I was surprised recently to discover that my biggest fear didn’t make the list of the ten most common fears in America. Making the list are fears of snakes, heights, open spaces, closed spaces, storms, dogs, needles, insects, and flying (in planes, that is). There’s even the fear of being judged, which keeps some from eating in a social setting. Mine isn’t even on an expanded list, but it should be. It’s the fear of loneliness.
I used to look at people who would eat alone in restaurants with pity because I was afraid of being one of them. I was afraid of not having friends. I was afraid to be by myself. On a New Year’s Eve in college, I even went to a “holidome” at a nearby Holiday Inn just to sit in the middle of a crowd bringing in the New Year, because I didn’t want to be alone.
My fear of loneliness drove me to seek popularity. I became a thespian. I played sports. I even became a pastor. Go figure. All of this was not entirely driven by my desire for companionship, but in part, I sought distractions to cover up my feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people” (Life Together, 76). I know that quote all too well, because I lived it. I pursued fellowship because I was running away from myself. My quest looked spiritual enough, but it was merely a diversion to calm my fear of loneliness.
What I have discovered over the years is that aloneness is not the same as loneliness, and a crowd is not the same as community. Bonhoeffer, who staunchly believed in Christian community, warned, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community” (ibid., 77). I had to learn that I will stand before God alone. I must answer God’s call alone. I must give an account to God alone. God desires to commune with me alone (as well as in community).
Jesus spent time with God alone. “Very early, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went to a solitary place where He prayed” (Mark 1:35). The discipline of solitude has taught me the value of aloneness, which I now see as a gift rather than a burden. A crowd doesn’t change loneliness. In fact, it accentuates it, because you feel desperately lonely in the midst of company.
But, as Bonhoeffer also warned, “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (idem.). You are called into community where you bring yourself into relationships. You don’t just observe relationships, you enter into them.
The Apostle Paul described it this way: “In [Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). Many married couples know that marriage doesn’t automatically remove loneliness. Healthy marriages are “built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” A husband and wife can then be alone but not lonely. They can be together but still value times of being alone.
Bonhoeffer concluded by writing, “Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship” (idem.).
Powerful lessons to learn for those of us who have experienced the fear of loneliness. May you seek the One who will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), and through His company may you learn to be rightly alone and rightly in relationships with others.