I hear it a lot. I hear it a lot from young adults.
My armchair analysis is that the “I’m lonely” phenomenon with young adults probably has much to do with our ability to keep our childhood friends over great distances with ease. Social media and emails have replaced the slow-and-tedious pen pal connections of our parents.
Thus our “friends quota” is largely full post college, and for some, post high school. We go into adulthood thinking we don’t really need anymore friends (and, thus, not reall cultivating the skills to make anymore).
There are exceptions, of course. But we have young adults coming to the church, and on the one hand they’re looking for spiritual connection with the Divine, especially the Divine seen through the lens of Jesus.
On the other hand they’re looking for friends.
If my armchair analysis were to go deeper (“let’s explore that, shall we?”) I’d also posit that many of the people who express that they are lonely do so not because they don’t have friends, but because they don’t have the deep, satisfying relationships that provide close, personal connection.
Part of this comes with the changing nature of our society. I think my grandparent’s generation made friendships largely out of necessity. The difficulties of war-time life, depression-era life, led to the desire to band together. My grandparents on my father’s side never moved an they had many friends. On my mother’s side they moved a few times for my grandfather’s work, but though my grandfather was gregarious, had very few close friends, but kept close ties to a lot of family. Both sides never seemed too distraught about their friendships (though, granted, I never interrogated them about it either, and I won’t get the chance).
My parent’s generation, I think, made and continue to make friends for fun, and made them pretty easily. It may differ from individual to individual, of course, but I see this generation making connections that are pretty tenuous and relatively easy to maintain. Some relationships are deeper than others, but it doesn’t seem to be the great expectation that depth is necessary for friendship. And those friendships that are deep have continued throughout the years becausemy parents treasured them so much they worked hard at keeping them long before the ease of social media and direct communication.
For my generation though, I’m finding an underlying unmet need for deep relationships, and the desire to make them easily. Those two don’t mix, though. The kind of depth that forced situations, like the college dormitory or the high school track team, put on you only come through rare, intense situations. After leaving those pressure cooker environments where strong bonds are formed, my generation is not sure how to make those loose, tenuous relationships of their parent’s generation, nor work hard at keeping really deep relationships from afar (it is work, you know).
Or, when they do make the loose friendships, they find them quaint but not enough.
Likewise, they’re not comfortable making friends for necessity’s sake because, well, they’ve been able to keep their friends from childhood! Sure they live 800 miles away, but they’re still friends! They “talk” almost every day over Instagram and Snapchat.
Unsurprisingly, these methods of keeping up do not satisfy a heart that needs something more than just an update.
Sidebar: I believe we can see much of the loneliness and PTSD in our veteran population being due to the fact that the close, personal relationships they formed in the service just aren’t found or easily forged in civilian society. Sidebar over.
Funny enough, I actually see this issue being more of a problem for men than for women. It might be because I tend to work more with men on these issues, but with the changing landscape of male friendship (men are creating more intense bonds as many social stigmas over what it means to be a man who has male friends are evolving), many men don’t know exactly how to navigate the waters of loneliness.
All of this is to say that I’m finding young adults, myself included, making friends much for the same reason many from my generation get married: self-fulfillment. Hence why we want them all to be deep.
Despite the fact that that sounds very insular and narcissistic (and to a degree that can’t be denied), I think we come by it honestly, having been raised in a culture of “You can be anything you want” and “You can plot your own course.”
The trouble is that we’re becoming disillusioned by the fact that we can’t be anything we want, and that while our life trajectory has a good bit of leeway, surely more leeway than the previous two generations, we still hit walls on either side of the road despite the assurance that it’s all open range.
One of those walls is loneliness, something we thought would be abated by virtual connection.
What the fortune tellers say may eventually be true; “virtual reality” may one day just be “reality.”
But we’re not there yet. And in the meantime I’m finding more and more people needing real rather than virtual. I think the church can help if it’ll stop wringing it’s hands over shrinking numbers on the one side, and get off it’s hyper-fundamentalist kick on the other side.
Another sidebar about the hyper-fundamentalist kick in some areas of the church: I once heard a study (which I conveniently can’t find) where it was noted that people make more intense bonds over common dislikes rather than common affinities. I have a working theory that one of the reasons very conservative churches grow quickly is not because everyone there loves Jesus so much and are aligned on that commonality, but because they dislike being wrong. And the assurance of conservative churches that they have the right answers is a nice gel. We hate to think we’re wrong. Second sidebar over.
For the other side of the church, the supposedly “shrinking” part, take heart. Actually, shrinking numbers can help with this phenomenon, if attended to correctly and prayerfully. The real connections that my generation longs for, both spiritually and physically, can be better met by a smaller more nimble group of people; a smaller more nimble church.
And I really (no, really) have hope that the church can teach my generation what it means to make and keep friends in the flesh again. Of course some will wonder, “Well, we want those looking for Jesus, only, to sustain a religious community, right? Is someone looking for community and not for faith really who the church wants in it’s doors?”
Of course it is.
The intensity of the Divine-human relationship is best embodied in intensely strong human-human relationships. The one points to the other, which is why I have so much trouble with the “Jesus and me” language of so much of the evangelical world.
Look, we just don’t make friends easily anymore because we expect a lot out of our friendships these days. Perhaps we need to let go of a bit of that as a generation. But perhaps we don’t have to let go of all of it, and perhaps the church can be the incubator to foster such relationships with the honest purpose of helping people be more humanly whole again.
Because whenever I hear the phrase “I’m lonely,” I’m actually hearing “I’m not whole.”
And that is a spiritual problem.