COPING WITH LONELINESS
affliction of loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in our
society. Striking both young and old without warning, it provides
psychiatrist and huckster alike with a fertile field in which to work.
Why so much loneliness? Is it due to some personal deficiency in lonely
people, or is it caused by outside factors beyond their control? And
— most important of all — when loneliness hits close to
home, how can you personally cope with it?
People will do practically any-thing to avoid loneliness. The
moderately lonely in our midst join astronomy clubs, take night
classes, or have somebody's computer fix them up with blind dates.
Others seek relief on the shuffleboard court, the park bench, or at the
nearest Arthur Murray's. Lonely people avidly devour thousands of
copies of pop psychology books on "Intimacy Made Easy," and if they're
young and affluent they rent apartments in Marina Del Rey or some
counterpart community and jump feet-first into the frantic singles
Some of them haunt the encounter group circuit — bouncing from
therapy to therapy in search of the magic cure, their loneliness
temporarily eased by contact with throw-away companions. Lonely
people who strike out everywhere else run explicit ads in the
"Personal" column of
their local underground newspaper.
And the really hardcore lonely may end up patronizing a
new service called Conversation, where a trained nonexpert will listen
to them talk their lonely hearts out for only $8 an hour. An Ignored
Problem. Loneliness is a universal problem and a driving force in
millions of lives. Although chronic loneliness is known to be a
contributing factor in mental breakdown, divorce, alcoholism, drug
addiction and suicide, psychologists and researchers have paid little
attention to it. Loneliness has been looked on as a symptom rather than
a cause, and consequently ignored.
This is because most people are ashamed of loneliness in themselves and
intolerant of others who admit to feeling it. Loneliness is usually
swept under the rug; it's a painful embarrassment.
Most of the lonely feel that they are somehow to blame for their
plight. Dr. Robert S. Weiss writes: "So great is the shame of the
lonely . . . that they are wary of each other's company — a bit
like Groucho Marx, who believed that any club that admitted him could
not be worth joining" (Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and
Social Isolation, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1973, p. xix).
In fact, the experience of loneliness is so painful that once it is
alleviated people will go to extreme lengths to forget they ever
suffered from it — even to denying others' needs, since this
reminds them of their former pain. Psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann
"noted that at least one reason that we have no very good theory about
loneliness is that we have studied it so little." Further, "She
suggested that the absence of attention to loneliness was to be
explained not by the challenge loneliness presented to understanding
but rather by the threat it presented to well-being. She said that
loneliness is such a painful, frightening experience that people will
do practically everything to avoid it" (ibid., p. 10).
Too Frequent Advice. Weiss further states that "Loneliness is entirely
natural in certain situations, yet it is so easy to think of it as
weakness or self-indulgence, so easy to say that since one is suffering
no physical pain or obvious privation, it should be possible to shrug
off one's loneliness, even to label it solitude and thereupon enjoy it.
At least, so goes the too frequent advice, one ought not to let oneself
become caught up in self-pity: use the time alone to perform household
chores or to improve your mind. The lonely are apt to hear this advice
from others, but even if they do not, they very likely will offer it to
themselves. And they, like others, will condemn themselves if they
cannot shake off their loneliness and attend to something else" (ibid,,
And loneliness researcher Dr. William A. Sadler, Jr., professor of
Sociology at Bloomfield College, New Jersey, says that the general
public sees loneliness "merely as a symptom of a weak character. The
result is one tends to downplay the impact it has on one's life, or
even to deny that is has any significance at all, A common response
given to persons who admit being lonely is: 'Well, what's wrong with
you? You don't need to be lonely. Go out and get busy. Join a club. Do
something.' Frequently through workshops, interviews, and articles [he
has] found the response to be even more negative than this ..." ("The
Cause of Loneliness," Science Digest, July 1975, p. 60). Victims of
Loneliness. Loneliness attacks everyone from time to time. It's not a
character flaw, but rather the natural result of circumstances which
are usually beyond the control of those affected.
Even those in seemingly intimate situations can be extremely lonely.
Children who live in upstanding families and seem to have many friends
may actually suffer acute loneliness: "It is . . . possible in
adolescence for there to be intervals in which the world seems emptied,
bereft of possible attachment. The parents no longer serve in this way,
and there is no one else" (Weiss, op. cit., p. 92).
And their parents may be faring no better: "There are empty-shell
marriages, marriages without attachment, that provide no defense
against loneliness. Indeed, marriages of this sort may seem to the
participants to be the chief cause of their loneliness, since they
prevent the formation of genuine attachments" (ibid., p. 90).
Loneliness Defined. But just what is loneliness — and what are
its causes? Dr. Sadler describes the emotion: "The first and most
outstanding feature of loneliness is a painful feeling, sometimes
experienced as a sharp ache, as in moments of grief or separation; but
it can also be a dull, lingering form of stress that seems to tear a
person down." He adds that "One can be lonely for another person, a
group, a home, a homeland, a tradition, a type of activity, and even a
sense of meaning, or God" (op. cit, p. 58).
Sadler has categorized loneliness into five dimensions: interpersonal,
social, cultural, psychological and cosmic. The first, interpersonal,
is the most familiar type — where one misses an intimate
relationship with another very special person such as a spouse or close
Social loneliness is a feeling of being cut off from a group one
considers important, such as a church or fraternity. Cultural
loneliness occurs when one feels separated or alienated from a way of
life or system of traditions. This is the type of loneliness suffered
by minorities who feel they aren't part of the mainstream of the
dominant society. It is also felt by those who see their cultural
heritage rapidly changing or disintegrating around them.
Psychological loneliness refers to a person's being out of touch with
themselves and their true feelings. And cosmic loneliness is a yearning
for an ultimate source of life and meaning, or God.
Our Lonely Society. Our society as a whole seems to be custom-designed
to induce certain types of loneliness. Ralph Keyes makes some
interesting observations about the causes behind one type of cultural
loneliness: "There are three things we [Americans] cherish in
particular — mobility, privacy and convenience — which are
the very sources of our lack of community" ("We, the Lonely People,"
Intellectual Digest, December 1973, p. 25).
This lack of community has caused us to develop "temporary love
systems, hit-and-run intimacy, self-destructing communities that are
making closeness just as convenient and just as disposable as a
two-week guided tour." Keyes adds that "Millions of us have gladly
rejected the suffocation of total community, and even the partial
oppression of churches or clubs, where we were once known and
scrutinized. We feel well rid of that kind of oppression. . .. But we
forget to provide anywhere for the fellowship that went hand in hand
with suffocation. The sermons may have been a drag, but the potlucks
weren't so bad" (ibid., p. 31). Specific Needs. Understanding the
limiting structure of our society and being able to define and
categorize loneliness is a step in the right direction. But how can we
use this knowledge to cope with loneliness as it affects us and those
around us? Sadler states that "Many attempts to cope with loneliness
are unsuccessful because the need for a particular type of loneliness
has not been met." He also feels that "Recognizing specific needs
proper to different dimensions [of loneliness] is extremely important
when someone is trying to cope with loneliness. For example, a person
who sorely misses a special other person will not have that need
satisfied by joining in a group. Yet in spite of an impressive history
of failure, we continue to encourage widows to compensate by joining
organizations. That is, we tell them to look to the social dimension to
satisfy an interpersonal need" (op. Git, p. 66).
But even if we recognize the specific cause or causes of our particular
private loneliness, we may be unable to control the factors governing
it. There are many reasons why this is so. An interpersonal
relationship may be terminated by death or unavoidable separation; a
social relationship by a necessary job-related move to another part of
the country. Cultural loneliness by its very nature is brought on by
factors that are normally outside one's control, such as being born
into a certain racial group or growing old in a changing society.
What can a lonely individual do about all this? First of all, he can
pinpoint his own particular type of loneliness and determine if there
is any way he can change things. But if he can't, he shouldn't condemn
himself or feel guilty about his feelings. Changing one's circumstances
can be very difficult. A widow or widower, for example, may find it
nearly impossible to replace a lost mate. A shut-in might not be able
to join a club. And an older person can't turn the calendar back to
"the good old days." "Self-Actualization." But there are two of Dr.
Sadler's dimensions of loneliness a person can control: the
"psychological" and the "cosmic" — and they are actually very
closely related. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about both of
There was a recent best-seller titled How To Be Your Own Best Friend.
Loving yourself, "being your own best friend," being at peace with
yourself and on good terms with your conscience, are all a vital part
of personal Christianity. God loves us, and in the Bible He commands us
to love others as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39). In fact, we really
cannot love others properly unless we do love ourselves first.
God wants us to take good care of ourselves, to develop all of our
talents to the full (see Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27), to if at
all possible derive joy from the work we do (Eccl. 3:22), and to behave
ourselves morally and lovingly toward our fellow human beings. One
psychologist, Dr. Abraham Maslow, called this type of mature and full
development of our human potential "self-actualization." A person on
the road to self-actualization is far less likely to exhibit the type
of loneliness caused by being out of touch with oneself and one's
desires and impulses.
But this sort of personal development needs to be built on the
foundation of a good relationship with God. As Maslow put it,
self-actualized people have "worked out their philosophical, religious,
or axiological bearings" (Dominance, Self-Esteem, Self-Actualization:
The Germinal Papers of A. H. Maslow, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company,
1973, p. 178).
Relationship With God. Christ taught that love of God and love of
fellowman (including oneself) are the two basic principles from which
all other moral laws are derived (Matt. 22:40). Developing this love
for God and a relationship with Him involves being called by Him,
repenting, being baptized, receiving His Spirit, and trying to live the
kind of life Christ would in our circumstances (Acts 2:38-39; II John
If we actively seek and develop this relationship with God, the Bible
gives us something to hang onto — hope for the future. Even if
our circumstances are irremediably lonely right now, God promises us a
resurrection to eternal life, into an unimaginably satisfying
fellowship with Christ and other resurrected Christians. (For more
information on this subject, write for our free booklet What Is the
Reward of the Saved?)
This relationship will be far more warm, intimate and rewarding than
any human friendship. Christ uses the analogy of a marriage to describe
it, but it will transcend even this deep human bond. Christ's prayer
(recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17) hints at its nature: "Holy
Father, keep them [the disciples] in thy name which thou hast given me,
that they may be one, even as we are one. ... I do not pray for these
only, but also for those who are to believe in me through their word,
that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in
thee, that they also may be in us . . ." (verses 11, 20-21).
This relationship — which is guaranteed to every one of us who
reaches out to take God's promises — will eventually wipe out all
loneliness. In the book of Revelation, it is prophesied that "God
himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their
eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor
crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev.
So loneliness, no matter how chronic or hopeless in this age, is going
to be nonexistent in the fantastic future God has prepared for us. If
you would like to read more on the subject of mankind's eventual
destiny, write for the booklet Why Were You Born? It will be sent to
you free of charge.
by Carole Ritter reprint from the GOOD NEWS magazine April 1976