Americans are more connected and yet lonelier than ever, according to a survey by the health insurer Cigna. Psychologists call it “the Social Media Paradox.” Nearly half of Americans reported feeling alone, isolated, or left out. 54% of respondents said they feel no one knows them well and 4 out of 10 said they had no meaningful relationships.
Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.Douglas Nemecek, MD, chief medical officer for behavioral health, Cigna
However, sometimes loneliness comes with the job. Lead anything and you will be lonely. Create anything and you enter into confusion and frustration, often with yourself, all by yourself. A friend of mine says that he always writes on the first floor in case he’s tempted to jump out the window. That’s funny, but it’s also a caution— to find purpose beyond a lonely task.
Some people are energized by time alone more than others. But even introverts who enjoy solitude can get lonely. How can a leader leverage loneliness? Let’s look at a few ways, starting with the practical.
Make a “back-burner” list
You don’t always get to choose your alone times. I remember a year or so after getting married, finally finding some routine. Early mornings became sacred time to knock out my toughest tasks—things that required the most focus. A short time later three words from an ER doctor changed my life and my routine. You’re having triplets!” No parent of triplets is a morning person.
We don’t always get to plan our alone time, so we need to have a plan when it does come. Most people have some forgotten, back-burner plans. A childhood hobby, an ambitious read, a project to organize old photos. A few smaller hopes and dreams simmering on the back burner can help turn loneliness to solitude.
Embrace the slow hunch
It was Einstein who commented about “doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.” Ironically, this statement gets repeated over and over again. How do you look at things differently when you are stuck? It can take time. Intentional time. Some problems can only be solved when you let them soak. I’ve heard it called the “slow hunch.”
The slow hunch helps us see beyond our assumptions to solutions right in front of you. Zoologist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873) of Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School became famous for saying four words: “Look at your fish.” Samuel Scudder, one of his students, wrote about it in an essay with that title.
“For three long days he placed that fish before my eyes; forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. “Look, look, look,” was his repeated injunction. This was the best…lesson I ever had….” It is difficult to see past the conclusions we have already drawn. Like a text you send with a glaring error, we often see what we assume. On the other side of the discomfort of too much quiet, we may find new keys to old locks.
Make space for communion
“Sensucht” means longing. A longing for the sublime. You need open spaces in the day to explore such longings. Pings of modern connectedness will fill these spaces unless we guard them. Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from an inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” We fill moments with this-and-that and then wonder why we are unfulfilled.
I remember hiking once into stunning scenery. The climb to it was grueling. The promise of the peak was always just around the bend. I lost my way and found it again. After a rough final ascent, the panorama dawned upon me. So did the fact that there was a parking lot at the top.
Families and retirees spilled out of cars to snap selfies, capturing the moment. But I was having a very different moment. A photo could not do it justice. Some longings can only be filled by persevering through the open, uncertain space of difficulty.
I spend time regularly with people who cannot get out. Their mountain-climbing days are behind them. Some of them are surprisingly content. Small gestures are big, but they aren’t greedy for them. Attention does not hit them like rain upon the face of someone lost in the Mojave. They appreciate it the way most people regard the fleeting beauty of sunset.
Passionate leaders often want more for people than they want for themselves. It’s necessary to maintain a sense of “holy discontent,” seeing how things could be. It can be a lonely place, bush-wacking a path out front to a better normal. But having the non-anxious presence which invites people to follow begins by finding some measure of contentment right where you are.
Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.Matt. 6:6