Loneliness & Loving Our Neighbor
By Jennie Lyons
My hometown of Washington, D.C. was recently named the loneliest city in America. Another study found a growing number of Americans have few or no close friends at all. Most of us allow ourselves to get pulled ever deeper into the vortex of our phones, laptops, and television screens. We spend less time outside. Less time sleeping. And less time in intimate conversation. And we wonder why depression rates are sky-rocketing.
Garage doors go up and garage doors go down. We don’t take much time to really know our neighbors, much less love them as ourselves. When we do, it’s often a snap judgment. Is this person worth my time? Friendships are work, after all. But having them reaps all kinds of rewards.
A growing body of research shows intimacy benefits our mental and physical health as much as our eating habits, physical activity, and sleep. And multiplying your friendships expands those benefits. Increasing your number of deep, platonic love relationships reduces the risk of premature death even more than exercise and diet.
As much as I love my husband, he knows that there is something about my female friendships that fill a void that he just can’t. Shared understanding. Shared experience. Shared knowledge of all the joys and struggles and awesomeness of being a woman.
We are literally made for this. To connect deeply in a network of community. To percolate in all the beauty and messiness of our people. So why do we resist it?
For one, Western society is incredibly individualistic. Independence is encouraged and seen as strength. We’re also pushed toward a treadmill of performance that draws us inward. Even if you’re enlightened enough to look past these lies, another huge reason we don’t always pursue friendships is because we’ve been hurt. That makes it hard to trust again, doesn’t it?
We don’t want to be vulnerable. Believe me, I get it. I recently joined an activity where other people involved have known each other for years – more than a decade, in many cases. It’s been both beautiful and hard.
I’m becoming friendly with several people. There is also one specific woman I’d like to be closer to. In my excitement over how much we have in common, I tried pretty hard. Maybe too hard? I’ve felt a bit iced out at times.
Rejection still stings terribly, even in adulthood! It speaks to all my insecurities and leaves me with racing thoughts. Did I say something? Did I do something? And there isn’t always enough relationship capital there to address it.
This throwback to grade school angst renews my empathy for the social world our kids navigate every day.
It also got me reflecting on a beautiful children’s book I was recently introduced to about a boy, a mole, a fox, and a horse – an achingly touching tale about four creatures who find total acceptance and belonging in each other, despite their differences.
Unfortunately, the reality I’ve experienced is that when there is already a boy, mole, and fox, they are an established dynamic. Maybe two of the friends are open to the horse, but the third doesn’t like change. They already have their circle and it’s good. The others in the group will probably go along. Why rock the boat if it makes someone uncomfortable?
Well, that leaves the horse feeling rejected and unlikeable. It also keeps all of us missing the blessing of the wider circle of friendship. It’s terrible! So, why put ourselves through this?
First, even when it hurts, I’m a grown woman. I can pick myself up – knowing my worth is not defined by anyone else’s opinion of me, but far beyond it in the love of God. While rejection could have other explanations, the group not opening themselves up to the blessing is the one I choose to believe. We can chalk it up to human nature and move on. Sad, yes. But not personal.
We also do it because when it works, it’s amazing! Typically, when I put forth the effort, it pays dividends. Those intimate, unconditional friendships where you can tell another anything – no matter how shocking – and know they’ll still love you. There is no expectation or need to agree on everything. In fact, there is a curiosity of how the other reached a different view. In relationships like this, we don’t even fear conflict. Conflict is rare and, when handled well, can deepen intimacy. I am so thankful for the friendships I have like this. The ones where I can tell them I love them and it’s not weird. It’s returned. I cherish them as some of the greatest gifts in my life. And they wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t taken the risk on another.
Finally, we do it because life is literally all about relationships – with the divine and with one another. Jesus says our role is to love each other as he loves us (John 13:34). Every person God places in our path is a choice. How will we approach our neighbor? As an outsider? As someone who must prove themselves or put in their time? Or as a created being of sacred worth welcome into our world with arms wide open? When you meet every person as a reflection of God, it changes every interaction. And opens you up to incredible things.
I’ve learned to be gentle with myself. One of my friends describes me as “all in.” When I decide someone is my people, I commit myself completely and I’m ready to do life with them. Full stop. In processing through this recent rejection, my friend said, “some people might just need a little time to catch up.”
So even though it sometimes hurts, we can still love the things about us that make us, well, us. We also don’t need to turn from the possibilities that may still unfold in the future, even if we must release our expectations of today.
Most importantly, we can choose to open the door to ask, what if? What if you and I decide to live in a way that invites the next friend into our circle? How would the next bit of the book play out if not only the horse – but maybe also the bear who wants to come next – is embraced?
I think it could look a lot like Acts 2:42-46, where believers of different backgrounds break bread together and all are included and have enough. This kind of living gives us a glimpse of what is to come in the next life, which is our call to bring about here and now. What a gift to be a part of that!
Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This sums up all the other laws, Jesus said (Matthew 22:36-40). It’s not some secret that God is hiding. But a gift God offers repeatedly in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as key to life and life abundant.
Friends, keep letting others in.
Jennie Lyons is a science communicator for the federal government and graduates with her Master of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in May 2023. She guest preaches in the Washington, DC area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She also partners with a licensed local pastor in leading a dinner church out of her home, as a fresh expression of the United Methodist denomination.