A Path Away From Loneliness

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A Path Away From Loneliness

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A Path Away From Loneliness

by Jonathan Cogburn, LMFT

The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.

-Mother Teresa, A Simple Path

The surest way to destroy people is to deny them loving human contact… in terms of mental health, close connection is the strongest predictor of happiness, much more so than making masses of money or winning the lottery. It also significantly lessens susceptibility to anxiety and depression, and makes us more resilient against distress and trauma… we are actually healthier and happier when we are close and connected.

-Dr. Sue Johnson, Love Sense

Where in your life have you noticed loneliness? It seems to be a universal problem in this place and time. As recently as 1950, less than 5 million people in our country lived alone. Today, more than half of American adults are single, and 31 million Americans (approximately 10% of our nation’s population) live alone. In her book, Love Sense, Dr. Sue Johnson states, “Consistent emotional support lowers blood pressure, and bolsters the immune system. It appears to reduce the death rate from cancer, as well as the incidence of heart disease and infectious disease…”. The body of research on human beings points toward a reality in which our continued growth and health depends on our connection to others, and yet we are more alone than ever.

Why do we retreat from all of this benefit, opting into isolation? I believe that we have entered a period of history never before seen, in which more people than ever have the ability to provide for their basic needs without direct communal support. If I need something, I can find it at the store and can even check out without talking to another person. This era has convinced some of us that we should be able to solve any problem on our own if we just “work hard enough”, and others of us that an inability to do so is caused by a personal deficiency. Regardless of what neighborhood we call home in America (if any), we live on different sides of the same problem that Mother Teresa noticed when she came to America to open a house for AIDS patients in New York in 1985. We are retreating from each other because we are stuck between two fears: 1) we fear to risk trusting others to meet our needs when we can just “buy safety”, and 2) we fear the things outside our control that have the power to override any safety we believe we have bought, and often retreat further when that safety is shattered.

The most amazing thing about this problem is that hope lies in the very thing we are retreating from… a close and safe connection that comes from loving relationships (see numerous research publications by Dr. Sue Johnson, Dr. John Gottman, and many of their colleagues researching attachment and models for healthy relationships). I can stop retreating from you when I realize that no matter how much or how little I have, those things cannot save my own life or yours. In Philippians 2: 1-11, we find a hymn of the early church, and I believe that it is one of the most important pieces of writing in human history:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

There is some universal truth in these words… in the mind of his followers, the most important thing Jesus did was to lay down his ability to save himself (real power to save, in their belief) for the sake of loving and unifying all people. Reading this has helped me recognize that I have no more power to save myself than the homeless man who asks me for money in the grocery store parking lot… he and I are the same in power. Also, the power he and I share is much smaller than we thought, but in a way it is much more significant.

That power is the path away from loneliness. It is the power to practice acceptance of two truths that counter the two fears dividing relationships listed above: 1) the most fulfilling safety we can “buy” is the safe connection provided by unconditional loving relationships, and 2) the only currency accepted for this safe connection is our own willingness to risk being hurt for the sake of moving closer in safety and unity. These two truths imply that taking the risk to move closer to others is an investment, not a cash-for-product transaction. It requires that all parties commit to investing risk in each other, and if we can do so, the return can amount to a much greater safety than the total risk taken. If you have been “burned by past investments,” it may be very difficult for you to risk again, but there are resources available and people waiting to help you prepare to take a worthwhile risk when you are ready.