Motherhood is full of contradictions. Being thrilled to see my children grow while also wishing they’d stay little forever. The more passion I put into getting my toddler to eat green beans, the more beans will end up on the floor. If my children go to bed late, they will not wake up later the next morning. The days can be long but the years fly by. Wanting some time to myself and then missing my children when I get it. The feeling of loneliness even when I’m rarely by myself.
How can loneliness be possible in the 21st century? We are extremely efficient in getting what we want when we want it. We are entertained at every turn. We are tethered to each other with technology and in constant contact. Yet, have we ever been lonelier? Loneliness is the feeling of not being seen and not being known, left by yourself to face the difficulties of life.
Three Ways to Respond to My Loneliness
I’m discovering three ways to respond to my loneliness and deepen my friendships: by seeking solitude, by sharing my suffering, and by giving my time. Seeking solitude when I am lonely sounds like another contradiction. It seems more obvious to seek out a friend. However, when I turn first to a friend in my loneliness, I’m grasping for connection and expecting that friend to meet all my needs. In my heart, I want to know: “Do you see me? Does what I’m doing matter? Is the course I am taking true?” Over time, this choice to go first to friends with my loneliness leaves me restless.
I’m learning that there is another path, which is the upward movement towards God in solitude. When I choose solitude first, I don’t run from my loneliness, but I hold it before God. I choose to listen to his voice tell me who I am, what I’m supposed to do and where I’m going.
Henri Nouwen writes, “Solitude is very different from a ‘time out’ from our busy lives. Solitude is the very ground from which community grows. Whenever we pray alone, study, read, write, or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we are potentially opened for a deeper intimacy.”
During his life, Jesus chose the upward movement of solitude even when he was misunderstood, betrayed and left alone by even his closest friends. He turned first to receive his Father’s love and confirm his identity, purpose and direction. This intimate connection with God then propelled Jesus outward to deepen his relationships with his disciples. He also reached out past his inner circle to love people of different backgrounds, social status and reputation.
Likewise, if I choose to move upward first, then I’m propelled outward to seek greater depth with my close friends. I’m also motivated to love people who are different from me. I can reach out with my deepest questions already answered by God. My eyes are focused on seeing others rather than being seen. On listening, rather than being heard.
Listening is hard for me. There’s a difference between listening for the right time to jump in with my thoughts and listening to make my friend feel heard. Recently, a friend shared with me about a challenge with one of her children. Many times in the past, I would have quickly responded with “Me too! That happened to me! Let me tell you about how I handled it!” In trying to find common ground, I would turn the conversation toward myself and miss the chance to really listen to the heart of my friend. Instead, in this moment, I was able to pause and eventually respond by reflecting that friend’s thoughts and feelings back to her. For me, solitude is the practice ground for this type of listening.
As a New City Fellow, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, “Life Together,” about the formation of Christian community. In it he writes, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…But the reverse is also true…Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” This statement has echoed in my heart many times since that year. Solitude and friendship go hand in hand. I cannot have one without the other.
This past year, a few friends of mine have experienced tragic losses and deep pain that no words can explain. My time in solitude has helped me accept that there are times when there are no words. Being with another person can be enough. I don’t have to fix anything. I can hold them before God and trust him to be their healer. I resonate with the story in the Bible in the book of Mark when four men decide to carry their paralyzed friend on a mat to Jesus to be healed. They cut a hole in the roof because of the large crowds and lower their friend down. Once they did the work of getting him there, they let Jesus finish the work of healing.
In solitude, I am learning to hold my loneliness before God and hear his voice calling me beloved. With my identity, purpose and direction secure in him, I can listen to my friends and be with them in difficult times.
Sharing My Suffering
The second way I’m learning to respond to loneliness and to deepen friendships is to share my suffering. I came face to face with sharing suffering a couple of months ago. I was sitting by myself at a park watching my children play. I’d recently received devastating news. I felt like I was drowning in sadness and anger and was resistant to telling anyone about it. At the same time, I longed to lighten my burden.
A couple minutes later, my phone rang. It was Josh Chatraw, director for the Center of Public Christianity, asking me to speak later that year at a forum on the topic of friendship. I thought to myself, how can I talk about friendship when I feel so alone right now? But I sensed that God was reminding me that I was not alone. My friends were his gift to me in times of heartache. But how could I receive this gift if I did not let them into my pain? Later that day, I decided to share my grief with a few close friends and, in doing so, God generously poured out his comfort on me. I was reminded that we are given to each other by God to shoulder each other’s burdens. From time to time, we carry each other, like the man was carried on the mat by his friends. Sometimes we are the man on the mat. Other times we are the friends cutting the hole in the roof.
Proverbs states that “A friend loves at all times.” All times is not just when it’s convenient, but when life hits bottom. While we may be impressed by each other’s strengths, it is our vulnerabilities that connect us. So much of our suffering is not obvious to people around us. Our hearts are filled with inner grief for which Hallmark doesn’t make cards. It’s the loss we feel when life is not the picture that we imagined. It may be the loss of a dream or the loss of a relationship, addiction, miscarriage, infertility, anxiety or depression. We cannot reserve our friendships for the Instagram highlight reel. We have to initiate by inviting others into our struggles, especially the ones that are not obvious and that are hidden deep inside our hearts.
Just before his death, Jesus told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” What does it mean for me to lay down my life for my friends? One way is to give sacrificially and put their needs before my own. Another way, sometimes a harder way for me as I experienced that day in the park, is to be honest about my struggles. When I share my pain with a friend, I give up control and lay down the false image that I have it all together. There is so much fear, pride and insecurity that keeps me from opening up. However, the more I take to heart the truth that Jesus is the perfect friend who laid down everything for me, the more generous I become with my whole life – both my strengths and my weaknesses. Pastor Tim Keller says that “A true friend always lets you in and never lets you down.” I’m learning that Jesus is the true friend that we all long to have and long to be. When I experience his sacrificial love, it propels me to be there for my friends and let them in to my own pain.
Giving My Time
The third way I’m learning to respond to my loneliness and deepen friendships is to give my time. Recently, I read that researchers have found that it takes about 200 hours of togetherness to form a close friendship. For some people it may be a little more or a little less time, but I think the point remains – friendship takes time. For me, it sometimes feels easier to check off my to-do list than to find time for friends. However, I’m learning that giving little pockets of time adds up and can result in deep friendships. Time with friends can be part of my ordinary routines. Whether it’s a playdate at a park, dinner with my family, a walk on the greenway with strollers, a phone call or a message on Marco Polo. I have to keep my eyes open for the small opportunities to connect and not wait for a time when I feel like I have more to give.
Last summer, my children planted their first garden. They were so excited to help their daddy till the earth and plant the seeds and immediately wanted to know, “Where are the watermelons, okra and spicy peppers?” He told them that they had to wait but they could give the seeds water. For weeks, they hustled out the door every morning carrying their watering cans, another splash before lunch and again in the late afternoon. After a while, we had a big harvest! A friend recently reminded me of the saying, “whatever you water, grows.” Deep, sustaining friendships do not grow overnight but need attention and time like my children gave their garden. I’m discovering how to water by seeking God in solitude, sharing my suffering and giving my time. He is the one who makes friendships grow and blossom.
Margaret Duke, Holy Trinity Member and New City Fellows Alumnae