by Gennifer King
Have you ever had one of those big realization moments where certain things just suddenly make so much sense? Have you ever had one of those moments come spewing out of your mouth in a conversation before you’ve even had the revelation yourself? I had one of those moments on Sunday, and it’s really been bothering me.
It’s very common for people to feel blue after coming back from a mission trip; however, I hate having emotions that I cannot fully describe or find the root cause to. These emotions tend to run around my head and wreak havoc until I am in a dreadful state of mental un-health. So feeling blue the past two weeks has really ticked me off, because I haven’t been able to say for sure WHY. In a conversation on Sunday the answer came leaping out of my mouth and I nearly wept with equal measures of relief and grief.
I must confess that have been reluctant to talk about my experiences in Uganda, even avoiding people or social events to not have to discuss it with people. Not because I don’t want to share, but because I have not fully processed everything that happened, how I feel about it, and what the most important things are to share. There are many stories from the trip, and each brings hope, joy and a call to action; but, there is a message that I want to share. This message isn’t about miracles or amazing things I have never seen or how our little group impacted those around us. This message is about how those around us impacted me; because it is an impact that I think needs to happen for most Americans.
It was hard for me to come back to America, there are many reasons that I would have loved to stay in Uganda. There is one very selfish reason. For 16 solid days I felt free to be myself without fear of judgement or not fitting in with the group, and for 16 solid days I never felt lonely. Mostly cut off from communication, safe for a short time every evening and morning when wifi was available, and with people I have known for less than a year, in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, but I have never felt so included, seen, appreciated, accepted, cared for, and un-lonely. Why do I feel so alone here?
Psychology Today says “To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. In fact, strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life.” The key words to take note of here are “intimate bonds”. In this fast-paced society of social media and busy schedules, we know many people, but how many intimate bonds do we really have?
Do you want to know the most amazing thing I saw in Uganda? People making a conscious effort to engage with one another. Friends walking hand in hand in a gesture that says, “I am with you, right now, fully present and engaged in our conversation. YOU are my priority, and I will hold your hand so you know it.” Teen boys walking hand in hand as an act of friendship and attention. Grown men holding hands out of respect for their friend. Here we simply say “hello, how are you?” out of social norms and often without thought. There, a salutation is an opportunity for connection.
Since coming back, loneliness is the feeling that has been making me blue. I miss sharing every meal with those 4 strangers who are now my family, and openly discussing our struggles, our joys, the lessons we’ve learned, and checking in on one another’s health. I miss the way that people greeted each other that made me feel like I was the only thing that mattered in that moment. I am not afraid of being alone, and sometimes I need it; but loneliness… loneliness is an empty black pit.
Loneliness is sharing a house with a friend, but occupying different rooms. Loneliness is walking away from a conversation not feeling heard, or worse, not respected enough to be authentic. Loneliness is the thing that drives me to seek comfort in the blue and white platform of Facebook; because, a like and a comment is better than nothing.
Loneliness is the thing that keeps me awake at night; and fills my head with nightmares of unhealthy relationships past. Because, at least in those relationships, there was someone there. Loneliness is my gateway to depression and all of the unhealthy coping skills I pick up along the way.
I don’t share this to gain sympathy, or to wallow in self-pity. I share this because more than 22% of Americans suffer from loneliness. Think of 10 people you know… most likely, 2 of them feel lonely a significant amount of the time. There is a misconception that activity and inclusion are the tools to fighting loneliness. The only answer to the loneliness questions is RELATIONSHIP. Taking the time to hear someone, rather than listening for your chance to respond or tell your story. Making the conscious effort to remember someone’s name and your last conversation, or that one thing they were excited about that one time. Knowing the line between inclusion and disrespecting someone else’s boundaries, values, and personality. Placing your cellphone in your pocket when you are engaging with someone; and letting the wretched thing go to voicemail. Sending a text or leaving a voicemail for someone when you are thinking about them; or sending them flowers if appropriate. Making time for those intimate conversations over a meal, a cup of coffee, or a hiking trail.
I challenge you to think about what it means to have an intimate connection with someone (not physical) and make a conscious effort to cultivate that with 5 new people.
I firmly believe that we were created to be in intimate relationship with God and with other people.
I want to live like I believe it.