Even before COVID-19, nearly fifty percent of Americans said they experienced loneliness. The social isolation that has been part of our lives more recently has increased that number.
Loneliness can have a major impact on our mental and physical health. It can add to depression, anxiety, and stress and interfere with our ability to get a good night’s sleep. Studies show that it puts us at a higher risk for health complications such as heart disease and stroke.
Often we’re embarrassed to admit our loneliness. We feel as though we should have better control of our emotions. We also worry that feeling lonely means we don’t have the meaningful relationships that other people have.
I think it’s interesting that yesterday’s gospel reading began in a lonely place.
Jesus had been rejected in his home town of Nazareth. He’d also just heard that John, his spiritual mentor, has been killed because of a political figure’s jealousy and foolish promise. So he goes away by himself to a lonely place.
If we’re honest, many of us can relate to Jesus’ reaction. We hear about the pandemic’s growing death count, and we go a lonely place. We hear about escalating violence in our cities and around the world, and we’re taken to a desolate place. We hear about the political gridlock that continues to cripple our federal government, and we’re off to a lonely place.
We lose the love, trust, or care of a valued friend or family member, and it takes us to a deserted place. We lose the health, independence, or vitality we’ve taken for granted, and we go to a lonely place. We act badly and hurt those who love us, and we find ourselves in a desolate place.
If we can relate to Jesus’ withdrawing to a lonely place, maybe we also can learn something about how to respond from such a place. And maybe that response can help us redefine the new reality in which we find ourselves.
When Jesus arrives at his lonely place, he finds that a large crowd has followed him. Rather than shutting himself off, Jesus allows compassion to fill his heart. Rather than allowing himself to feel overwhelmed, Jesus decides to respond.
When we find ourselves in a lonely place, I encourage us to open ourselves to compassion—for ourselves and for others. Such compassion may allow us to be gentle with ourselves and to reach out to others.
Studies show that helping others can help us feel connected and give us a sense of purpose. Both can help us deal with the loneliness we may be feeling.
Responding out of compassion is also a way to help redefine the challenging times we are experiencing into a new and healthier reality.