by Mar Benedicto Elizondo Smith
Loneliness can be the stimulus for being closer to God, growing emotionally and spiritually, and advancing in what that God would have us do in life.
Human beings have the ability to adjust to new situations. The complexity of modern society, however, has strained this ability to adapt. Concerns about the environment, politics, or safety, and stress factors arising from social, cultural, spiritual, and public health dynamics, among other stressors, can make it difficult to achieve stable mental health. When such concerns are not reined in, a person can succumb to a sensitive state of vulnerability and even debility. Consequently, everyday situations might transform a person from feeling alone in a positive sense to a state of negative, depressive loneliness.
It is easier to face life’s challenges when we are part of a support group. People, however, find themselves alone for a variety of reasons, either temporary or situational. Such circumstances need not produce painful feelings of loneliness. Knowing how to make the most of these situations and moments can provide significant opportunities for introspection and self-analysis, which can lead to personal growth.
Being alone can provide valuable space and time for personal reflection that in other environments might be challenging to achieve. An assessment of actions and goals achieved, or still unfinished, can lead to reformulation of new goals and ways of working toward them. For those who can enjoy a secluded physical space in an atmosphere of peace and comfort, such an experience becomes a pleasant venue for reflection, and can become a healthy exercise that enhances personal growth.
Being alone does not necessarily mean being totally isolated. It may require initiative to find ways to share some time with people who have common interests. But solitude can provide space to explore the basis of one’s moods without negatively affecting oneself or other people.
Being alone is not an irreversible life sentence. By focusing on the positive, it can be seen as a situation that can be changed. If people keep their thoughts and actions dynamic, this will engender a positive mood, thus allowing them to explore the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities that are present in various family, work, church, and community settings, and give them courage to either accept or attempt to change their situation.
A person’s mood is not an “end of the line” destination where he or she must remain permanently. It more closely resembles a train station from where one can embark for other stations that lead to a variety of destinations. The train station is not the destination; it is the platform that can provide continuity and orientation to one’s life journey. Applying this concept to loneliness, we can adopt a positive view of being alone, as we formulate new expectations for personal enrichment or benefit to others.
Feeling lonely can lead to depression in some people. However, loneliness and depression are not the same thing. There is a range of depressive disorders but a common feature is “the presence of sad, empty or irritable mood, accompanied by related changes that significantly affect the individuals’ capacity to function,”1 as well as other symptoms like emotional flattening and decreased joy in the activities of daily life. Depressive disorders restrict one’s ability to move on with life in a productive way.
From a mental-health point of view, loneliness becomes harmful, toxic, and psychopathological when it causes harm to oneself or other people.2 Toxic loneliness can lead to losing one’s cool and becoming a nuisance to others, and it may lead to major or persistent depressive disorders. Sometimes, the person experiencing harmful loneliness needs professional help to recover a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
A life structure that keeps one constrained and incapacitated, is regarded as depression. It can lead an individual to suffer from long-term emotional flattening of affect and feelings of hopelessness. Depressive disorders prevent a person from experiencing life’s joys or celebrating even small achievements. Depression distorts emotions, alters food intake and sleep cycles, and causes the individual to feel sad, hopeless, and discouraged most of the time. It leads to feelings of worthlessness and the inability to think in positive terms. But one need not succumb to the devastation of depression. There is hope.
Solitude can provide opportunity to create schedules and spaces where devotional practices can be nurtured. Even loneliness, viewed in a positive way, can provide a stimulus to become closer to God and embrace His call to act within our sphere of influence. Solitude allows us to enjoy the Holy Spirit’s fruit of peace. Peace has only one source: God. By embracing a positive attitude toward being alone, we may strengthen our faith in God.
Scripturally Based Approaches to Solitude
Scripture contains valuable counsel that addresses the experience of loneliness, how to relate to it, and why there is reason to hope. Ten such passages are highlighted below:
- Embrace solitude without seeing it as the absence of the Spirit of God in your life.God’s Spirit is omnipresent. There is no place in the universe where God is not. You can rest assured that you are never totally alone. Psalm 139:7 to 103reads, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me and Your right hand shall hold me.” Recalling that God is near even though unseen makes it possible to embrace solitude.
- Remember that God is always there for you, even when you feel lonely.People you consider important may be geographically far away. Life circumstances may prevent love and support from coming in the way expected, especially from parents or other people whom you hold dear. Not only is God omnipresent, He is always there for you. In Psalm 27:10, King David wrote, “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me.”
- Resolve to be open to healing.Even in our worst moments of confusion or pain or when experiencing deep sorrow, our emotions and hearts can find space for healing when we leave our burdens with the Lord. Psalm 34:18 reads, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”
- Use times of being alone to explore God’s mission for you.No matter where you are, there is a mission to accomplish. Our creative potential is significantly activated when we have no distractions. Look around, and explore what God might have you do as His follower and as a disciple maker of others. In Matthew 28:20 (the Great Commission), Jesus calls us to “‘make disciples of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”
- Feel comforted despite being alone.Everywhere and at every moment, God’s Holy Spirit is there to comfort and to reveal how God is acting in our lives so we can enjoy His comfort. We are not left as orphans; “‘I will come to you’” (John 14:18).
- Be alone yet empowered to move on. Moreover, as we go through difficult circumstances of separation, illness, or death, God not only comforts us in darkness but also helps us recover and move on from our ordeal. Psalm 23:4 says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Keep walking on.
- Embrace solitude as part of life’s timeline without feeling forsaken.God created us for a purpose. In our lives, that purpose is fulfilled in God’s time, which often does not coincide with ours. God gives us the encouragement we need to tackle our everyday tasks. The more time we spend with Him, the more encouraged we will feel. In Deuteronomy 31:8, Moses made this promise to Israel: “‘[T]he Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.’” In this promise we can also find comfort for our lives today even when His timeline differs from ours or we might feel He has forgotten about us.
- Be strong and courageous despite being alone.At times, significant challenges may intimidate us. If we step aside from them, we lose out on the benefits we might have otherwise received. Rather than flinching from an opportunity, consider taking it. Apply the promise in Joshua 1:9, which says, “‘Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’”
- Use solitude as an opportunity to rest your soul.When we are exhausted, it is natural to withdraw because the burden takes its toll on our lives. Physical rest makes us stronger so we can emerge from difficulties feeling revitalized and restored. But we can also rest assured that Christ wishes to give us rest when we feel overwhelmed. The greatest relief of all is the forgiveness He freely gives from guilt and sin. Matthew 11:28 says, “‘Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”
- Remember that even when all alone, you can invite the Lord’s presence within you.What is holding you back from allowing Jesus to take control and be a part of your life? It only involves opening the door of the heart for peace to fill your life. Revelation 3:20 says, “‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.’”
Discerning new possibilities
Being alone does not necessarily go hand in hand with depression. To the extent that we intentionally prepare our minds to adjust to new prospects in life, our attitudes will be positively impacted. Cognitive, psychological, physical, or sociocultural reasons may have caused us to think of loneliness as a shortcoming or negative condition. But each one of us can reach our goals, no matter what képis us alone. God’s voice becomes audible in solitude. The life of Jesus included several periods of isolation. These were highly significant for Him as times when He was fortified through solitude and communion with His Father.
When we are alone, we can discern new possibilities to strengthen the spiritual dimension of our lives. This will require that we not perceive being alone as inevitably a limiting or adverse condition. Rather, being alone can provide an environment that allows us to grow.
We are responsible for setting the stage for our actions and for casting positive mental images that will contribute to a fruitful life. The need to be proactive and vigilant in this regard is even more crucial when young people are far from the comfort zone provided by family and friends who were there to support them in earlier stages of life. The state of loneliness, whether transient or permanent, can provide an opportunity (1) to assess the safety indicators of our environment, in order to identify spaces where we feel a sense of physical, mental, social, and spiritual protection; and (2) to find time for reflection that contributes to our emotional stability. Being alone can provide clarity to assist in adjusting and adapting to new life conditions. Despite being alone, we should intentionally seek opportunities for connection and bonding with other people to foster our mental and physical well-being, such as taking the initiative to go to church even when in a new community where we don’t know anyone.
Living in solitude without depression is possible if we take care of the wholeness of our mental, psychological, physical, sociocultural, and spiritual well-being.
Mar Benedicto Elizondo Smith (PhD in Inclusive Education, University of Baja California, Mexico) is Director of the Center for Psychological Research at the School of Psychology at Montemorelos University, in Montemorelos, Mexico.
Mar Benedicto Elizondo Smith, "Lonely But Not Depressed," Dialogue 35:1 (2023): 5-8
Notes and References
1 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2022), 177.
2 Irwin G. Sarason and Barbara R. Sarason, eds., Abnormal Psychology: The Problem of Maladaptive Behavior (Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006).
3 All Scripture texts in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved.