Loneliness is something I have struggled with all of my life. There were times that it was completely justified. I did spend many days of middle school eating alone at the lunch table and many years in the isolation of an abusive relationship. There have also been many times that those very real experiences of loneliness crept into ordinary interactions with others and sank their claws into my mind and heart. In order to avoid the feelings associated with rejection and loneliness, I tend to avoid interactions that would require others to reject me. This invokes a self-fulfilling prophecy of which many who have experienced trauma or fear loneliness are also guilty: reject others before they reject you.
In our individualistic Western culture, the concept of “I can do it myself” is encouraged and instilled in the youngest of our society. Self-sufficiency is valued as a hallmark of American virtue. And independence from others, particularly as a woman, is lauded in every consumable imaginable – from our favorite TV characters to songs about female empowerment to deodorant commercials. Independence from other people is healthy in a few circumstances, some of which include removing yourself from an abusive relationship of any type, teenagers learning how to function apart from their parents, and moving to a new city. Yet this seems to be the ceiling; there is no hope for a greater level of existence or coexistence. Mix this Western ideal with a good dose of trauma and we get a whole mess of people trudging through life, proudly going the distance alone yet longing to be in community.
If loneliness and rejection are such a source of pain for so many and individualism encourages partial growth, are there any other alternatives to a focus on human independence?
As created beings, we are innately dependent on an independent Creator (aseity). This may seem strange but it should, in fact, bring us simple joy. This Creator God needs no one to exist, yet His sustained creation of humanity reveals the motive behind His actions as part of divine will. Likewise, His self-insertion in creation through the person of Jesus Christ reveals God’s desire for us to draw near to Him by drawing near to us (immanence). Our God does not need us, not even in the slightest. But He wants us, and He wants us to choose Him. How beautiful is that?
So if each one of us is dependent on the Creator for life, sustenance, and salvation, can’t we just do without other people? Why do we seemingly need other people? Why does it hurt to lose loved ones? Why do we consider Christ’s declaration that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NIV) as the picture of the perfect human relationship? Because He made us for interdependence.
Interdependence is the result of a human who has grown out of the independence stage and learned that the only way to live a fully human life is alongside others. The Creation narrative in Genesis tells us that it was “not good for the man to be alone” so God created Eve (2:18). The last six of the ten commandments given to Moses all deal with honoring God through right human relations (Ex. 20:12-17). And in His expounding of those commandments during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus remarked that if one person is fighting with another it is better to leave one’s offering at the altar and first be reconciled to the other prior to coming before God (Matt. 5:23-24). Clearly, God’s desire is not just for us to choose Him but to lovingly care for one another, as well.
How do we reconcile the lonely, trauma-inflicted, individualistic Westerner with the mission of God for His people?
I believe it begins and ends with practicing intentionality in your interactions with others. Every time you go to the bank or the grocery store, ask the cashier how their day is going. Every time you pick up your kid from daycare, greet the teachers, the administrators, and the janitors like old friends. Every time you walk down the street, genuinely smile to every one you pass. And every time you enter jury duty or an airport or the DMV, prepare to sit next to someone you would have never noticed before. Strike up a conversation. Find commonality. Fully engage their humanity. The joy you will be given in these moments will spread through the heart and pour out through the body. The effect is infectious. The result is, Spirit-willing, interdependence at work in such a way that we mirror God’s immanence – that is, Christ becomes so clear to others through us that people are drawn to the beauty of His truth. Or, as the author Madeleine L’Engle said in her book Walking on Water:
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.