I exercise religiously! My personal religious affiliation is Christian Seventh-day Adventist crossfit gym rat. It keeps me halfway sane.
From various research, I learned that exercise helps alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness and from Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, I learned that “When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly… But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”[i] Therefore, I make it a point to exercise at least five times a week. I schedule it into my day.
About a year ago my sister came to visit me because she was concerned about me. I felt depressed and lonely. I had no local support system. I was isolated. You see, I serve a rural two church district and live between the churches. At one church I struggle to get cell phone service. At that time, the median age of the people I most frequently communicated with and saw on a daily basis, was three years old. During her visit, my sister and I went to a workout. Being a social worker, she noticed a big difference in my demeanor when I stepped inside the gym – my face lit up. The gym was my social hangout. There were people there! Although I spoke to only a few of them, the gym became the equivalent of a Saturday night social!
I believe loneliness can lead to bad decisions. In a Huffington Post article by Tree Franklyn called, "Why Loneliness Makes You Date Jerks and How to Stop the Cycle," the author writes, "Most bad choices are made out of fear and avoidance. When you can sit in full acceptance with your loneliness, you no longer need to avoid it and no longer make choices that aren’t good for you. You prove to yourself that you can not only survive being lonely you can actually thrive in it. Loneliness has a powerful lesson for us if we dare sit still in it long enough to listen. The next time you feel lonely, instead of reaching for scraps to fill it, take some time to explore yourself."[ii] I appreciate Tree Franklyn's insight. She actually expounds on the fact that her loneliness was leading her to reconnect with God and her spirituality.
So as opposed to making bad decisions, which could jeopardize my ministry and my ability to put food on the table for my kids, I decided to take care of myself. Thus, eating right and working out are strategic aspects of me embracing loneliness and where I am in life.
I am a pastor who is a single mother. (That is a story for a different article.) You can probably imagine how hard things can get at times and the depth of loneliness I feel at times. One would think that loneliness is a blinding glimpse of the obvious considering the fact I am single. However, did you know that loneliness is not relegated to only those who are single? You may already know this experientially if you feel lonely even though you have a spouse. Dennis and Barbara Rainey write in an article titled “Married and Lonely? Combating the threat of isolation in your marriage relationship,” "If there's one thing worse than a miserable, lonely single person, it's a miserable, lonely married person."[iii]
Most people discover very early in their marriage that marriage is not the cure for loneliness. "In one recent study of older adults, 62.5% of people who reported being lonely were married and living with their partner."[iv] Years ago I read somewhere that in marriage one has the potential to experience the deepest level of love or the deepest level of loneliness. A psychology professor writing in Psychology Today observed: "I know of no more potent killer than isolation ... no more destructive influence on physical and mental health than the isolation of you from me and us from them. Isolation has been shown to be the central agent in the development of depression, paranoia, schizophrenia, rape, suicide, and mass murder. . . .The devil's strategy for our times is to trivialize human existence and to isolate us from one another while creating the delusion that the reasons are time pressures, work demands, or economic anxieties."[v]
It seems that being a pastor's spouse, pastor, chaplain, or chaplain’s spouse can be lonely (of which I know all too well). The work demands, keeping up appearances, the opinions of others, financial struggles, the list could go on and on.
Many marriages end due to loneliness and isolation. The enemy sneaks right in. You and your spouse find yourselves going to bed angry with one another. What was once quality time has now become just trying to find the time. You have become two ships passing by. You have kept up the facade but real needs are going unmet. Competition for who is doing the most "stuff" replaces cooperation and real partnership. Conflict is the thread ironically holding the household together. "At some point, discussions about mutual interests, world events, and goals and dreams cease entirely and conversations become purely transactional – “We need milk,” “Your mother called,” or “Did you remember to pay the cable bill?” - or focused exclusively on parenting.”[vi] A description of one feeling stuck, miserable and lonely, though married.
I have always held on to the belief that one can feel whole and be happy, whether single or married. I have especially held strong to the belief that you can feel community and oneness in your marriage. Notice I did not say in your pastoral marriage or your chaplain marriage. Your marriage can thrive by the grace of God. So because I am not an expert on loneliness or marriage [insert chuckle], I have found the following three tips by psychologist and author, Guy Winch, which I believe most of us can use to try to combat loneliness in marriage:[vii]
1. Take the initiative. If you are lonely, chances are your partner is too. Try to initiate conversations that are not transactional. Explore their goals and dreams, ask them their views about something they care about, and make sure to demonstrate you are listening.
2. Create shared experiences. Go and workout together. If working out does not thrill either of you, find something your spouse likes to do and interest yourself in that. If your spouse is in the other room watching their favorite show, sit next to them and watch with them. This tells them how much you know they love that particular show and how you want to give it a try.
3. Practice taking their perspective. When you are married, you assume you know what the other person is thinking because you have been married for a long time etc. Research actually indicates this is not so. Figuring out another person's perspective (known as perspective taking) is a thought exercise we cannot skip. We actually have to close our eyes and focus for a few minutes on the other person's perspective, imagining their world and point of view within it.
An interesting fact: "Excessive internet use also increases feelings of loneliness because it disconnects us from the real world. Research shows that lonely people use the Internet to ‘feel totally absorbed online’ – a state that inevitably subtracts time and energy that could otherwise be spent on social activities and building more fulfilling offline friendships."[viii] Whether single or married, we all need to get off the internet and get out and develop some real meaningful friendships and relationships.
"According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades. ‘Zero‘ is also the most common response when people are asked how many confidants they have, the GSS data show."[ix] In other words, since 1985 Americans who say they have no close friends has tripled. That is alarming to me especially in the age of friend requests and followers. Loneliness appears most prevalent among millennials. "It’s not a coincidence that loneliness began to surge two years after Apple launched its first commercial personal computer and five years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web."[x]
The internet is one big conundrum! One can have thousands of friends but no friends at all; have a seemingly amazing marriage according to posts and pictures, however, lonely and isolated at home. You know we have even gotten to the point where we judge our relationships by the online appearance of others. We have to become more "real world, real time" present.
Call a friend you haven't spoken to in a while. Write your spouse a love letter, with actual pen and paper. Take a walk. Break from the internet for a day. Determine whether or not your loneliness stems from too much internet. Let's fight to have one less lonely pastor, pastor's spouse, chaplain, chaplain's spouse! And if all else fails, go to the gym!
Rebecca Davis, at the time of writing this article, pastored the Washington and Thomson churches in Georgia
Reprinted from CALLED Magazine
[i] Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do what We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2014), 109, iBooks.
[iii] Dennis and Barbara Rainey, “Married and Lonely? Combating the threat of isolation in your marriage relationship,” http://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/marriage/staying-married/commitment/married-and-lonely.
[iv] Guy Winch, “Together but Still Lonely: 3 ways to connect with the distant person next to you on the couch,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201306/together-still-lonely.
[v] Philip Zimbardo, “The age of indifference,” Psychology Today, (August 1980), 71-76.
[viii] Caroline Beaton, “Why Millennials Are Lonely,” https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinebeaton/2017/02/09/why-millennials-are-lonely/#270831067c35.
[ix] Markham Heid, “You Asked: How Many Friends Do I Need?,” http://time.com/3748090/friends-social-health/?iid=time_speed.