Loneliness is one of the most painful emotional experiences of the human condition—gut-wrenching, heart-aching, deep-rooted, disconnected loneliness. I hear many women and men, young and old, in my office, in my home, and in my church speak of their loneliness. Since it is so common, how do we make sense of and remedy this experience? As a therapist, I am constantly encouraging friendships and vulnerability—to be truly open and deeply known by others who are “safe.” So, I am writing about something that you probably already know: at the core of our identity is the need for relationships. Human beings have an inherent desire to be loved by others and when we are intimately connected it feels very powerful; at the root of connection is vulnerability.
Many modern day authors and speakers are bringing vulnerability to the forefront of cultural discussion, perhaps because it is missing. One of the frontrunners of this dialogue is the great Brene’ Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection. She writes, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.” Vulnerability is the key to love and emotional intimacy; it is this spiritual connection that decreases the experience of loneliness.
This spiritual connection traces back to the beginning of time when humans were created by Trinitarian love and power—the relationship of the Godhead. It is in relationships that we are created, wounded, healed and restored; it is then no wonder that we are meant to have the spiritual connection of which Brene’ speaks. Sadly, many of us have experienced the brokenness of relationship, and therefore, fear risking it all again, so instead we choose inauthenticity and facades. As Tim Keller, author and pastor in New York City put it, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything.”
Christians are called to pursue friendships and relationships with others because it is what we need more than anything, and when relationships are done well, it feels a lot like the love of God. Unfortunately, we do not always do relationships well and in these times, we are tempted to believe the greatest lie that we are alone, truly alone and that no one else understands. We tend toward faking it, wounding others, or seeking further solitude by building harsh walls of invulnerability. We end up unintentionally pursuing the curse of loneliness rather than struggling toward and fighting for the cure: authenticity and deep friendships.
Friendship says, “I see your pain, I know it, I have felt it; we can survive it together.” Research shows that vulnerable friendship is often what changes us—new emotional experiences through vulnerability with others. Vulnerability allows us to be compassionate, kindhearted human beings. Too often we let shame thwart relationships in which we can admit the truth that life is hard and that there is brokenness everywhere. But, we need others; we need to hear one another’s stories, so the fear of each other ceases and there is little space left for loneliness, violence, and calamity.
I was reading a blog earlier this week that left a deep impression on me, exploring the importance of connection and friendship in ending violence. It was the story of a math teacher who spends an hour or two, at the end of her long hard week, to take a look at the relational dynamics in her classroom. She asks the students to nominate one another, to request who they would like to sit next to during the week, to determine who is being left out and who feels disconnected. She then makes an effort to organize her room in such a way that breeds new life and relationships. This tradition began after the shooting at Columbine High School; she senses that violence is directly related to a lack of connection and feeling loved by others.
I write about this, I write about what you already know, because of the tragedies that our city, Charleston, and many other cities experienced recently. In Charleston, we heard that the shooter almost neglected his mission after realizing the humanity of the churchgoers around him. Unfortunately, this connection was brief and the disconnect set in. While it is more than disconnection and loneliness that leads to violence, perhaps the best way we can begin to counteract it is with connection. Maybe the beginning of the end of violence can occur through empathetic, respectful relationship with others.
So I pose these questions: what ways are you fighting loneliness? With whom are you vulnerable? How are you actively and intentionally pursuing vulnerability with someone you trust? If you are unsure, maybe therapy is a safe place to practice real vulnerability that can spur you on to restoration and connection with others.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” –C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
-Kellie Currin, MA