Can Loneliness Be a Good Thing?

While most of the news coming out about loneliness is about how bad it is […]

Charlotte Donlon / 4.8.19

While most of the news coming out about loneliness is about how bad it is for our health, some people have stated that loneliness can be a good thing. Dr. Karyn Hall writes, “Just as physical pain protects people from physical dangers, loneliness may serve as a social pain to protect people from the dangers of being isolated. It may serve as a prompt to change behavior, to pay more attention to relationships which are needed for survival.”

And Jenna Clark, a senior behavioral researcher at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, says, “There’s an unavoidable bit of speculation, but humans are very social and we can’t survive very well on our own. All human accomplishments and the creation of society has happened by working with other humans. [Our need for relatedness] keeps us cooperating with other humans so we can survive.”

My friend and former therapist Dr. Gordon Bals said this about loneliness: “I do think there is profound good in loneliness. It helps us reflect, make changes, seek more, and make space for God.” I have been fascinated by this statement since I first heard it. He’s not speaking from a human survival standpoint. He’s saying loneliness can help us grow spiritually. How can loneliness be a good thing? How can it help us reflect, make changes, seek more, and make space for God?

When I began to give more of my attention to loneliness several months ago, I did what I usually do: I began to write about it because I’m a writer and that’s one way I process all of the things. But I wanted to engage the topic in a different way and bring in additional opinions, so I also began to talk about loneliness on my Hope for the Lonely podcast that incorporates anonymous survey responses from others who have shared their experiences with loneliness.

All of the thinking and writing and talking about loneliness has removed some of the power it has had on me since I was a young child. My loneliness seems less oppressive. It seems less consuming. It’s more of a normal thing that has come into the light and sometimes accompanies me for a few hours or a few days or a few weeks instead of a monster hiding in the shadows of my soul that I don’t want to acknowledge or address.

Now my loneliness reminds me of the beautiful red and black and white woodpecker that used to hang out in the trees in the front yard of our former house. I never knew when the woodpecker would come around, but when it did show up I noticed it. I watched it. I listened to it. I followed its path. (I realize there could’ve been more than one woodpecker appearing throughout the 10 years we lived in that house. But please humor me and let me live my single bird dream.)

I’m not saying my loneliness is all better now. I’m not saying it doesn’t bother me anymore. But it is different. It’s more approachable. It’s less scary.

All of my reflection on loneliness has also led to more reflection on God, suffering, and hope. I’ve moved deeper into theological exploration and discussions with others who know a lot more about all of these topics than I will ever know. I’ve read Martin Luther and Gerhard Forde. I’ve exchanged emails and messages with smart friends who have been to seminary. I’ve tweeted into the Twittersphere and received pretty decent replies to those tweets. I’ve journaled and prayed and sat with God in the silence that comes with mystery.

So, as I reflect on my loneliness in theological conversations with others and God, I feel less alone in my exploration of various angles of loneliness, which makes me feel less alone in general. I’m not the only person who wants to understand the hard things. We all want to know what God is doing with the hard things. And while I don’t have all of the answers I want, I do have the God I need.

Reflecting on loneliness has also led to more thoughtfulness in how I engage with my friends and family throughout the course of everyday life. I am more intentional about the conversations I have during coffee dates with friends, when I’m hanging out with my husband and my kids, and while I’m with members of my church small group every Sunday night. I’ve always appreciated Christian community and meaningful conversations, but somehow this greater awareness of my loneliness has led me to desire greater depth with others. I have more courage to ask about things that usually linger in dark places. I have more confidence to speak words of peace and hope and encouragement to others. I have more gumption to demand my teenage kids sit still and listen to me read a poem or a short story or a short essay at night before bed because I know that stories and poems can help all of us feel less lonely.

I know it may be difficult for many to see a silver lining or believe that one may exist. In the anonymous survey for one of my podcast episodes on faith and loneliness, someone wrote, “Sometimes loneliness challenges my faith because I feel isolated and alone, and not even my faith feels robust or more than dull in light of my loneliness.” Another person wrote, “Loneliness makes faith really hard. If I feel lonely and unseen with the real, tangible people around me, that usually carries over to feeling unseen and ignored by a God that I can’t see.”

While the silver lining of my own loneliness is nice and sparkly for now, the cloud of loneliness hasn’t evaporated entirely. It still follows me around. It will probably hide the sun in some form or fashion for most of my days this side of heaven.

I have felt the pain of loneliness firsthand yet have also begun to understand what Dr. Bals means. As hard as loneliness can be, it can also be good. It can be a signal that something is off and serve as an invitation to give more attention to ourselves and our relationships with God and other people. It can help us move deeper into reflecting on the human condition. And it can help us better understand our need for a Rescuer and Redeemer.