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The Challenge of Loneliness

by Carmen Samuels

    Several weeks ago a member of our congregation asked if I would write on loneliness.  Her request came out of a concern for a loved one she thought was lonely.  I have taken this request as a challenge and hope all of us will glean something we can use in our journey through life in a complex world.

     Loneliness is an emotional state that manifests in many ways and it could be said the other side of the coin of loneliness is happiness.  So I ask myself, do happy people experience loneliness at any time?  I believe loneliness is a universal experience but as we know it is not a comfortable state – and as self-defense, most of us work at adaptation.  KPBS had a program on “happiness” on May 5, 2010.  One statistic got my attention – the 10 billion dollars spent on self-help books, seminars, retreats, etc. in 2009.  I interpreted this to say although people are vulnerable to experiences that could crush the human spirit and rob us of the joy in living, resilience is not rare and “self-help” to maintain equilibrium is desirable.  The reality is social support is needed for resilience and one who lacks support – real or felt – is more likely to suffer loneliness.

     So how is loneliness defined?  I went to the dictionary, other literature and conversation with peers, seeking answers.  I found an array of terms associated with loneliness, among them “grief,” “sadness,” “forlorn,” “bereft,” “isolation,” “feeling uncared for,” “feeling bleak or desolate,” “feeling abandoned or forsaken.”  Nature does not bestow happiness on us all the time so it is “normal” to experience unhappy feelings.  However, if these feelings become overwhelming or chronic in everyday living an intervention should be considered.  Before proposing interventions, I wondered about the loneliness experience for people in the Bible and some of the antidotes for an emotional state that disconnects them form the Divine presence. 

     Job’s story, I believe, epitomizes the suffering of humanity and explores the meaning of faith in God.  David is credited with many of the Psalms depicting his distress, as well as his faith, trust and praise.  The prodigal son (Luke 15) depicts despair and resilience. While these and many other Bible characters are portrayed overcoming trouble and pain, the utter loneliness of Calvary (Mark 15:34) leading to the glory of the resurrection gives hope for a life well lived.  What is true for people of the Bible is also true today.  Troubles impact our lives; experience and biology, in part, may dictate our vulnerability to stress but as long as we have memory and the ability to think, feelings and behaviors that haunt us can be confronted.

     Returning to that KPBS program – some ideas on happiness were stated and a guide proposed on what to do to change from miserable or unhappy living to life that gives joy.  Happiness is a choice, thoughts drive feelings and thoughts are shaped by how one feels.  Poverty affects happiness; research shows coming out of poverty makes one happy.  Things to do to be happy:

• Learn to capitalize on strengths
• Learn new ways to combat miserable feelings
• Learn and use meditation and relaxation techniques –  the brain is built to change in positive ways.
• Practice physical and mental exercises
• Social relationships matter most: build and nurture them (Family, friend, church, community group)
• Get a “life-coach” to help put things in perspective
• Happiness is contagious, according to research, so be mindful of associations

     I would add that if grief or sadness related to major loss – as a loss of spouse, family, friend, pet, health, wealth – is a part of your current experience, seek grief counseling and support.  Memories are important, but they should not be used as a shield against the present.  Stress plays havoc on our natural defense systems so work at monitoring your health status and take extra care of yourself.  Drinking more alcohol, smoking more cigarettes, using tranquilizers or other medications all contribute to poor health and make it even harder to work through the issues that lead to  loneliness.  Quotes from TV’s Dr. Oz – “You have to show up on your own life” – and from Romans 15:13 – “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” – seem appropriate to end this article.   

1.     AARP:  On Being Alone a guide for the newly widowed, 2001.
2.     Holman Bible Publishers: Master Study Bible
3.     KPBS:  TV program on “Happiness ” – May 2010

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