Punching loneliness in the face

Loneliness is an unseen wound many of us carry, buried in us, festering and hard to heal.

Loneliness and I know each other well.

I’ve had long seasons of life where it haunted me: my father dying when I was eight, growing up as a minority, being single until my thirties, and living in New York.

Don’t worry; I won’t take you through all of them. That would be too long, depressing, and self-indulgent. But I will take you through one, living in NYC, single.

Dating in New York is notorious. And all of the rumors are true. I know. I did it for seven years. Going on date after date after date with nothing to show for it other than rejection and a receipt was punishing. There was one time I got a girlfriend, but then her parents sat me down and told me not to date their daughter anymore since I wasn’t their nationality (at least they were direct). Some dates felt like I was negotiating a business deal instead of seeing if we could build a life together. Being rejected and rejecting, in turn, was soul-sucking. It was a workout. And it was isolating. But I wasn’t a victim. I dished out my fair share of knock out punches and chokeholds (metaphorically speaking).

Nonetheless, sometimes it wasn’t being alone that made me feel so lonely, it was losing the hope of ever finding anyone to love that did that.

Loneliness is surprising. Even when you are surrounded by friends, go to a church, have a significant other, live in a city swimming with humanity, you can still feel so alone. Sometimes that feeling can crush you. Sometimes, you can even have a family, be married, and feel that same way. It can hit us when we least suspect it. Sometimes the people we least suspect to be lonely are the loneliest.

Uncle Tony was one of my favorite people. I followed him from No Reservations to the other show, I forget its name, but I loved watching Anthony Bourdain. And I think it was because his show made me feel less alone. When he was on, it was like I was with him on his adventures. And he was talking to me as he was jet setting to this or that place slurping noodles on some backstreet with some old Asian grandmas or dressed like a prince strolling into some three Michelin star establishment crafting the perfect bite of caviar, truffle, and dry-aged meat. Then I heard the news of his death. It shocked me. “How could that happen to someone with his life, surrounded by people, adored?” I asked myself. I didn’t know. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he was lonely. He must have been. Maybe he was being smothered with that darkness. I don’t know. I do know that I felt lonely the day I found out. So I binge watched his show.

Fighting loneliness is just that–a fight.

The best way I know how to do that is to build a fortress of healthy relationships around you. It’s easy to say, hard to do. Find people who listen to you, ask questions, wonder about your life. They are interested in and care about you. They don’t just say that they do, they show it. This, of course, means that you need to treat them the same. Spend time with and invest in them. Surround yourself with those people. You don’t need many, at least one. That can be enough. But good relationships take work.

The stories that we tell ourselves also have an outsized impact on our loneliness. I remember telling myself that I was unlovable when I was single. That was a story that I pressed into my mind and heart. It seemed right. I mean, how many failed relationships did I need to experience to see that I was clearly unlovable? But that wasn’t true. And I had to counter that story with other ones. The greatest was that Jesus loved me, cherished me, treasured me enough to sacrifice himself for me. I wasn’t unlovable. I was loved with an infinite and unbreakable love.

Distractions only distract. Many of us pour ourselves into our work, hobbies, stuff. But I don’t think they are effective for the long run. Those activities and things don’t hug you back. They can’t love. Even if you were a billionaire, your money can’t satisfy you the way a loving relationship can. So if you are lonely, don’t work yourself to the bone, earn heaps of money, buy yourself a new car to salve the pain of loneliness. It doesn’t work. Loneliness can only be filled by a person.

And it’s not just our loneliness that we need to worry about. Right after I read an article on loneliness and the elderly, I called my mom. She’s older. She would say she’s old. Regardless, she lives on her own, and I’ve been a neglectful son. And reading that piece and writing this one has convicted me of my negligence. So we need to take care of those around us who are lonely, who aren’t good at connecting, who aren’t like us, who need help. Many of us live rich lives with more relational equity than we know what to do with. Well, you can do this. Pour into those people whom you suspect might be lonely. Call them, visit them, extend yourself to them; and not just once but consistently. Cover over their loneliness with your bounty.

These days I’m surrounded by my people. My wife and I have a healthy marriage, as healthy as one can be with two young kids. We connect and are connected. And then there are the two rugrats. They are amazing. And now our firstborn is carrying full-fledged conversations with us. He wants to know about our days and what we did and what we think about. It’s eerie but wonderful. We knew him when he was a helpless blob of flesh only capable of making noises like a beast to attempt to communicate what he wanted or needed. Now he’s clearly articulating what he’s feeling, thinking, wanting, and asking us deep questions and wanting to connect with us deeply. It’s magical.

I hope the same for you, too, friends. Connect with me. Send me a message I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading. And I hope this finds you well and rich with relationships.

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