As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
In January, I was counting my blessings during quarantine, and a not-too-harsh winter in West Michigan was among them. Then the heavy snow came in, and we became entirely homebound for more than a week in February. The loneliness sometimes was too intense. But I come to realize loneliness can help in my spiritual growth.
Ordinarily, the fact that life gives different forms of diversity to different people helps even out a sense of loneliness. It used to be that Kate, in the pain of chronic illness, can find comfort in confiding to a divorce friend Julie who lived through a different suffering. They lean on each other, and the weaker friend finds the strong one to carry her for an extra mile.
During this prolonged COVID-19 crisis in America, we find ourselves in an overwhelming kind of loneliness, because of social isolation and multiple crises that deprive us of meeting us in a truly bonding way. There is no quick relief to this kind of loneliness.
Fifteen years ago while in graduate school, I suffered from months of depression triggered by disorientation and loneliness. God started a long healing journey in me, and I have been well ever since. But the yearlong quarantine of 2020 brought back a familiar and terrifying phase of relapse. There have been moments when I felt drowning in despair. And this scenario happened to me a lot: I, already depressed, want to call a friend, but the thought that this friend is also in a state of frustration and depression might keep me from doing so.
I have learned that as Christians, one spiritual discipline is to not escape these feelings but to identify the place in the soul from which they emerge. But this past week, in snowy Michigan, when I searched for a place without fear inside my heart, there was none. Fear and anxiety overwhelmed my thoughts. In these anxious moments, the idea of God’s providence almost seemed too distant.
Loneliness is a slow-cutting pain. The intellectual “me” knows well that such pain might lead to a more fruitful knowledge about God’s love. But the emotional and mental “me” struggles with the prolonged reality of that pain, with a lost sense of hope.
It is in the most fundamental fear of loneliness that our creaturely state is laid bare. We find it hard to face. Before COVID-19, we did everything possible to avoid this confrontation. Sometimes we created the most ingenious devices to get busy with life in order to neglect the topic of loneliness. Our busyness was a state of anesthesia that numbed us to this most existential pain. The culture around us has become most sophisticated (and successful) in aiding our avoidance of pain. It provides us with satisfying approval and affirmation. But these layers of emotional comfort have been stripped away for so many during the pandemic. We are left all alone by ourselves. Day in and day out, we are brought so close to the revelation of our most human aloneness, which becomes all-pervasive.
In our most vulnerable moments of loneliness, God promises to face us full-on, although we might not “feel” it. Our insatiable yearning for connectedness and community proves that God is at work. What presents as negativity in COVID-19 quarantine can also be seen as “we are all in this together.”
I began to let my thoughts and prayerful silence touch on people who came to mind. The homeless in Degage Ministries of downtown Grand Rapids, the needy families in my church, the elderly couple who just went through a surgery, and friends in another country. I wonder if they are doing well. I hope they are well. Thank God that we can exercise such connectedness and compassion even when we are alone.
Compassion is by itself an open, inclusive and abundant state of the soul. It allows us to meet the pain in ourselves and in others. While in isolation, the Spirit of God is healing our wounds. Loneliness might reveal some of these hidden wounds. The healing is by God’s own doing, and we in our creatureliness might be able to see its fruit after that work is done.