There have been a number of people I’ve talked to lately that have opened up about the presence of “loneliness” in their lives, even though they are (by all outward appearances) typically happy people, with plenty of friends and lots of social activity. In our culture, such an admission seems almost counterintuitive, yet as many are discovering, it’s a growing trend.
Despite appearances, people are largely finding that our busy, stress-laden lives are becoming more and more compartmentalized. It’s almost a necessity for it to be so, just to keep your head straight with all the things vying for our attention. We’ve got the work compartment, the home compartment (with sub-compartments for various family members), the neighborhood compartment, the friends compartment (with its various sub-compartments), hobbies, kids’ activities, social obligations….
It stands to reason with having all these different compartments, being able to “close the file” on one to effectively move our focus onto another is a smart use of our energies. However, there’s a social component to this that we’re starting to see the downside of.
When people have their lives compartmentalized – the way you have files on your computer compartmentalized – that separation between each compartment trains them to not think about things from one compartment while thinking about another. While it might be smart thinking regarding “things” (i.e. work, household chores, vehicle maintenance, etc.), unfortunately people are not exempted from being compartmentalized as well.
What does this end up breeding in our lives? Well, first and foremost it breeds the habit of not thinking about people unless we’re thinking about the compartment that they’ve been assigned to. For example, my wife and I coach our daughters’ soccer teams. Since I don’t spend my entire week thinking about the soccer teams, I naturally don’t think about the team members and their families unless I’m focusing on something that has to do with that “compartment”.
“What’s the harm in that?”, you might be thinking.
Superficially, there might not be much harm in it, because they are very likely not expecting me to be spending my entire week thinking about them. Digging a little deeper though, there might be one kid on one team who doesn’t really have a lot of positive going on at home, and that kid just might be viewing “team time” completely differently – enjoying the ability to have clear-cut goals and things to work on and excel in, and being able to receive positive encouragement from coaches looking for opportunities to encourage them.
“Wait a minute, weren’t we talking about loneliness?” This is precisely where loneliness comes in.
As adults, we’re no strangers to the concept of having responsibilities. There are many places to be and things to do each day, each of which likely having its own “compartment”, which causes us to isolate ourselves from the things within each compartment when we’re not actively engaging them. Again, it might seem counterintuitive to think this would breed loneliness, but look a little deeper.
When do we feel lonely? Don’t get suckered into thinking that it’s something that only happens when no one else is around, though it can happen then. It often can happen when there are people all around us.
I would suggest that loneliness happens more from being (or feeling) disconnected from those around you than from being physically absent from others.
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When we lead ever-increasingly compartmentalized lives, it becomes easier and easier to be disconnected from people:
“I’d love to spend more time with you honey, but I’ve gotta get to work.”
“I’d love to hang out with you after work, but I’ve got stuff I’ve gotta get done at home.”
“We don’t have time for that right now, we’ve gotta get to soccer practice.”
“Sorry I don’t have time to sit and talk with you after practice, we have to hurry and get some dinner so the kids can get their homework done and get to bed on time.”
“We don’t have time to try to find your doll’s missing shoe, get dressed, we have to get to church.”
“I’d love to sit and chat with you about some things that moved us from the sermon today, but I’ve gotta get to room ____ to serve.”
“Yeah bro, I’d love to sit and catch up with you but we’ve got ____ to do at home.”
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You might be thinking “That sounds more like disconnection due to an overly busy schedule”, but that would be superficial and short-sighted. No, I’m not trying to be insulting, I’m trying to be real with you.
When things are important to us, we make time for them; when we view things as no more pressing or important than average, we have no problem allowing them to sink back into “the routine” and not put the extra effort into them they might be asking for. It’s just another thing looking to take energy from us, and it’s not worth it enough to us to give that.
This is where this problem is rooted.
Because we’ve allowed ourselves to become so compartmentalized, we don’t have nearly so many relationships that “transcend the compartments”. If my wife needs something right now, I’m going to drop what I’m doing and do what I can to meet that need; likewise with my kids, if they truly need something right now (not, “Daddy, I neeeeeeeeeeeeeed to find my dolly’s shoe or I’ll just die!”), I’m going to stop what I’m doing and meet the need. But those are relationships that are expected to “transcend the compartments”, and indeed we know in some unspoken place that we’ll even be looked down upon socially if we fail to do so. But what about the relationships that are not so expected to “transcend the compartments”?
*What about that neighbor down the street you don’t really know very well, but you see they might be needing a little bit of help – do you break routine and offer?
*What about the guy at work you notice is “going along with the crowd” in some crude way but you can tell he’s uncomfortable with it – do you seek him out one on one at some point to ask him about it?
*What about that friend at church that you haven’t seen in a while or that you can tell is really going through something – do you say to yourself “I’ll pray for them” but never step forward to be there for them?
*What about those people who you get along with when you’re “in their compartment” (leisure activities, sports contests, kids’ activities, etc.) – do you reach out to possibly bring them into another compartment (telling them about a job opportunity in their field where you work, inviting them to church with you, invite them and their kids over to enjoy an afternoon, etc.)?
Going back to “loneliness = disconnection” for a second, we have to recognize that we’re not always going to recognize loneliness in other people. Some people are really good at hiding it and “putting on the smile”, some people are good at using defensive reflexes (like humor or deflections), and sometimes we’re just flat-out not paying attention. We have to be somewhat vigilant – IF indeed we care about the people whom God has put us in contact with – to invest ourselves in people, and part of that is being on the lookout for any that are “on the island”. (I don’t mean militantly investigating people’s lives either, but rather just paying attention and being able to read between the lines of what might be going on in their hearts and letting them know we’re available to talk.)
I can tell you from personal experience, people “on the island” will certainly send up “smoke signals” hoping that someone will break through the compartments and take the time to engage them, seeing what’s going on and in some small way, help them re-connect and break through. They also will not continue sending up smoke signals forever, because of our culture’s recent emphasis towards people reaching out for help as being “needy” or “whiny”, and nothing adds insult to injury more than, well, adding literal insult to emotional injury.
It’s easy to say “Hey bud, if you’re feeling lonely, why don’t you just get re-connected to people?” Usually though, it’s not just a case of a natural introvert just slinking back from people and disappearing – there’s typically something external that happens to push someone away, with the person hoping that someone from the “compartment” will reach out saying “I’m not giving up on you.”
This isn’t intended as an indictment but as an exhortation – we all can do better with this, on both sides of the spectrum. I would encourage you today to get engaged with those around you, to remind people you’re there for them. If you name the name of Jesus, be reminded that He said “Love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 15:12 & 13:34).
We’re responsible for each other as Family. Do we forget that we have a common enemy, one who seeks to separate us from each other, to isolate us so he can “steal, kill and destroy”? Therefore, as much as the hustle and bustle would try to force us into compartmentalizing people just as much as things and events, we must – MUST – simply refuse to let people evaporate from our lives. It makes a world of difference.