"And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." - Matthew 28:20b (ESV)
Why are people afraid of being alone? It seems to me that, deep down, many of us derive a sense of identity, a self-understanding of who we are and how we fit in the world, from the people with whom we spend time. Like words in a language, we can tend to define ourselves relative to other people. If I am alone and disconnected from all others, I am no one. I am no one unless I am someone to someone else. If I define myself and find a deep sense of identity relative to my relationship with someone else, my sense of identity is therefore dependent on being with that person.
It is clear that sometimes, as in the case of diehard fans of celebrities, a person may derive a sense of identity from someone whom they have never met. The vulnerability for a person whose self-understanding is based on a relationship to someone else ought to be clear: remove the relationship and you effectively erase the identity of the other. This idea may help to explain part of the addiction to social media. My phone is more than just a tool. It is a crucial tether between myself and what gives me my identity.
Interestingly, we are called to identify ourselves in relationship to someone else. In the Old Testament, it is Yahweh more generally. In the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ more specifically, with the Spirit and the Father remaining intimately involved. However, we are united with Christ. The practice of baptism is a declaration of that union and a public representation of the fact that the baptizee's identity is no longer defined relative to himself or herself alone but fundamentally relative to Jesus Christ.
Union with Christ, then must be at the core of much ministry to people who experience the fear of loneliness. Jesus was, after all, at pains to reassure his disciples that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age.
Perhaps we could do better by asking the question in reverse. Why are some people able to spend large swaths of their lives alone? I am referring to people who live in very rural areas alone and who only touch civilization in order to obtain supplies because they are necessary for living. It seems to me that these people positively want to be alone. Oftentimes, it seems, there is some reason they have for preferring loneliness over being with people.
I have met people like this in the course of jobs I have had where customers who spent their time nearly exclusively in the mountains came into town for certain services. They seemed content enough, although even in many of those cases they seemed almost reluctantly to enjoy exposure to the city. Some of them also occasionally bragged rather indirectly about not living in the city. In many of those cases, as well as others whom I have known, rural living did not mean having no relationships with anyone but what were often deeper and more fulfilling relationships with fewer people. Clearly, the norm is for people to gather together.
It is no accident that the prime location of the eternal state is a city. This does not mean we will always be surrounded by others or even wil live perpetually in the city. But it does indicate that the consummate state of people and the perfect fulfillment of their design includes togetherness rather than loneliness. People may spend some time alone, but no one will be lonely.
The fact that loneliness will not exist in the eternal state could be a source of great hope for lonely people due to one specific implication: for the believer, all loneliness has an expiration date.
At the same time, it is fascinating that solitary confinement is one of the worst possible punishments we can imagine and inflict on one another. There are many stories of people losing their minds in solitary confinement. It seems a brute fact that we are designed to be social creatures and that being alone contradicts our nature.
Jesus also experienced loneliness. He was abandoned by the mutltitudes who followed him, and in the last and worst night of his life he was abandoned by his closest circle. There are people who are lonely not because they are around no one but because their inner experience is unshared or un-understood by those who are around him. It is possible to live in a crowd and be lonely. And when this happens, people tend to recede physically from the crowd to whatever extent possible. This may be part of the reason teenagers spend so much time in their rooms.
Psychological distance tends toward physical distance. And physical distance tends toward psychological distance. But it seems that although physical proximity does not guarantee psychological proximity, psychological proximity seems to mitigate the effects of loneliness stemming from physical distance from others.
Navigating the Fear of Loneliness
So what do we do? How do we navigate the fear of loneliness? Surely the single most comforting thing is Jesus' assurance that he would be with us always, even to the end of the age.
However, we should recognize that Jesus did not say this to individuals so much as his disciples. The overwhelmingly obvious implication of the New Testament epistles is that Christians will live, serve, and worship together. The church, as the body of Christ, helps to mediate the presence of Christ to the the individuals who make it up. The loneliest person should be the unbeliever who recognizes the distance their sin is creating between themselves and God and between themselves and others.
For believers, the most obvious way to combat loneliness is to participate in life with the church. And for that, the taking of communion must be the greatest experience of togetherness a human being may have this side of heaven. The fear of loneliness is often a reflection of a misunderstanding or ignorance of what communion is. That is because taking the body and the blood of Christ with the church is the highest expression of our union together in Christ. Communion is in a sense a declaration of victory over loneliness.
For the Christian, loneliness may mark our experience, but it need not be an overwhelming fear. For Christians are those whose identity is in Christ, and nothing can separate us from him. We may experience loneliness in the course of our lives when we are away from people and are not experiencing much interpersonal reaction. But the experience of loneliness is different from the fear of loneliness. The key is found in the fact that loneliness need not present an identity crisis for believers, since other people on us do not fundamentally define us. Instead, we derive our sense of identity from Christ and a sense of joy from interaction with others. Our union with Christ frees us from the grip of fear of loneliness and allows us to view loneliness as a temporary hardship rather than an identity crisis.