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Mindful of loneliness 

Many are experiencing an increase in loneliness because of the enforced lockdown. Baptist minister Shaun Lambert offers this reflection, highlighting some of the spiritual resources Christianity has to offer


The older members of my congregation who live on their own are telling me about a significant increase in loneliness because of the Covid-19 lockdown, especially as they are in the vulnerable category and will be indoors until at least the end of June. Reports also say that disabled adults are likely to be alone during this crisis.[1]

I know many leaders feel lonely even in the best of times. Loneliness is generally experienced as unpleasant, as aversive, something to be avoided. What are we feeling when we feel lonely can be difficult to describe, because we are trying to avoid seemingly intolerable feelings. Loneliness is, of course, something experienced by almost everyone. I have been interested in loneliness because of my own experience. I remember being lonely at boarding school, being lonely during the first week of university, lonely for the first year of working after university and after relationship breakdown. This has made me compassionate to others who are experiencing loneliness.

I am also interested in loneliness because Christianity has a long history of people cultivating solitude and so has spiritual resources to offer. Christianity is also about drawing the other into community and relationship, and our reaching out to those experiencing loneliness needs to be set in the wider field of loving the widow and the orphan and loving the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, James 1:27). I also would like to suggest that mindfulness can help us with any difficult feeling we are trying to avoid. I would like to suggest, along with others, that there can be a positive dimension to loneliness.
It is recognised that loneliness is a public health risk, and can contribute to physical and mental illness, and unhelpful coping behaviours like turning to alcohol. It can trigger anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts. Loneliness can apparently even reduce our length of life.[2] Loneliness has an objective reality; many are living in social isolation. Loneliness is also a subjective lived experience, we can perceive we are lonely, and that perception can be a distortion.[3]
There are different types of loneliness. There is social loneliness, where we are lacking in friends, or we perceive we are. The lockdown has certainly increased the experience of social loneliness for many. There is emotional loneliness often experienced after the death of a spouse or partner, where it is the more intimate connection that is missed. The lockdown may also have revealed emotional loneliness that might have been masked by busy social interaction pre-lockdown.[4] There is what is sometimes called existential loneliness which has a spiritual dimension.[5] I think Covid-19 has increased existential loneliness as people become aware of their own mortality, that sense of aloneness in the face of death. Identifying the type(s) what loneliness we are experiencing can be helpful in dealing with it.
We know that people can be alone and yet not lonely. We know that people can be lonely because of singleness, or lonely in a relationship. We know that people can be dispositionally lonely because of shyness or some other factor like low self-esteem.[6] We know that people can feel lonely because of difference. However, the loneliness I want to focus on is the loneliness many are experiencing because of a change in situation – enforced lockdown.
We have looked at some of the complexity of loneliness and recognised some of the consequences. It is personal but also a product of the fractures in society. We can develop personal ways of coping, and churches, charities, local authorities, and government can create initiatives to help reduce loneliness. One such national project which began in 2011 was the campaign to end loneliness. However, many of the projects to increase social contact, like friendship groups, interest groups, church social groups and skills acquisition cannot operate in the same way in lockdown. There are technological solutions, but many older people only have a landline telephone, and no email or internet access.[7]
When I was lonely, I felt empty and unable to change the situation. Loneliness can drive you to change things, or leave you paralysed and feeling hopeless. Loneliness can feel like sadness, and a longing for things to be different.[8] If we are predisposed to self-criticism, we can believe we must be a failure. Other people’s negative stereotypes of what a lonely person is like, can reinforce that self-criticism.[9]
Looking at our loneliness is difficult, but if we can decide what sort(s) of loneliness we are experiencing then we can begin to do something about it. However, as Christians we also have a responsibility to reach out to those who are lonely. Psalm 68 says God cares for the lonely and wants to connect them to others. In Psalm 25 the writer cries out to the Lord for help because of loneliness. Sometimes when we are lonely, we find it difficult to reach out, and that is when others can reach out to us. The experience of loneliness can make it difficult for us to feel God’s presence.
The first thing we can do is, and this is a mindfulness insight, is accept that this is the reality we face right now, and commit to work to change it, to bringing Christ in. Mindfulness of God means paying attention to what is real, in the world right now, and what is Real – that is God’s presence. If we have been avoiding the experience of loneliness we turn and face it.[10] It helps to identify our own loneliness and so we can ask…Is it emotional loneliness I am feeling? Is it because of the loss of a loved one, or the breakdown of an intimate relationship? Is it social loneliness I am feeling? This is entirely normal if you are in lockdown and having to self-isolate because of vulnerability. Ask yourself, ‘am I dispositionally lonely?’ What are the feelings I am having? Is it spurring me on to do something about it or do I feel hopeless and paralysed? Use the cry of the psalmist, ‘Turn to me (O God) and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted’ (25:16).
It may be that our perception of our relationships, intimate or wider may be distorted. We may have unrealistic expectations. Here mindfulness and contemplative practice invites us to self-examination. Our thoughts are not facts, they are passing mental events. In the stress of lockdown, we may be catastrophizing – imagining a future where no one ever rings us or speaks to us. We may have been the recipient of stereotypical comments, that somehow, we are a failure, or judge ourselves a failure for being lonely.[11] Here both contemplative practice, and mindfulness invites us, in the words of Jesus to have self-compassion, to love ourselves and our neighbour (Mark 12:31). The use of the Ananias Prayer of self-compassion when used daily can help us cultivate a more loving inner attitude:
May the love of Christ take hold of me (in my loneliness)
May light of Christ shine in my heart (in my loneliness)
May the love of Christ flow through me like a river (in my loneliness).

Social loneliness can be somewhat assuaged even in lockdown. There are many online resources available from churches, as well as conference calls or Dial-A-Service opportunities. Phone calls, and video-conferencing or other face to face Apps are no substitute for the real thing, but they do help. Having a chat with the person delivering your shopping (at a safe distance) helps! With God’s help and the help of others we can hold our loneliness rather than being held by it. Because of our experience of loneliness, we can reach out and hold the hands of others who feel they have no one to turn to.
The spiritual practice of solitude can redeem alone time from feeling lonely, to one of self-awareness and change. Existential loneliness can help us realise that we are not in control – that we are dependent on God. We can turn toward God and cultivate a deeper relationship. The stories of Elijah, Jonah, and ultimately Jesus on the Cross crying out ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) show us that something we believe intolerable can be transfigured as we take up our cross and follow Jesus.  
Online resources

Shaun Lambert is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist as well as being Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church. He is the author of A Book of Sparks – a Study in Christian MindFullness, and Putting on the Wakeful One

Image | Photo by Sander Mathlener | Unsplash

[1] Church Times, 1 May 2020, 6.
[2] Russell, D., Cutrona, C. E., Rose, J., & Yurko, K. (1984). Social and emotional loneliness: An examination of Weiss's typology of loneliness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(6), 1313. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.46.6.1313. See also Gardiner, C., Geldenhuys, G. and Gott, M. (2018), Interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people: an integrative review. Health Soc Care Community, 26: 147-148. doi:10.1111/hsc.12367.
[3] Our distorted perceptions is a common mindfulness insight.
[4] Russell, D., Cutrona, C. E., Rose, J., & Yurko, K. (1984). Social and emotional loneliness: An examination of Weiss's typology of loneliness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(6), 1313–1321. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.46.6.1313
[5] Clark E. Moustakas, Loneliness (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016).
[6] See Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau, “Toward a Social Psychology of Loneliness” page 37, 42,  In S. Duck & R. Gihour (Eds.), Personal Relationships in Disorder. London: Academic Press, 1981.
[7] For a review of such interventions see Gardiner, C., Geldenhuys, G. and Gott, M. (2018), Interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people: an integrative review. Health Soc Care Community, 26: 147-157. doi:10.1111/hsc.12367.
[8]  For a helpful summary see Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau, “Toward a Social Psychology of Loneliness” page 35 In S. Duck & R. Gihour (Eds.), Personal Relationships in Disorder. London: Academic Press, 1981. See also A. Akin, “Self-compassion and Loneliness”, International Online Journal of Educational Sciences 2010, Vol. 2 Issue 3, p704. 
[9] On the power of self-criticism see Akin, 703, 710.
[10] Shinzen et al, 3488.
[11] Perlman, 49-50.



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