Countering loneliness

In chapter three of Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brene Brown cites a startling statistic. The odds of dying early are increased by the following factors:

  • air pollution = 5% more likely to die early
  • obesity = 20% more likely to die early
  • excessive drinking = 30% more likely to die early
  • loneliness = 45% more likely to die early

Yikes. I know a lot of pastors – single and partnered, extroverts and introverts – who are seeking meaningful connections they haven’t yet found. I’ve been there many times myself, even as a person who loves her alone time. The boundaries and ethics that have been drilled into us for good reason by seminaries and judicatories often mean that we keep parishioners at arm’s length. (The paradox is that appropriate self-revelation is the key to building trust with a congregation.) Our personal theology and politics can cause us to feel estranged from the people we serve and even from many in the larger community. And the odd, demanding hours of a minister’s vocational life, not to mention the assumptions people have about clergy, make it difficult to cultivate connections outside the church.

We have some significant hurdles to overcome, but the 45% more-likely-to-die-early stat makes it plain that loneliness is a life or death issue. It’s also a matter of theological integrity; we serve a God who seeks us to draw us ever nearer not just to the divine heart but also to one another.

So what can we do to push past the loneliness? Here are a few thoughts:

Know how much connection you need to feel emotionally healthy. Typically (perhaps stereotypically), introverts need a few deep relationships while extroverts value a wide range of friendships.

Identify and share what makes you feel understood and embraced in relationships. What you need to feel seen and close to someone varies from one person to the next. (That makes it important to consider this same question about others.) Gary Chapman’s work on the five love languages has been extremely helpful to me in this vein.

Look for places and people where you note commonality. For example, join a club or a team. Volunteer for a cause. Go to an art class. Look for ways to expand on or dig deeper into that shared interest with those you meet.

Prioritize people. It’s so easy to get buried in tasks. Step back occasionally to remember the purpose behind the task, which is often human-centered. And when faced with the option between nurturing a relationship and checking off a to-do, choose the former as often as possible.

Know your warning signs. How do you know when you’re lonely? What happens in your heart? What changes in your body? How does your calendar look different? When these alerts pop up, step back and reflect on what is happening.

What would you add to this list?

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