet inexplicably these bees are withering away, complaining of a shortage of plants to pollinate.
We are like the bees. If we’re lonely, it’s our own fault. Now, before you contest this sweeping statement, isn’t loneliness merely the opposite of companionship? And isn’t companionship finding something—even just one thing—in common with another person? Do you know of anyone unable to do that?
Like the lethargic bees living in their verdant meadows, lonely people do not have to move to a peacenik commune to find fulfillment. We can open our mouths and partake of life’s abundant pollen and nectar. What we need for relationship is already in place. We just need to change our approach.
The question is, how?
First, we must emphasize gift-love. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis distinguishes between two basic kinds of human love, need-love and gift-love. Lewis writes: “Need-love says of a woman ‘I cannot live without her.’ Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection.” 1
Like gravity, human love has certain inescapable realities. One of these realities is that if we focus on need-love, we miss out on both need-love and gift-love. Focus on gift-love, on the other hand, and you end up with both.
Saint Paul, promoting gift-love centuries before C.S. Lewis, wrote these words: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10 ESV). Paul is right on. The path he outlines, practicing gift-love until it becomes second nature, is the best way out of loneliness.
Second, we overcome loneliness by finding our shared humanity, not by flaunting our successes. Our tendency, both offline and online, is to project a persona of success. But in reality, has anyone ever connected well through self-congratulation and self-preservation?
As a friend of mine says, “If you want to impress people, talk about your successes. If you want to connect with people, share your failures.” It’s counterintuitive but true. Perhaps in today’s rash of loneliness someone should start a social media site where people post things that makes them vulnerable and relatable—and human. (Actually, such a place already exists; it’s called the real world.)
Third, we must treat all people as potential friends. Yes, I can understand why someone is lonely—if that person insists on being friends only with the rich and popular. But as Christians, we hold that everyone is worth befriending: the elderly, those with Down syndrome, children, and anyone who gets marginalized. Despite our inborn egoism, something in us resonates with Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom of Heaven where a little child is the model citizen (Matthew 19:14). His way stands in stark contrast with the dominant view of friendship which says only the people who satisfy our ego needs are worth pursuing.
Strangely, as we focus on the soul needs of all classes of people, we find our own needs met in ways previously unimaginable.
Finally, we should focus on quality in relationships rather than quantity. The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar once conducted a series of tests in which he compared the brain size of various non-human primates. A primate’s brain size, Dunbar discovered, corresponded with the size of its social group; the bigger a primate’s brain, the larger its social network. Naturally, Dunbar was eager to find out how wide of a social network we humans can reasonably maintain based on our own brain size. The number he arrived at, an average of 150, has now become known as Dunbar’s Number.
Though some of the evolutionary assumptions behind Dunbar’s Number conflict with a Christian worldview, the basic point nonetheless holds true: humans are limited in the number of friendships they can have. True friendship is like an exquisite fabric, woven together by countless shared experiences. An interaction on social media, no matter how exciting and witty, can never fit the criteria for friendship.
We are dissatisfied in our relationships today, not because we have too few contacts, but because we have too many. Like an obese diner at an all-you-can-eat buffet, we shovel in plates full of human relationship while experiencing very little of its intended depth of pleasure and nourishment.
That said, an abundance of humans bless us with their presence, and I abide by my previous statement: If we’re lonely, it’s our own fault. Is it a naïve conclusion? Possibly, but life is short; we had better find some way to have relationships because in the end, relationships alone will remain. Fine-tuning our current approach to relationships—by practicing gift love, becoming vulnerable, treating all people with dignity, and focusing on quality instead of quantity—would at the very least be worth a try.
Though difficult to perfect, these steps are simple to understand and ready to be put to practice immediately, by all of us. Except, perhaps, for those who live on remote, uninhabited islands.
|Gideon Yutzy believes Christians should live as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it: “counter, original, spare, strange.” He is addicted to the thrill of encountering new people, new ideas, new skills, new words, and new levels of personal growth. Gideon lives with his wife Esther and their three daughters, Olivia, Charlotte, and Honor, in an Anabaptist community in Ireland.
1. Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves, New York: Harcourt, 1960, p. 17