Blog | Lindsey Smallwood

Loneliness

Feeling Lonely is Not the Same as Being Alone

Lindsey Smallwood

This isn't the first time I've written on loneliness. It probably won't be the last. No matter how many connections I make, people I befriend, babies I birth, I think learning to be alone is one of the deep joys, true sadnesses and profound challenges of my life. (There aren't many things I can say that about!) I'm thrilled to be back at Middle Places with thoughts on solitude, extroversion and why Jesus always gets to ride shotgun. 

For someone who's never alone, feeling lonely happens way more than you might think.

I'm raising two toddlers, so on any given day there's a lot of cuddling and carrying and breaking up wrestling matches.

I work part-time at a church, where I lead Bible studies, meet with women and use shared office space.

I'm an extrovert and my free time includes things like workout classes, mom's group and book club.

I'm married, which in my case means I sleep close enough to my husband to feel him breathe.

And add to all that, I'm pregnant, so even when I actually am alone, I can feel a tiny person swimming around inside me.

And yet, even with all of these daily connections, I find myself wondering about the quality of my relationships at church, in my friendships, with my family. Though I'm grateful for all the places I'm connected in this season of life, I find myself searching for more because I'm feeling lonely.

When I think back to the early days of our marriage, I remember long walks with my husband, holding hands as we caught up on life and dreamed dreams together. These days, walks include a double stroller, snacks, a just-in-case diaper bag and a nearly super-human patience to answer my two-year-old’s repetitive questions over and over again without raising our voices.

I long for the days when I’d go meet a friend for happy hour, and we’d talk so long and laugh so hard that we’d have to order dinner to have more time together. Those extended times of just hanging out feel like a distant memory in my current life where every minute has to be coordinated and arranged in advance.

I know this is a season – and I can’t even count the number of times people stop to tell me how quickly this time passes. But I hear about the fun date nights my neighbors do every week, and I notice the way some of my other mom friends seem to make space for fun time together and I wonder if I’m missing out.

The truth is I am missing out. It’s inevitable. None of us can do it all, so there will always be areas where our lives seem to fall short. That’s the danger of comparing our lives with our neighbors.

But here’s the other piece – I always have been missing out. Even during the time I now recall as blissful early in my marriage, if I’m honest, I remember how I wanted us to have more couple friends, or I worried we weren’t planning enough for the future. And for all of those fun friend times, there were nights where no one texted back, where I found out I hadn’t been included, where I obsessed over whether I’d said or done the wrong thing during a coffee date or small group meeting.

I’ve always been searching for more in my relationships, for friendships and connections that are meaningful and deep. It’s a human problem existing since the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had an actual perfect relationship – with God and with each other – and still they wanted more! It’s that longing that led them to the sin that would take them away from the garden forever.

It’s never going to perfect. My relationships with others, even in my best moments, won’t offer the total fulfillment my heart longs for. But in the midst of the search, of trying to find contentment in the season I’m in, I have this wonderful promise from Jesus –

… I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:20

If you're feeling lonely, consider this:

A woman in our church decided to try and make that promise seem more real to her during Lent. She created an actual physical space for Jesus everywhere she went to remind herself that He is, in fact, always with her. At work, she pulled an extra chair into her cubicle. At the dinner table, she set an extra place. Even in her car, she made her friends ride in the backseat during those 40 days because, of course, Jesus always rides shotgun.

What a way to paint the picture!

He’s there.

In my loneliness.

In the search for meaningful relationships.

In the longing for more.

In the challenges of this season.

Jesus is with me. Always. Every moment. Ready to soothe my doubts and calm my fears and offering a relationship better than any I’ve ever known.

I’m learning to see Him.

 

This post originally appeared at Middle Places. 

Learning to be Lonely

Lindsey Smallwood

Lately I’ve been longing to be lonely.

It’s totally weird for me.

I’ve always been the most extroverty of extroverts, totally energized by noise and people and busyness. Practicing a devotional life of quiet mediation on Scripture and private prayer is a discipline I’ve always struggled with because, well, booooring.

But all of a sudden I’m finding a longing to get away, to be alone with my thoughts, to rest not just by napping but by taking the easy yoke Jesus offers. I desire to hear His still small voice in my heart and to experience the restorative power of studying scripture.

It’s a model set by Jesus, we see it in Mark 1.

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he (Jesus) departed and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.

This little verse follows the dynamic work Jesus was doing, teaching, healing the sick, casting out demons. It proceeds another passage full of Jesus proclaiming good news and performing miracles.

In the midst of this busy-ness, Jesus needs a break, time to be in touch with His Father, a lonely place to make sense of His work and His life.

I love Henri Nouwen’s take on what’s happening here.

Somewhere we know that without a lonely place, our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures.

It’s quiet that helps us know what to say, solitude that makes our time in community meaningful. As I balance raising two little ones who both want to talk to me all the time, working at my church, and being involved in my neighborhood and community, I’m realizing that I need to make space for God more than I ever have before.

In the past, I’ve experienced that longing as a burden, an unloved discipline, something else to add to my planner or pencil in my to-do list. But I’m beginning to see it more as a reward, a joy, something I can sneak into my day the way I do the Halloween M&Ms still hiding behind my canned goods in my pantry.

I’ve started keeping my Bible in my gym bag, taking time to read and pray after I finish cardio but before the childcare time runs out. When I get the boys to bed (*finally*) I take a moment to sit in the dark at the top of the stairs and think about the day, with gratitude for all God has done. I bought a tiny journal that lives in my purse and sometimes I’ll jot down a prayer as it comes to mind, just right there in the middle of my every day life.

I’m sneaking in solitude and discovering that it is it’s own reward, that time spent thinking and listening to God and considering truth is nourishing and even delightful.

I’m learning to love the lonely place.


What about you?
How do you make space for spiritual practice?
Is it a joy? Challenge? Both? 
Here's to finding your lonely place today.

Starting with Hello

Lindsey Smallwood

In the common area of our university housing apartment building there is a playground.

It’s quiet there in the middle of the day, the swings sit empty during the hours when most children are eating lunch, finishing their school day or napping. But right at 3:00, it comes alive with groups of school-age kids playing basketball and riding bikes, preschoolers digging in the sandbox, and babies in their mother’s arms as the women exchange stories and gossip.

The community where we live is very diverse, as the college attracts students and scholars from all over the world. I’ve found the people to be generally friendly, even though we all speak many different languages. We have shared a meal with our Korean neighbors, exchanged travel tips with a new family from Israel and walked to library story time with friends from Ethiopia.

And still, everyday when 3:00 comes and I think about going to the playground, I feel nervous. There’s a subtle fear, a quiet question – Will I know anyone? Will anyone talk to me? Will it be lonelier there watching other moms interact with each other than it is here in my tiny apartment alone with two babies?

Recently, our RA asked to interview our family for a feature in the community newsletter. We told stories about our hometowns and hobbies and submitted a family photo. The week after the newsletter came out I went to the playground with my two sons. I had scanned the faces of the other moms who were present and knew that I didn’t speak the same language as any of them. I flashed a quick smile to the ones I’d seen before and sat down, scrolling through my phone as a defense against my loneliness.

Suddenly a little boy came up to me excitedly, pointing at my toddler.

“Hello! Hello! This is Bobby! From California!” he exclaimed in his sweet Chinese accent. “I am Sammy, I have seen your picture at my house.”

“Hi Sammy, “ I replied, smiling, realizing that he must be talking about the newsletter.

“That is my mom,” he pointed to the tiny woman pushing the stroller toward us, “and that is MY Tommy.”

Sammy gestured toward to the large baby sitting in the stroller and then looked back at Bobby, my almost 2 year old. “You have a Tommy AND I have a Tommy. Two Tommys!”

His mother approached, out of breath and smiling. “Sammy’s been wanting to meet you. My baby is Tommy too.”

We sat there, comparing our sweet babies the best we could, given that she speaks very little English and my proficiency in Mandarin is worse. But there was a thrill of connection, we both had babies named Tommy and that was enough to create laughter and camaraderie. I tucked my phone into my pocket and left it there, exchanging my safe virtual world of think pieces and status updates for the real one in front of me where I didn’t speak the language but still was being invited to participate.

Here’s the thing – those quiet questions that come with me to the playground, they’re present nearly everywhere I go.  At church, at book club, at music lessons, in new situations and everyday moments, I’m fighting the feeling that I don’t yet belong, the fear that I’ll make a misstep, the uncertainty of not knowing how to build a bridge of connection to those around me. And the temptation to sit alone and build a neat orderly online world where I can pick and choose what to see and read and talk about will win out if I let it.

But then Sammy runs up.

And I’m reminded that all it takes is some little slice of life in common and a willingness to try. There’s a bravery in saying hello, in taking a step toward someone, in seeking to find common ground – and great joy in discovering the ways we are more alike than different.

So here’s to trying a little harder, to putting away our phones in favor of the real world right in front of us. Here’s to quieting the voice that says you don’t belong or you don’t know how to connect. You do.

It starts with hello.

Loneliness & God's Friendship

Lindsey Smallwood

We just moved to Boulder, Colorado last month from Berkeley, California and we miss it.  

We miss the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge and the park by our house where you could see the Golden Gate Bridge over the ocean. See what I did there?

We miss our tiny one bedroom cottage and the lemon tree in our backyard and a fridge that had a drawer just for cheese.  

We miss flip flops and fleeces in February and being able to walk to the park without snow boots. 

But mostly we miss the people.  Our small group at church.  Chris' lab-mates and his pick-up basketball team.  My Friday morning mom's group and the Book Club gals.  Our marriage mentors.  Our next door neighbors who loved our kids like they were their own.

There are Skype dates and phone calls and status updates.  But it's not the same.  

It's lonely starting over.  

A couple weeks ago I was pushing my stroller down the creek path by our apartment to the library, an excursion borne from a hopefulness that there would be some other mom at the library who would want to laugh and commiserate and maybe even plan a playdate.  I was talking to the Lord as I walked and I told him:

God, I need a friend.  Just one, someone who is easy to talk to and 'gets it', who knows me and loves me anyway.

And there, in quiet of my heart, I sensed God's sweet reply. 

I am.  

I turned that over in my head as I walked.  God is my friend.  He is easy to talk to, He 'gets it', He's always there.  More than anyone, He knows me.  And He loves me deeply.  I believe all of those things.

But I wanted to argue with Him, to shrug it off.  

Yes, of course, God, you're always there, but I need a friend, like a for-real person with skin and bones and a sense of humor.  

But as I thought about it, I realized that for that day, in that moment, I needed to be reminded that though I feel lonely, I am never alone.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. (Deuteronomy 31:8)

Being lonely is not unique to moving.  Even as established as I felt in my life in California, I often felt lonely.  

Too busy to meet up with friends.  

Too tired to make plans.  

Too self-conscious to be honest about myself when I did make time for people.  

Motherhood can also be lonely.  Before I had my kids, I had a classroom full of students to teach, co-workers to bounce ideas off of, a principal to answer to.  The days were full of social interactions.  Now I find myself at home by myself with two tiny people who don't talk yet for most of my waking hours. 

We all need friendships, people who understand us, who love us, who support and challenge us. God designed us that way, to want and need relationships.  And I know for me, in this season of starting over, that those will come in time.

But we were made for God, to know Him and be known by Him.  And He is with us, He promises to never leave us.  On our loneliest days, in the moments where we feel like no one knows and no one sees, He sees us. He knows the joys and the hurts and the wants in our hearts.  He stands with us, right where we are.  

God, thank you for your friendship and the promise that you will never leave me. Teach me to turn to you in my loneliness, to learn again to enjoy your presence.  And - oh yeah - please Lord, I could use some right-here-where-I'm-living friends too.  Amen.