Dealing with Loneliness in Quarantine and Social Distancing

Dealing with the reality of the covid-19 pandemic has no doubt brought a rise of fear and anxiety both nationally and globally: anxiety over uncertain job security and economic stability, and fear for our health and for our loved ones. As real as these threats are, perhaps one of the hardest emotions we are facing on a daily basis during this quarantine is the ever-present feeling of loneliness.

Living in isolation has already been a “pandemic” of sorts for teens today; however, even for a generation used to connecting digitally with their communities, quarantine and social distancing has isolated us to an extreme. Neither is this unique to students. We adults – whether single or not – are learning to adjust to life without human contact outside our homes. This means that one of the biggest difficulties we face as youth workers, parents, and simply as believers is dealing with loneliness in this season.

I’ve unfortunately become quite familiar with loneliness over the years in my life. Growing up as an only child of divorced parents, family was a foreign concept to me, as I mainly experienced it through my individual relationships with my mother and father. Being bi-cultural (half-White, half-Korean) has also enhanced my experience of loneliness. Whereas most of my friends had a “cultural home” to run to despite what their familial home looked like, I had neither. I’ve spent most of my life trying to decide which culture I am going to identify with more, yet never feeling like I fully belonged to one culture or another.

Without sounding dramatic, I feel as if the long seasons of loneliness I’ve experienced have prepared me for this quarantine. So how can we help our students – and how can we ourselves – cope with loneliness in the remainder of this season, no matter how much longer it may last?

Loneliness Is Not A Reason For Further Isolation

When I’ve experienced these moments of loneliness, I’ve naturally run to my church community for comfort, help, and friendship. Unfortunately, much of the time the responses I’ve gotten were not the ones I expected. Many well-intentioned Christians would simply respond to my plea for help with theological questions or answers: “What is God trying to teach you in your loneliness?;” “Maybe God just wants you to depend more on him and not people;” “You just need to learn to be content whatever your circumstances.” As true as these statements may be, what I really needed was simply for the church to be the church to me.

For as good as the Western Church is in theological thinking and accuracy, we are often guilty of turning Scripture’s “boots-on-the-ground” truths for “head-in-the-sky” theology. We’ve become content with simply knowing the truth and stopping there, instead of asking what this theological truth means for my present day living. The Church in the West has largely become identified with middle-class culture, where self-reliance and autonomy are prized, and co-dependency and emotional need are signs of weakness. We prize authenticity and vulnerability, but only where it leads to success stories of victory, often by one’s own sheer will.

This also affects our view of the church community. While we know the church is meant to be a community of “one-anothers,” dependent on one another and sharing with one another, we all think the person in need is someone else. We prefer to think of ourselves as the strong ones, with the means to help the weak “other”. But putting ourselves in a place of need – whether physical or emotional – is a place of weakness we are not ready or willing to succumb to. Thus, something so trivial as loneliness is seen as a simple fix that one must find on his or her own journey towards greater fulfillment in Christ.

During this time of quarantine, let’s not encourage further isolation by simply telling people to “learn to be content in God.” Rather, let’s encourage connection by acknowledging the loneliness we all feel, and seeking out the church for the emotional connection and support Scripture tells us the church is meant to give. The best thing we can do during this pandemic is not to give truncated theological answers absolved of personal responsibility, but to take our theology seriously enough that it causes us to move towards one another in love, even if over a digital platform. Perhaps now is the greatest opportunity presented before the church to truly live out her biblical calling. May we as a church express our own emotional need and move towards others who can share that burden with us.

Loneliness Is An Opportunity For Greater Intimacy

Though I cringed – and still do – at theological answers that sounded like backhanded advice, I did learn to seek God more in those moments of loneliness. Largely because I had no one to turn to, I dove further into self-examination, study of Scripture, and theological thinking. My college experienced was largely marked by weekends sitting alone in my room reading my Bible and pondering the things of God, as 80% of my commuter college campus would return home to their families while I remained hundreds of miles away from mine. As much as I dreaded the weekends during those years, I grew immensely in my understanding of Scripture and theological awareness of God and his character.

As much as we may hate our current circumstance of isolation, this is a time of forced solitude that may lend itself to deeper thinking. Students no longer have a myriad of excuses in clubs, sporting events, extracurriculars – and dare I say even studying – to shirk Bible reading. Let’s encourage them to not take it for granted and to take seriously the spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and meditation.

I hope and long for the day when we emerge from the caves of our homes after this shut-in. I hope even more that the Church emerges not as a caveman squinting at the sight of light, but as a people who have been gazing into the light of God. I hope we emerge sharpened and readied for the tremendous season for ministry that will follow the lifting of this quarantine. There will be great needs for counseling, societal and economic rebuilding, and rethinking the ministry of the Church. Let’s prepare our students – and ourselves – for the huge opportunity for the Gospel that awaits us just around the corner of the Covid-19 graph.

Loneliness Is A Reminder of Eternal Longings

Loneliness in this life can be cured in part by church community and building relational bonds. Ultimately, loneliness will prevail as long as we’re on this side of heaven. Every ounce of our longing for community and relationship – belonging – is a reminder that we do not belong solely to any one community or relationship here on earth. The loneliness we experience, both in this intensified season and in the smaller moments throughout our lives, is meant to cause us to long even more for the home awaiting us in the New Creation. Our desires for communal belonging are a good thing, but they will never find fulfillment as long as we look to the temporal.

Sometimes I ask God why I was given the family circumstance I grew up with; sometimes I wish I was not bi-cultural so I could have a cultural home to identify with, a people of my own to belong to. But the more I wrestle with my own loneliness and longing for belonging, the more I’ve realized that I am “not a people”, but belong only to God’s people (1 Peter 2:10), one that will only fully be received and realized when I am finally Home.

The present quarantine, and the social distancing that will likely continue even when our quarantine is lifted, will cause loneliness to persist. May this be yet another opportunity for the church to rise up and display the truth of Jesus that prevails over all of our longings and lacking – that Christ came to us relationally in the flesh, identified with our human estate, and restored us relationally to Himself. We have been brought to God’s trinitarian, communal side; and we have been bought not just as individuals, but as a new people for his own possession (1 Peter 2:9).

Clark is the Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church SF, and has served in Youth Ministry in the Asian-American context for over a decade. He received his M.Div. from Talbot Theological School in Southern California, and is a Doctor of Missiology (D.Miss) candidate at Southern Seminary (SBTS). He is also an emeritus member of Rooted’s Steering Committee. He and his wife, Janet, have two daughters, Kara and Nora.

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