The affliction of loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in our society. Striking both young and old without warning, it provides psychiatrist and huckster alike with a fertile field in which to work. Why so much loneliness? Is it due to some personal deficiency in lonely people, or is it caused by outside factors beyond their control? And — most important of all — when loneliness hits close to home, how can you personally cope with it?
People will do practically anything to avoid loneliness. The moderately lonely in our midst join astronomy clubs, take night classes, or have somebody's computer fix them up with blind dates. Others seek relief on the shuffleboard court, the park bench, or at the nearest Arthur Murray's. Lonely people avidly devour thousands of copies of pop psychology books on "Intimacy Made Easy," and if they're young and affluent they rent apartments in Marina Del Rey or some counterpart community and jump feet-first into the frantic singles scene. Some of them haunt the encounter group circuit — bouncing from therapy to therapy in search of the magic cure, their loneliness temporarily eased by contact with throwaway companions. Lonely people who strike out everywhere else run explicit ads in the "Personal" column of their local underground newspaper. And the really hardcore lonely may end up patronizing a new service called Conversation, where a trained nonexpert will listen to them talk their Lonely hearts out for only $8 an hour. An Ignored Problem. Loneliness is a universal problem and a driving force in millions of lives. Although chronic loneliness is known to be a contributing factor in mental breakdown, divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide, psychologists and researchers have paid little attention to it. Loneliness has been looked on as a symptom rather than a cause, and consequently ignored. This is because most people are ashamed of loneliness in themselves and intolerant of others who admit to feeling it. Loneliness is usually swept under the rug; it's a painful embarrassment. Most of the lonely feel that they are somehow to blame for their plight. Dr. Robert S. Weiss writes: "So great is the shame of the lonely... that they are wary of each other's company — a bit like Groucho Marx, who believed that -any club that admitted him could not be worth joining" (Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1973, p. xix). In fact, the experience of loneliness is so painful that once it is alleviated people will go to extreme lengths to forget they ever suffered from it — even to denying others' needs, since this reminds them of their former pain. Psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann "noted that at least one reason that we have no very good theory about loneliness is that we have studied it so little." Further, "She suggested that the absence of attention to loneliness was to be explained not by the challenge loneliness presented to understanding but rather by the threat it presented to well-being. She said that loneliness is such a painful, frightening experience that people will do practically everything to avoid it" (ibid., p. 10). Too Frequent Advice. Weiss further states that "Loneliness is entirely natural in certain situations, yet it is so easy to think of it as weakness or self-indulgence, so easy to say that since one is suffering no physical pain or obvious privation, it should be possible to shrug off one's loneliness, even to label it solitude and thereupon enjoy it. At least, so goes the too frequent advice, one ought not to let oneself become caught up in self-pity: use the time alone to perform household chores or to improve your mind. The lonely are apt to hear this advice from others, but even if they do not, they very likely will offer it to themselves. And they, like others, will condemn themselves if they cannot shake off their loneliness and attend to something else" (ibid., p. 3). And loneliness researcher Dr. William A. Sadler, Jr., professor of Sociology at Bloomfield College, New Jersey, says that the general public sees loneliness "merely as a symptom of a weak character. The result is one tends to downplay the impact it has on one's life, or even to deny that is has any significance at all. A common response given to persons who admit being lonely is: 'Well, what's wrong with you? You don't need to be lonely. Go out and get busy. Join a club. Do something.' Frequently through workshops, interviews, and articles [he has] found the response to be even more negative than this..." ("The Cause of Loneliness," Science Digest, July 1975, p. 60). Victims of Loneliness. Loneliness attacks everyone from time to time. It's not a character flaw; but rather the natural result of circumstances which are usually beyond the control of those affected. Even those in seemingly intimate situations can be extremely lonely. Children who live in upstanding families and seem to have many friends may actually suffer acute loneliness: "It is... possible in adolescence for there to be intervals in which the world seems emptied, bereft of possible attachment. The parents no longer serve in this way, and there is no one else" (Weiss, op. cit., p. 92). And their parents may be faring no better: "There are empty-shell marriages, marriages without attachment, that provide no defense against loneliness. Indeed, marriages of this sort may seem to the participants to be the chief cause of their loneliness, since they prevent the formation of genuine attachments" (ibid., p. 90). Loneliness Defined. But just what is loneliness — and what are its causes? Dr. Sadler describes the emotion: "The first and most outstanding feature of loneliness is a painful feeling, sometimes experienced as a sharp ache, as in moments of grief or separation; but it can also be a dull, lingering form of stress that seems to tear a person down." He adds that "One can be lonely for another person, a group, a home, a homeland, a tradition, a type of activity, and even a sense of meaning, or God" (op. cit., p. 58). Sadler has categorized loneliness into five dimensions: interpersonal, social, cultural, psychological and cosmic. The first, interpersonal, is the most familiar type — where one misses an intimate relationship with another very special person such as a spouse or close friend. Social loneliness is a feeling of being cut off from a group one considers important, such as a church or fraternity. Cultural loneliness occurs when one feels separated or alienated from a way of life or system of traditions. This is the type of loneliness suffered by minorities who feel they aren't part of the mainstream of the dominant society. It is also felt by those who see their cultural heritage rapidly changing or disintegrating around them. Psychological loneliness refers to a person's being out of touch with themselves and their true feelings. And cosmic loneliness is a yearning for an ultimate source of life and meaning, or God. Our Lonely Society. Our society as a whole seems to be custom-designed to induce certain types of loneliness. Ralph Keyes makes some interesting observations about the causes behind one type of cultural loneliness: "There are three things we [Americans] cherish in particular — mobility, privacy and convenience — which are the very sources of our lack of community" ("We, the Lonely People," Intellectual Digest, December 1973, p. 25). This lack of community has caused us to develop "temporary love systems, hit-and-run intimacy, self-destructing communities that are making closeness just as convenient and just as disposable as a two-week guided tour." Keyes adds that "Millions of us have gladly rejected the suffocation of total community, and even the partial oppression of churches or clubs, where we were once known and scrutinized. We feel well rid of that kind of oppression.... But we forget to provide anywhere for the fellowship that went hand in hand with suffocation. The sermons may have been a drag, but the potlucks weren't so bad" (ibid., p. 31). Specific Needs. Understanding the limiting structure of our society and being able to define and categorize loneliness is a step in the right direction. But how can we use this knowledge to cope with loneliness as it affects us and those around us? Sadler states that "Many attempts to cope with loneliness are unsuccessful because the need for a particular type of loneliness has not been met." He also feels that " Recognizing specific needs proper to different dimensions [of loneliness] is extremely important when someone is trying to cope with loneliness. For example, a person who sorely misses a special other person will not have that need satisfied by joining in a group. Yet in spite of an impressive history of failure, we continue to encourage widows to compensate by joining organizations. That is, we tell them to look to the social dimension to satisfy an interpersonal need" (op. cit., p. 66). But even if we recognize the specific cause or causes of our particular private loneliness, we may be unable to control the factors governing it. There are many reasons why this is so. An interpersonal relationship may be terminated by death or unavoidable separation; a social relationship by a necessary job-related move to another part of the country. Cultural loneliness by its very nature is brought on by factors that are normally outside one's control, such as being born into a certain racial group or growing old in a changing society. What can a lonely individual do about all this? First of all, he can pinpoint his own particular type of loneliness and determine if there is any way he can change things. But if he can't, he shouldn't condemn himself or feel guilty about his feelings. Changing one's circumstances can be very difficult. A widow or widower, for example, may find it nearly impossible to replace a lost mate. A shut-in. might not be able to join a club. And an older person can't turn the calendar back to "the good old days." "Self-Actualization." But there are two of Dr. Sadler's dimensions of loneliness a person can control: the "psychological" and the "cosmic" — and they are actually very closely related. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about both of these areas. There was a recent best-seller titled How To Be Your Own Best Friend. Loving yourself, "being your own best friend," being at peace with yourself and on good terms with your conscience, are all a vital part of personal Christianity. God loves us, and in the Bible He commands us to love others as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39). In fact, we really cannot love others properly unless we do love ourselves first. God wants us to take good care of ourselves, to develop all of our talents to the full (see Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27), to if at all possible derive joy from the work we do (Eccl. 3:22), and to behave ourselves morally and lovingly toward our fellow human beings. One psychologist, Dr. Abraham Maslow, called this type of mature and full development of our human potential "self-actualization." A person on the road to self-actualization is far less likely to exhibit the type of loneliness caused by being out of touch with oneself and one's desires and impulses. But this sort of personal development needs to be built on the foundation of a good relationship with God. As Maslow put it, self-actualized people have "'worked out their philosophical, religious, or axiological bearings" (Dominance, Self-Esteem, Self-Actualization: The Germinal Papers of A. H. Maslow, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1973, p. 178). Relationship With God. Christ taught that love of God and love of fellowman (including oneself) are the two basic principles from which all other moral laws are derived (Matt. 22:40). Developing this love for God and a relationship with Him involves being called by Him, repenting, being baptized, receiving His Spirit, and trying to live the kind of life Christ would in our circumstances (Acts 2:38-39; II John 5-6). If we actively seek and develop this relationship with God, the Bible gives us something to hang onto — hope for the future. Even if our circumstances are irremediably lonely right now, God promises us a resurrection to eternal life, into an unimaginably satisfying fellowship with Christ and other resurrected Christians. (For more information on this subject, read our free booklet What Is The Reward Of The Saved?) This relationship will be far more warm, intimate and rewarding than any human friendship. Christ uses the analogy of a marriage to describe it, but it will transcend even this deep human bond. Christ's prayer (recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17) hints at its nature: "Holy Father, keep them [the disciples] in thy name which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.... I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us..." (verses 11, 20-21). This relationship — which is guaranteed to every one of us who reaches out to take God's promises — will eventually wipe out all loneliness. In the book of Revelation, it is prophesied that "God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:3-4). So loneliness, no matter how chronic or hopeless in this age, is going to be nonexistent in the fantastic future God has prepared for us. If you would like to read more on the subject of mankind's eventual destiny, read our free booklet Why Were You Born?