The first day of fourth grade was one of the loneliest of my life. Our family had just moved away from that trailer park in the hills of Missouri back to the small town in Illinois where I was born. I was returning to a school I’d left behind three years earlier. First graders had grown into fourth graders. Some of the faces were vaguely familiar. Most were not. It seemed no one recognized me. I had no companion.
So, upon arriving at school, I asked my mom to stand with me until the bell rang. Back then, asking your mom to stand with you on the fourth-grade playground could easily result in a nasty nickname that would follow you all the way through high school. I decided the risk was worth it, because the possibility of future rejection I could handle, but the presence of my loneliness I could not. Of course, at the time, I did not really know any of this. I just knew I wanted someone to stand with me on the playground for a little while.
I’m sure I didn’t know that word abide back then. It’s a lovely word. It means to remain with, to continue with, to stay with, to dwell with, to stand with, to endure with, to wait with. With, with, with. When someone abides with you, it means they are choosing to be with you, before all others. It implies that they will stay with you through whatever comes, that they will sing with you on this boat called companionship during the terrible storms raging on the sea of life. Abiding doesn’t stop the storm, but it changes the hearts and spirits of those who choose to sail together.
I was a quiet boy. My mother is a quiet woman. Thank goodness abiding doesn’t always require singing together. Sometimes it’s as simple as standing together. I can’t remember if any words passed between us that morning. If they did, I don’t remember what they were. Nevertheless, she agreed to remain with me. She chose to abide. She stood with me on the playground for a little while.
In 2018, Britain created the Ministry of Loneliness. Its stated goal is to address the epidemic of loneliness in the modern world and to alleviate its public health consequences. Britain estimates approximately nine million of its citizens are often or always feeling lonely. They speculate it costs employers in the United Kingdom approximately $3.5 billion annually. And it’s not just Britain. The US Surgeon General recently proclaimed that the health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking approximately fifteen cigarettes per day. Joe Camel has been replaced by Joe Lonely.
However, I wonder if, in part, those health effects are related to the ways we are defining loneliness and companionship in relationship to one another. For instance, in an April 2018 TIME magazine article about the newly appointed British Minister of Loneliness, loneliness is defined as “the feeling of lacking or losing companionship.” The implication here is that companionship is the given of being human and, when it is lost, loneliness is the natural consequence, like a punishment for failed relationships. Ironically, this definition of loneliness creates more shame about being alone—more weaponized loneliness— and thus more reason to hide ourselves away from each other. If it were up to me, I’d rename the whole thing. I’d get specific: the British Ministry of Abandonment, Shame, and Isolation.
Don’t despair of your loneliness; share your loneliness.
Then, we could stop treating loneliness like a terminal disease. Instead of defining loneliness as the feeling of lacking companionship, we could turn the definition on its head and define companionship as the feeling of lacking isolation, healing abandonment, and diminishing shame. Then, we could talk about how loneliness and companionship actually come together. In true companionship, loneliness doesn’t diminish entirely. Our three million unique genes remain as unique as ever. No matter how close we get, we can’t get close enough to live on the inside of anyone else. So, true companionship is not a space in which our loneliness is eliminated. True companionship is a space in which our loneliness is shared.
On the first day of fourth grade I felt lonely, and on the first day of seventeenth grade I still felt lonely. It was August 1999. I’d recently broken up with my high school sweetheart of almost four years, had graduated from the University of Illinois a few months earlier, and was about to begin my doctoral program at Penn State. I loaded all of my worldly possessions into my car and my parents’ minivan, and we set out in a caravan for the hills of central Pennsylvania. My parents got me settled. Then, I asked them to linger in town for a day or two. In other words, at the age of twenty-two, I asked my mom to stand with me on the playground for just a little while longer.
Of course, they couldn’t abide forever. So, a few days later, there I was once again, at a new school full of unfamiliar faces, alone. I met my now wife, Kelly (yes, we have the same name) the next day. She’d broken up with her high school sweetheart of seven years that morning, and we met for the first time that afternoon. I know how that must look: two lonely souls, running from their loneliness by running into the arms of each other. There’s probably some truth to it, actually. Dating is what happens when you look around the playground of your life and ask someone to stand with you for a little while. Marriage is what happens when you ask them to stand with you for a long while.
Yet, I stand by most of the reasons I became enthralled with Kelly: her painful story and her fierce resilience, her tender heart and her adventurous spirit, the joy in her laugh and the fire in her eyes, and the way she can make any forlorn soul feel like the most important person in the world. So, I asked her to stand with me on the playground for a little while, and for a little while, it felt like my loneliness had disappeared almost completely. Is it any wonder the early days of a romance are so intoxicating? I figured she would eventually make my loneliness go away altogether and, with that confidence, I asked her to marry me. In hindsight, I realize I was asking the impossible.
When we get married, we often believe we are leaving our loneliness behind us, at the wedding altar. We aren’t. Getting married doesn’t eliminate loneliness, it multiplies it. Whereas previously you were traveling through life with only your own loneliness, now you are traveling with your loneliness and the loneliness of your companion. Marriage doesn’t end loneliness; it doubles it. You end up with a total of six million ways you can’t comprehend each other.
Marriage is a double date with the shadow sides of our uniqueness. I wish I’d known all this when I asked Kelly to stand with me on the playground for the rest of our days. I wish I’d known loneliness was already standing there on the playground with me. I wish I’d known what I know now: true companionship is about allowing our loneliness to stand between us, not as something that divides us but as something that unites us. It’s not about blaming our loneliness on each other; it’s about sharing our loneliness with each other. It’s not about thinking of our loneliness as dangerous ground, but about embracing our mutual loneliness as our most common ground. After all, I may not understand what it’s like to be Kelly, but I can understand what it’s like to be lonely.
Don’t despair of your loneliness; share your loneliness.
Look around the playground. Ask someone to stand with you for a while. Ask a parent. Ask a friend. Ask a brother or a sister. Ask your husband or your wife. Just ask someone. We may, all of us, be lonely people, but we are not meant to live alone with our loneliness. We are meant to abide with each other in the midst of it. Sometimes that will mean singing together like sailors in a storm at sea. Sometimes it will mean standing quietly together on the loneliest of mornings, bound not by a perfect understanding of each other but by a shared understanding of what it’s like to be lonely.
Sometimes, true companionship is simply two cocoons touching.
Adapted from True Companions by Kelly Flanagan. Copyright (c) 2021 by Kelly Flanagan. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
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