What actually is loneliness, and why do we find it so difficult? - asks Michael Ots

I have never been more alone in my life than when I paddled my SUP down the Whanganui River, without any human contact for five days, not even on my phone!

I was alone, yet never once did I feel lonely. Conversely some of my loneliest moments have been when I have been surrounded by others. So, what actually is loneliness, and why do we find it so difficult?

Fay Bound Alberti in A Biography of Loneliness, notes that the modern concept of loneliness, didn’t exist before 1800. People were alone before that, but their experience of it wasn’t perceived negatively in the way that it is now.

Surveys suggest that loneliness in the UK is increasing especially amongst students aged 18-24. This loneliness has massive consequences both psychologically and physically.

Michael Ots for Solas.

The journalist, Sebastian Junger, noted that American soldiers had higher rates of PTSD than any other nations’ veterans. But that wasn’t because they had more traumatic experiences of war, but that on returning to one of the most individualistic countries in the world they lacked both direction and crucially a sense of belonging. Loneliness also has implications for physical health. The most reliable indicator of life expectancy is the quality of a person’s relationships.

So, what is making us so lonely? Fay Bound Alberti suggests two reasons:

Firstly, Darwin’s theory of evolution profoundly changed the way we view others. In a world where only the fittest survive, it is all too easy to see other people as competition not as community.

Secondly she cites the decline of religious belief, because prior to 1800 it was more common to describe isolation using the positive word: ‘solitude’. And solitude was considered a way to develop one’s connection with God.

Could it be that the problem of living life without any thought of God is that when we are alone, we really are alone with no one else to turn to? And perhaps it means that we end up seeking from others the kind of love, belonging and intimacy that we were meant to get from God himself? What if we were designed to connect on the deepest level with the creator of the universe? No friend, neighbour, colleague, lover or even spouse will be able to fill that void.

But can our lost connection to God be re-found?

I’m struck by the fact that although Jesus often sought solitude with his heavenly Father, there is only one occasion when he seems to experience “loneliness”. During his crucifixion Jesus was seemingly abandoned by God himself. The Christian contention is that Jesus, who knew the deepest connection with God, somehow gave that up so that we might gain it.

The mathematician Blaise Pascal believed that: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He himself came to experience a profound connection with God that enabled him to see time alone as precious solitude – a time to connect with God. Being reconnected to God also helps us to connect with others. Becoming a Christian means becoming part of the church – not an old building where we get bored but a real family where we find real belonging.

Michael Ots for Solas

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