“Do you ever feel like you’ve gone through an entire day and no one noticed you?” my daughter said.
“What do you mean? Like no one spoke to you or complimented you or even said hello?” I said.
“God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing.”
–Psalm 68:6 (NIV)
“No . . . worse. More like you were literally invisible to other people. Like they didn’t even see you when they were looking right at you.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “Can you see my hand moving or am I really see through?”
“I feel that way every day,” I said. “I see you, though. You’re not invisible.”
In the very moment, a mom and daughter that we’ve known for years stepped into the salon foyer where we were standing and, despite our hellos and waves, they looked right through us and walked right by us. In an instant, the flood of memories of all the times I’d felt invisible overwhelmed me. It stung like it always had.
I sighed and smiled at my daughter, feeling my humanity keenly.
“Maybe we’re only visible to each other,” she said.
Welcome to the Human Condition
Vincent Van Gogh described it like this: “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a whisper of smoke.”
This aching, gnawing loneliness can be felt even when other people surround us. It’s real. I know sometimes you feel like a whisper of smoke, too. Like you’re bursting with life and warmth and gifts to offer others but no one even notices. Sometimes we are more vulnerable to the effects of loneliness than at other times (during the overwhelming togetherness of the holidays, for instance, especially when you’ve got no one to be together with).
Sorry to bring bad tidings, but some of us really are wired to feel misunderstood and unseen and, therefore, lonely. Don’t believe me? In his book Loneliness, John Cacioppo notes that at any given time more than 60 million people in the U.S. feel isolated and lonely. Using data from sibling and twin studies, he found strong evidence that our genetics play a large role in how we feel, and deal with, loneliness.
“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”
Listen, I’ll go first. I’m lonely a lot of the time. I feel isolated and unseen and misunderstood. I feel like I’m doing life wrong or different from other people and that’s why they can’t see me. I try to match my steps to the steps of the people around me who seem to have it all, but my feet get tangled up and I fall. I feel like I need to form a club of misfits everywhere I go—church misfits, school misfits, mom misfits. I feel like my life, in many ways, is fettered by loneliness. Without it, I could be so much more . . .
But I’m going to step out on a limb here and say that you feel that way, too. Am I right? At least partly?
If it’s true that all (or the majority) of us feel lonely even when we’re connected to others, then the very fact that it’s a global epidemic changes everything. We’re not misunderstood and different. We’re the same—you and me and every other human from the beginning of time. We’re all locked into our own heads, feeling isolated and unrecognized. We are all fettered, held captive in what Robert Frost called our own “desert places.”
But here’s the rub. If we all feel lonely, then we’ve got something in common. And relationships begin easily when we find commonality. Maybe it’s time you and I reach out a hand to someone else. It’s bold, but maybe we can build some bridges so others can take shaky steps away from loneliness. It has to be us, the ones who understand the profound truth that we are never alone because our Savior is present. We have to step away from our own feelings of isolation, make the first move, and bring hope to the 60 million lonely ones around us.
How to Ransom the Captive
Mercy is my favorite word and my favorite gift from God. I’m thinking a lot right now about how to use mercy to ransom the captive. In the Bible, we see that ransoming the captive meant something quite literal—offering financial substitutes, or offering to take the place of another, to gain freedom for someone held in the captivity of slavery or imprisonment.
We are called to be Jesus to others, so we have to remember how Jesus defined his own ministry the first time he spoke about it publicly:
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16–21, ESV)
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”
If Jesus was sent to give liberty to captives, then we are asked to do the same. What holds humanity captive today? Yes, still slavery and imprisonment. But we are also captive to addiction, sickness, poverty, and LONELINESS.
Right now, right where you are, you can ransom a captive. This is true especially now as we hold our breath in anticipation of Christmas and all the celebrations with family that we look forward to. There is someone in your world who is not looking forward to this week. You know instinctually how to do this—how to gently chip away at walls that make us lonely. Reach out a hand to someone in the next few days, or share a smile or a laugh. Connect with the ones in your life who tend to be ignored by groups. Be available. Be present. Go into the nursing home that you pass every day and sit down next to a resident who could use some help unburdening her heart. Give your unhurried, undivided attention to a stranger who needs it. Sit with someone in an ICU waiting room who needs a friend. By all means, save a seat in church for someone who finds walking into a group of strangers the scariest thing in the world.
The implications of human connection are beyond explanation. It’s a daring, audacious thing to free someone from the captivity of loneliness. But we are here to powerfully touch the hearts of others and to show the love of Christ. And we are lonely, too, so we understand how good it feels to be seen when we thought we were invisible. The redemptive power of God’s mercy is that when we ransom a captive, we ransom ourselves from loneliness, too.