This article is reposted from my contribution to Uncommon Voices Collective. The original article can be found here.
On November 12th, ‘Swifties’ across the country were elated when Taylor Swift re-released her album, Red. TikTok was filled with fans making content on the app about heartbreak and commenting on the short film she released and how much it resonated with them. One thing stood out to me though amidst the fan frenzy: their connection to Taylor’s pain when someone she loved wasn’t at her birthday party and she couldn’t bring herself to pretend to be happy.
It seems silly, right? To begin a conversation about loneliness with the story of a multi-millionaire pop star and a breakup she went through ten years ago? But I think she identified a really important human experience: feeling alone in your pain while everyone else is at a party. And it’s a timely conversation because never are parties and pain more in conflict than at the holidays.
Never is loneliness more acute than when everyone else is celebrating while you are in pain. And no matter how many times you play It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and regardless of how many Christmas lights you put up, there is no escape from the loneliness that comes with feelings of nostalgia and grief for years gone by, or the pain from missing that friend or family member at the dinner table, or that ache in your chest that comes from wanting a significant other to share your joy with. We’ve all had a moment at some point in our lives where we look around and see people laughing and feel utterly isolated because we can’t laugh with them.
It’s difficult to comfort people in their loneliness, isn’t it? What do you say to a grieving parent, a deserted spouse, or a young single person? The cliches never seem to help. I can’t recall a single time “It will all be ok” or “There’s someone out there for you” ever helped me to feel less lonely at all. In fact, it only exacerbated it, because it seems to drive home how much they simply can’t understand.
But perhaps the problem is that we’re misdiagnosing loneliness as a disease, and therefore we’re on a hopeless mission to find a cure. It’s easy to spot when someone is chasing the big three—that is, sex, drugs, and alcohol—but a much more prevalent and pernicious search for a cure can be found in the part of the internet we so ironically call “social” media. Hundreds of YouTubers and TikTokers that refer to their millions of followers as “friends” have created the illusion that our loneliness can be numbed with entertainment or cured with some illusion of community created by followership. And yet, never has mental illness been so prevalent, depression rates so high, or loneliness so acute.
Is loneliness really a disease? I think it would be more productive to recognize it as a kind of suffering, one for which there is no “cure” or quick fix. There is no magical or medicinal treatment for feeling like you are alone whether it be in your pain, in your perception of the world, in your life’s journey or suffering. There was no magical cure for Christ’s loneliness. His enemies spit on him; his closest disciples abandoned him. He cried out to his own Father from the cross, asking why he’d been forsaken. And this suffering by no means started at the cross; it started at the cradle. The whole point of Advent is celebrating Christ’s incarnation as he left the perfect community of the Trinity in paradise to become a man and suffer and die. He is no stranger to loneliness, he felt it and understood it deeply through his birth, ministry, and death. But even that loneliness wasn’t a disease. It wasn’t meant to be cured. It was a suffering meant to be endured.
Perhaps this understanding of loneliness will help us as we approach the holidays. If we reframe that feeling of being alone even when surrounded by celebration from a disease to a suffering, we can reframe our reaction from one of trying to cure it to trying to meet it with compassion. And this applies to how we treat ourselves in our loneliness. We don’t have to cure ourselves, and chances are if we try with any of those toxic, empty treatments we’ll only make it worse.
Psalm 25:16 is the perfect prayer, but also the perfect bit of advice for counseling the lonely: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” Face someone in their loneliness, and be gracious to them. Be gracious to yourself. And pray for God to be gracious to you.
Grace can look different for different people. For some, it’s simply recognizing their pain and loneliness and allowing them space to feel it. I was once at a party and a family member of mine apologized for not “being themselves” that night. I told her that she was not obligated to be any one version of herself at a given time. I knew she’d had a hard week, and there was no need to paste on a smile and act like everything was ok. That space to be real was a form of grace for her.
I hope and pray that the God of all grace and comfort will touch you in your loneliness as we press on through the holidays. He sees your suffering, and with God as your comforter, you’re never truly alone. Who in your life is suffering from loneliness? Who can you extend grace to? How can you extend grace to yourself this holiday season?