What kind of problem is loneliness?
Our lives can’t be stacked so perfectly that we never feel lonely.
As you know, this whole season of Unsuitable is concerned with one question: What does it look like to form deep relationships as people who are not married? So, what do you think?
The question may seem straightforward now, but I was a year into a quest to find the cure for loneliness by the time I decided to ask every guest on the sixth season of my podcast that one question: What does it look like to form deep relationships as people who are not married?
When Loneliness Became Real
The gravel grated under my sneakers as I made my usual three-mile loop around the Central Park reservoir. I was re-listening to How The Light Gets In by Louise Penny on my walk. It’s the ninth book in my favorite mystery series and I was nearing the end of the story when the scene cut from catching the murderer to a wedding. At the ceremony, the officiant read a poem. As I rounded the second to last turn in my path he recited: “Now there is no more loneliness.”
I froze. A deep ache crept over me. It was the feeling I’d been avoiding through work and walks and watching TV. It was loneliness. I stood on the path and felt sadness clutch at my throat when I was hit with another revelation. It wasn’t just that I was lonely. I also had no idea what to do about it.
That loop around the Central Park reservoir and my audiobooks had become my closest companions in the spring of 2020. I was grateful to have them when no other companions were allowed. It was nearly summer, month three of New York City’s pandemic lockdown. In the early days, I focused on pushing through. The city became the global epicenter of the virus and its media coverage. Two close friends got sick. The chef I used to work for died from Covid. I went ten weeks without a hug. Still, I was good at being alone, and I could hear birds chirping on Third Avenue for the first time because there was no traffic to drown them out. I kept thinking I could ride this out.
I began walking in the park as a way to make sure I left my apartment at least once a day. At six o’clock, I’d close my laptop, change into workout clothes, and head out. As I walked my three-mile loop, I listened to novels.
I paused the audiobook and kept walking as I mulled over the line from the fictional poem and its effect on me. The quote seemed to suggest that marriage was the cure for this feeling. At that point, I’d already been writing and podcasting about being single in a marriage-obsessed church for two years. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t buying what the quote seemed to be selling. This left me with a question—Is there a cure for loneliness?
What kind of problem is loneliness?
The next year turned into an informal and personal investigation into that question. My first attempt was to cure my loneliness spiritually. Did Jesus ever feel lonely? I was drawn to the stories of Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus in the garden when his friends couldn’t stay awake with him, and Jesus on the cross—moments of isolation and abandonment. Jesus’s companionship in loneliness satiated my feelings for about an hour. It mattered, but there had to be more.
Next, logic dictated that feeling isolated could be vanquished by finding creative ways to be around people. Logic had its barriers and my brain fought me. Was I bothering people? Was I being needy? What was reasonable for me to ask of my friends? I took a deep breath, said a small prayer, and sent out a series of texts asking each of my friends if they were in town and had time to go for a walk.
Physical proximity seemed to help, but I still felt like I existed on an island all to myself. Many times I felt a tug to share my struggle with loneliness and quest to cure it as I matched my stride with my walking partner, but tugging on the opposite end was my strong desire not to be a downer now that I finally had someone to be around. Clearly, there was an emotional component to the cure that simple presence and spiritual confidence couldn’t bypass.
Eventually, in spite of my ambivalence, I confided in my friends. It was a quest, after all, I had to try every approach. Isolation was causing certain relational muscles to atrophy, I told them. I laid out how my time alone kept me from the everyday situations that required conflict resolution, compromise, or articulating my thoughts and feelings with my out-loud voice. I talked about experiencing touch deprivation for the first time. When the world was afraid of passing on a deadly virus, how was I supposed to ask for a hug? If the cure had an emotional component I would need more than venting, I’d need to find kindred spirits. So I asked questions about my friends’ lives and well-being. Was it just me? They answered, confiding their own questions and fears. It turned out we all had our islands and our atrophies.
Still, the inciting question lingered. Even as I developed theories and language around loneliness, I couldn’t come up with a cure. The loneliness was acknowledged but ever-present.
A Cue Not a Cure
That’s when I took the quandary to my podcast: So, what does it look like to form deep relationships as people who are not married?
Sarah Gardner, a bi-coastal actor, said, “I hear book after book and couple after couple talking about the things to hold your marriage together. Why don’t we talk about the things that can hold your friendships together?” Pieter Valk and I talked about how singles can find commitment and safety in relationships. Bridget Eileen Rivera said, “So many Christians get so focused on the nuclear family that we forget that the model we see in scripture is church as family.”
With every interview some of the heaviness of the past year lifted. Until those conversations, I hadn’t realized how much shame I’d been carrying about my loneliness. Part of me believed if I worked harder or was better at relationships or closer to God, surely I wouldn’t be feeling lonely. My perspective was beginning to shift. The universal human search for companionship, with all its layers and nuances, can’t be treated as just an emotional issue, or a spiritual one, or an intellectual one, or a physical one, or an individual one. It’s all of it. Of course, marriage isn’t the cure. How could one person be all of that?
In my quest for the cure for loneliness, I realized that maybe I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of a “cure” at all. Our lives can’t be stacked so perfectly that we never feel lonely. The emotional, spiritual, physical, mental, and intimate relationships wouldn’t always overlap perfectly. There will be gaps and in them, loneliness will define the void. Loneliness didn’t need a once and for all cure, instead, I need to see it as a cue, a signal of my humanity.
Each person is made to live in concert with other people. Loneliness shines a spotlight on the part of us that knows we need a shared life. Like hunger cues tell us to eat and anger cues alert us that a boundary has been crossed, loneliness is a cue that tells us we’re experiencing relational lack. When I feel lonely my natural response is to let my loneliness lead me to despair or to over-intellectualizing my circumstances or to walking around numb like a social zombie. But if I think of that ache of loneliness as a cue that I am truly human, that I have relational needs and my heart and soul are alerting me that I’m living in lack, then loneliness is an invitation to reimagine how I engage my relationships and communities. A reminder to share my life, to share myself.
Of course, I never did find the cure for loneliness—there isn’t one in any absolute sense. Two years after that day in the park when a story forced me to recognize the loneliness I had been ignoring, I’m still awkwardly, slowly rebuilding my social life. The feeling I tried to cure has become its own kind of intermittent companion. I recognized the cue and keep working on my shared life.
Cover image by Prateek Katyal.