I'm all alone in the universe. No one really knows me. No one really cares. God - if there is one - is far away. He got tired of the world and moved away. I looked in the mirror today and saw the real me - one hideous scar, an open sore. I'm going to sleep.
These were the words of a brilliant student at a large, well-known university. He was one of the most promising students there. He was exceptionally gifted, handsome, athletic, and popular, and he was headed for an outstanding career in medicine.
Though far from being alone and in spite of all this he was still a very lonely young man. After writing the above note, he injected poison into his veins and died.
Loneliness, like depression, is one of the plagues of contemporary society. Few escape it altogether. In its chronic form it is a killer.
Time magazine reported some years ago1that health studies have long shown that unmarried or widowed people are much more susceptible to sickness than married people. For instance, the death rate from heart disease is five times as high among widows between 25 and 34 as it is among married women of the same age. And the divorced of all ages are twice as susceptible to strokes as are the married.
James J. Lynch, specialist in psychosomatic medicine at the University of Maryland Medical School and author of The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, claims that suicide, cancer, tuberculosis, accidents, mental disorders, and especially heart disease are "all significantly influenced by human companionship."
In other words, "loneliness and isolation can literally break your heart."
Loneliness is a feeling of not being able to reach another person and his not being able to reach you. It is a feeling of being isolated even though you may be surrounded by people.
Henri Nouwen expressed it this way: the lonely person "cannot make contact; his hand closes on empty air."
Psychologist Norman Wright in An Answer to Loneliness quotes one lonely woman who said, "I hurt deep down in the pit of my stomach, my arms and my shoulders ache to be held tight...to be told that I am really loved for what I am."
"Deep within each of us is the hunger for contact, acceptance, belonging, intimate exchange, responsiveness, support, love, and the touch of tenderness," says Wright. "We experience loneliness because these hungers are not always fed."
For example, a child feels lonely when his parents are too busy for him. But to whom can he turn? The adolescent feels lonely when he feels misunderstood by his parents. A mother of small children feels lonely when she is too busy to have her own needs for companionship met.
When married couples cannot communicate effectively especially with their feelings, loneliness can cut deeply.
When one loses a loved one through death or divorce or is isolated through illness, he or she feels incredibly lonely.
The elderly, who are often cut off from their families and whose friends have passed away, know the bitterness of loneliness.
People who feel inadequate are often lonely. Because they don't like themselves, they think others don't like them either, so they keep away from other people.
Sometimes hidden hostility is a cause for loneliness. The hostile person is angry at people so he prevents them from getting too close through his negative attitude.
Another cause of loneliness is fear - fear of getting hurt, fear of rejection, fear of not measuring up, fear of losing a loved one, fear of failure, and so on.
For instance, when Sharon was five her father left home, and she felt rejected by him. Ever since, she has had an unconscious fear that if she ever fully loved another man, he would leave her too. Thus she was afraid to fully love her husband until she realized why she was holding back from him.
On the other hand, John came from a happy home but his parents moved every year for business reasons. Every time John made close friends, the family moved and he would lose his friends. As he grew older, he no longer wanted to make close friends because it was too painful to lose them. This left him lonely.
Both Sharon and John were able to overcome their loneliness when they realized its cause - which is the first step in resolving all problems. Once they recognized their fear they were able, little by little, to reach out to others and, in time, overcome their loneliness.
If I'm having trouble with loneliness, I, too, need to ask myself what the real cause is. Is it a communication problem? Feelings of inadequacy? Fear of being hurt? If so, I may need the help of a trained counselor or an understanding pastor or friend to help me work through my struggle.
Service to others is another way to overcome loneliness. I think of my grandmother who lived to 90. She had been a widow for many years but didn't suffer from loneliness. She reached out to help others by regularly visiting the sick and the elderly. In helping to meet their needs she met many of her own.
People simply cannot live without human contact. As Dr. Lynch reminds us, "If we fail to form loving human relationships, our mental and physical health is in peril." This is why it is vital to be committed to family and friends and to make the effort to strengthen these ties.
Besides one's family, there is no better place to find love and a sense of belonging than in a church where unconditional love, acceptance, and friendship are expressed in open, positive, and practical ways.
Here, too, one can find God - the only one who can satisfy our innate sense of spiritual loneliness. "To live apart from him," says Wright, "is the most pathetic loneliness of all."
If you respond to God's love through his Son, Jesus Christ, he has promised to "never, no never, no never leave you or forsake you." 2No matter how you feel, Christ will always be with you.
Visualize him right there with you now-wherever you are. Respond to his call to follow him. Commit and trust your life to him every day. Ask him to give you the faith to believe in him and the courage to do your part in overcoming your loneliness. As you do your part, God will help you. He has promised he will.
1. Time, Sept. 5, 1977. 2. See Hebrews 13:5.
Copyright © 2001 by Dick Innes