What’s the opposite of loneliness?
Our society, perhaps unintentionally, often sends the message that the opposite of loneliness is company.
Loneliness seems to be viewed quantitatively, not qualitatively – to be lonely is to feel alone, i.e. by yourself, a party of one. Numbers are lacking and to combat loneliness requires higher numbers, more people to make you feel less alone. Friending people on Facebook, networking on LinkedIn, accumulating Likes and shares online…
But surely loneliness is, at its heart, not about the quantity of people around us but about the quality of our relationships with those people?
So I would like to suggest that the opposite of loneliness is intimacy.
Intimacy is defined in the dictionary as “the condition or state of being intimate which is marked by close acquaintance, association, or familiarity and relates to our deepest nature.” It speaks of warm friendship, understanding and deep personal relationship.
Those are things that we all recognise as good, yet so often we seem to feel awkward about our desire for relationships, we are embarrassed and try to hide our loneliness. Yet the key to healthy relationships is admitting one’s own loneliness and the need for intimacy, and we have no better example of this than Jesus himself. In the Garden of Gethsemane he did not hide his need for intimacy: “Jesus took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’” (Matthew 26:37-38)
So – and now we come to the heart of it – why is it that we have this need for intimacy in the first place? Because we are created by a relational God! Loneliness is not an end product, it is a pointer – it pushes us towards God and towards others. God created us to need intimacy with people and to need it with him.
Indeed we see in Genesis 2 that God knew that “It is not good for man to be alone” and so he created a companion for Adam. God also walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, he spent time with them. God knows we have a yearning for intimacy, for ‘belonging’, and that yearning is not to be denied but fulfilled in legitimate ways.
Henri Nouwen, in his excellent little book, Lifesigns, expands on this idea of belonging and speaks of intimacy using the image of being ‘at home’:
‘Home is that place or space where we do not have to be afraid but can let go of our defences and be free, free from worries, free from tensions, free from pressures. Home is where we can laugh and cry, embrace and dance, sleep long and dream quietly, eat, read, play, watch the fire, listen to music, and be with a friend. Home is where we can rest and be healed. The word “home” gathers a wide range of feelings and emotions up into one image, the image of a house where it is good to be: the house of love.’
God’s love for us gives us a new security; we are called to belong to him, to ‘dwell in his home.’ Nouwen says: “When Jesus says: ‘Make your home (abide) in me as I make mine in you,’ (John 15: 4) he offers us an intimate place that we can truly call ‘home.’” We are called to live in the home made by God – in his heart. “It is fashioned for us by God, who came to pitch his tent among us, invite us to his place, and prepare a room for us in his own house.”
And the wonderful thing about this understanding of intimacy as ‘home’, as familiarity, comfort, relationship, is that it doesn’t mean being perfectly happy with God all the time. I love my home and am glad to be there, but I often experience a range of emotions when I’m there! Intimacy is not always about the positive – take the psalms. The psalms are full of expressions of healthy intimacy: they are truthful and honest, expressive of anger and joy, disappointment and yearning. I have found that using the psalms is a great way in to developing intimacy with God.
There’s more to be said, of course; I’ve spent a huge part of my life working on my own and others’ ability to grow intimacy with God. But let’s begin today with just this simple thing: let’s not try to combat our loneliness with more people, more networks, more social engagements – let’s go deeper not wider, and acknowledge our loneliness and be open to allowing God and others to combat it with true relational intimacy.
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