Loneliness is an empty street, filled with cars, devoid of people. The isolation of your body as you walk in silence, headphones in, from house to bus stop.
The moment you engage a classmate and find no matter how hard you try, you struggle to find places of mutual interest and connection. A difference in language. A mismatch in culture. The discovery that the time required and effort necessary to get past the shallowness of a new “hi! – bye!” relationship far exceeds your capacity to do so.
It is reading a message from home and being reminded just how far everything and everyone you love is. It is intimacy stolen by distance, lost in transmission as texts and calls arrive from half a world away.
To be lonely is to realize that our relationships are not as we want them to be. To be lonely is to realize it doesn’t require an absence of people or communication to be alone.
Alone, not as a man sitting in an empty house is alone – literally, physically – but a man blowing out candles at his birthday party, or waking up beside his wife is alone. It is a loneliness amplified by proximity. When people surround you at every turn, but meaningful interaction is scarce. When those who should know the most about you, don’t. And the friends you study with, laugh with, hang out and spend the majority of your time with are still strangely unable to satisfy the deep pull in your heart for something more.
Perhaps this is one of the deepest longings of the human heart – to be seen, to be known. To know that there is someone in the world to which we belong, wholly and fully to. Someone who sees past the neat, external layers, and peels back the carefully crafted identities we hang up onto our Facebook walls to choose to love the messy, complicated parts of us. Someone to be with us in all seasons, as in the American marriage pledge: “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.”
For me, attending a school with only 3000 other undergrads, there was little doubt in my mind that people saw me. I enrolled in courses where my number of classmates ranged from two to a hundred. I was a member of one of the biggest organizations on campus. Most nights, I was the last person to leave the cafeteria, having sat with several rotations of people at my table over dinner.
But few of these interactions ever made me feel seen.
How could so many people see me and I still feel so invisible? So many know my name and yet no one really knows who I am.
Eight years later, sometimes I find myself still wondering. And as the questions unravel:
Is there an end to this feeling of disconnect, this feeling of loneliness?
Is there a love that dispels all fear, that is able to bring us out from under its shadow?
Sometimes, the answer loudest in my ear is no.
And yet, I am reminded, always reminded, that there exists one who does hear my voice; and hears my cry for mercy. Who turns his ear to me, and I will call on as long as I live. For though the cords of death entangle me, the anguish of the grave come over me; though, again and again, I am overcome by distress and sorrow, I am confident that there will be rescue. In the very moments I am brought down to the deepest pits of my loneliness, even then and even there, he is with me.
And where God has entered, there I walk alone no more.
(Italicized words from the Bible; Psalm 116:1-6)