E95: Embracing Your Loneliness: A Recipe for Disaster or Deeper Compassion?
Podcast Intro – (Upbeat acoustic guitar music)
Jon Steele 0:09
Hey everyone. I'm Jon Steele. And this is After IV: a podcast for InterVarsity alumni. Life after college is hard. And even a great experience with your InterVarsity chapter doesn't shield you from the challenges of transition. As we hear stories from real alumni learning how to make it in their post-InterVarsity reality, my hope is that this podcast will offer some encouragement, a few laughs and even some hope for the future. This is After IV, and these are your stories.
Hello, friends Welcome to After IV, the podcast for InterVarsity alumni. I'm your host, Jon Steele, and I am really looking forward to sharing this episode with you. We're joined this week by Jason Gaboury InterVarsity. He's National Director of Alumni Relations and author of the fantastic book Wait With We: Meeting God in Loneliness. And today, Jason is going to help us better understand loneliness and our culture. Give us some tips for engaging our own loneliness in healthy ways. And also share some insights on what loneliness means for our relationship with Jesus. What Jason had to say about that part in particular blew my mind, and I think it might surprise you too. So let's dive in and see what we can learn about loneliness. Here's Jason, and this one's for you, alumni.
Jason, welcome back to the podcast.
Jason Gaboury 1:31
It's good to be back.
Jon Steele 1:32
I just felt like we could not go one full year. It's been so long, it seems.
Jason Gaboury 1:40
I know! Well, I'm glad to be back with you, Jon. Thanks for inviting me.
Jon Steele 1:43
Absolutely. I'm looking forward to our conversation today. As as we've said in the past, there are a number of episodes, people could go back and listen to any of almost any of the why fill in the blank church calendar titles. You could you could learn from and get to know Jason a little bit. But for those who are just joining us right now, Jason, would you give us just a brief introduction, tell us who you are?
Jason Gaboury 2:09
Sure. My name is Jason. I work with InterVarsity. I am the Director of Alumni Relations for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, USA and I am Jon’s boss's boss. So you know, behave yourself, Jon.
Jon Steele 2:25
Yes, that's kind of like when the when the principal comes and like sits in the back of your classroom. So Jason, you're you're joining us this week, because we're talking about loneliness. And you've spent a significant amount of time reflecting on studying writing about speaking on all of the things about loneliness, and in 2020. In particular, you publish the book, the book, wait with me, meeting God in loneliness? So as we get started here, would you just give us a little bit of background on your book? What prompted you to write it? What is it for? What did you learn while you're writing, just just give us a little bit of a breakdown?
Jason Gaboury 3:05
Oh, yeah, I've wrestled with loneliness, probably most of my life. At some level, I, I can remember, even as a kid, very young kid, going through seasons of experiencing senses of loneliness. And when I was a parent, and when I was working with college students, and I had parents of young children, and I was leading in my church, I was doing all the community things that you're supposed to do, to feel connected. And I remember I'd have a house full of guests, and everybody would go home, and it stood at my kitchen counter and washing dishes. And I would just feel these waves of loneliness. And, and that was really disorienting for me. So I, I sought out some spiritual direction, I sought out people who I thought could help me with this. And what I discovered was so transformative, that I thought, even in the moment, I thought, someday I need to write about this someday, I need to share this these insights that I'm learning with other people, so that they can meet and experienced them as well. And so yeah, I wrote the book for anybody who is experienced loneliness, struggles with loneliness, and who is open to a engagement with God, a way of discovering God in the context of loneliness that's different than they think.
Jon Steele 4:37
Before we do that, before we look at this kind of big picture perspective. You mentioned that, you know, loneliness has been sort of a companion off and on throughout life for you. And so I wonder, let's, let's, let's deep dive here for a moment. Let's let's just go in for a moment here and Jason, would you be willing to tell us a story a specific moment of loneliness in your life? I'll tell one if you tell one.
Jason Gaboury 5:03
Yeah, sure. The trouble is there's so many that come to mind. I remember as a kid thinking that that kickball I don't know if kids people still play kickball, but I remember thinking kickball was like my game. And, and I remember standing in line and what they what they used to do is they used to take the most popular kind of athletic boys, it was always boys in those days. They make them the team captains and then they'd have everybody else stand up in a line, and I watched all the popular athletic boys get picked. Then I watched all the popular athletic girls get picked. Then I watched the unpopular uncoordinated the unathletic kids get picked. And at the end of the at the end of the, the choosing, I was just me and Bobby McFarland, standing next to each other. Bobby McFarland was legally blind. And I was like, I thought kickball was my game. I was so disoriented. And I remember in that moment, just feeling like I feel so disconnected from this thing that was supposed to be fun. And so that's just one kind of funny, not funny moment from childhood. That was an experience of loneliness.
Jon Steele 6:13
Yes, the kickball lineup loneliness. I, I definitely remember that. Oh, man. The moment that comes to me like that feels like a standout moment of loneliness for me was when I had moved when I moved to Mankato for grad school. And I must have been just a few months in, and I moved to Mankato, knowing one person that was the woman that I was dating at the time, and she lived 45 minutes away. So in town, there was nobody, I had not connected with InterVarsity yet, and I would come back to my one room apartment, you could probably just barely put two of me and to end to reach across the length of this apartment. You crawl out of bed right into the hallway, essentially, is what this was like. And I remember just being in this this place of like, I have nobody, I have nobody here. I would turn on the TV the entire time that I was home just to hear other human voices. And I remember this one night in particular, where it just felt so overwhelming that I crumpled up on the floor in this extremely tiny bathroom and an already tiny one bedroom apartment, and just cried on the floor. And I literally said as I was crying, I want my mommy. I mean, like, maybe not mommy, but I want my mom. Like I remember having actually voicing those words as a 22 Something guy out on his own for the first time saying I'm so lonely. All I want is my mom right now. And that felt like a low point of loneliness in my life that I didn't know what to do with. Yeah, so that was that was a that was a tough moment. When I think of loneliness, that's the one that comes to mind for me. Whether it's something that you experience consistently or not, it's something that we have all experienced in one way or another. So based on the study and the preparation that you've done leading up to your book, and since your book, what is the reality of our culture right now around loneliness?
Jason Gaboury 8:17
Yeah, that's it's such a great question. And it's fascinating. I mean, a couple of years ago, when the first studies on this were coming out, what people were puzzled about, is that the the trend lines around loneliness, were skewing younger, teenagers, were actually the most vulnerable to loneliness, at a time in life, where the expectation would have been that this is the place where you're going to be socially the most dense, right? You're gonna have the thickest relationships, and nobody can fully agree on what all the factors are. But there's a number of factors. So some that are meaningful to me, as I look at it as is, I think young people in particular, are vulnerable to loneliness, because of a high level of transitions, we all get more exposed to loneliness when we're in transition, because of high levels of competition or competitiveness. So competitive environments can tip there's a way in which if it's a team sport, competition pulls you together, but when it's every person for themselves, competitive environments actually become isolating, and we're lonely. And there's a huge role that our technology our habits around technology, are, are forming in us. And so there's a picture that was used to promote my book from University of California, San Diego, and it's a picture of the quad and these, these concrete kind of block stone blocks on the quad. And it's just this photo of one person sitting on a block, looking at their phone and then Another person on the next block looking at their phone, and another person on the next block or looking at their phone. This is not me ranting about technology or kids today or their technologies. Right? It's it's technology and the way our habits around technology are actually forming us to pull out our phones, and pull out our technology forming us to to be individuals more individuated, more buffered in one into us a more of a philosophical term, but more buffered than we used to be. And that contributes to our loneliness. And it's even more complex than that. The multiple studies done with rhesus monkeys and anxiety really fascinating. So we live in a very highly anxious world as well. Anxiety, by the way, contributes to loneliness. So the more anxious we are, the more fearful we are, the less open we are to interactions into connections with other people. There's this study with rhesus monkeys where you put a rhesus monkey in a high stress environment, you could kill them with anxiety, wow, really, you can, because their adrenaline will shoot off the root, you can totally frazzle a rhesus monkey to a point of near death. And that's crazy, right. But if you take rhesus monkeys who share a social bond, and you put them in the same environment, their cortisol levels stay within normal range. Wow. And we're just like, this is when we actually need other people to regulate our cortisol levels. Cortisol is our stress hormone. If you and I are connecting across a screen like this, it's not nearly as good at regulating my cortisol. As if I'm standing next to you simply standing next to you in your presence, is doing things to my chemical physiology. That is soothing me, and helping me come to grips with, I'm going to be okay, Jon’s here. I'm connected to Jon. they ever had this, we're gonna do in fact, we had this experience. Once we were in an airport, and I ran into me, I was I was lost. And then I saw Jon, and we found each other. And I could feel that, like my anxiety melting away, because we're gonna find our ride together. Right?
Jon Steele 12:26
That's right. That's right. And everything turned out. Okay. Turned out. Okay. Oh, wow. What are some recommendations that you have around navigating loneliness? What do you recommend that we do with it? And how does that differ maybe from the way that our culture is training us to deal with loneliness?
Jason Gaboury 12:46
Yeah, great question. So I think our culture says, do everything you can to avoid loneliness or to resolve the loneliness problem, right? So I'm lonely, fix it, you're lonely, fix it, you know. And I'll never forget walking into this office with this 76 year old Jesuit, spiritual director. And I said, you know, Father, Google, I'm so I'm so lonely. I explain my experience to him, and I sharing about all my things, and I think I'm going to have, I'm going to have this, you know, all this empathy coming from him. You know, we're, he's going to say, oh, you know, here's my three step plan. And after a pause, he looks at me and he says, oh, Jason, this is very good. And I was like, I was like, What are you talking about? You clearly have not been listening. And this is terrible. And what what he said next was really was really powerful. He said, Jason, loneliness is not an indication that there's something wrong with you. Wow. Loneliness is an indication there's something right with you. It means that you are human. It means that you are capable and desiring connection with another human. It means that you are you desire connection, this is something really deeply right about you. It's not something wrong with you. And by the way, it's normal for human beings to be lonely. And so he said to me, you can look at to me, you can look to other activities, you can look to God, you can look to your religion, to take loneliness away. Or he said, you can embrace your loneliness as the beginning of a work of transformation in you, where you can grow greater compassion for yourself. You can grow greater compassion for other people. And you grow greater compassion for God. And if you are willing to take that journey of growing and compassion by embracing your loneliness, your loneliness will maybe not go away. But your increased compassion will actually give you the increased capacity to connect with other people. And so that was really, really profound for me. And that's kind of what got me on this journey and got me excited about the book.
Jon Steele 15:32
We live in a time Jason, where telling people to embrace their loneliness feels like a pretty bold statement.
That's fair enough,
like I can, I can just hear people saying like, but Jason, you don't understand what I'm going through. Let me just give you an example here. Sure, interesting juxtaposition here of experience recent experiences on the podcast. We spoke to Nolan a couple of weeks ago, and Nolan moved to a new city after he graduated. But he had a bunch of his close friends that moved with him. He had already met a pastor and got connected to a church that was waiting to receive him when he got there. And he said that he felt like God just knew that this was what he needed, and that God provided it for him. Then last week, we're talking to Corinne. Corinne moves after graduation, she already lives far away from home, she moves even further away from home when she graduates to a place where she knows nobody in her new town. And she works hard for months before she even starts to make a connection or two with other people. So she's led a very lonely experience in her first almost a year post graduation. So for other alumni like Corinne, who are struggling to find community after graduation, why doesn't God just know that they needed like he knew that Nolan needed it? It kind of almost leaves me in this place of saying, like, what the heck God? What are you doing? And potentially to be like, Jason, come on, don't tell me to embrace this. This is this has been one of the worst experiences of my life. What do we do with that?
Jason Gaboury 17:07
Yeah. Oh, man. It's a great question, Jon. First of all, I want to speak to the experience of someone like Korean. I mean, if you're in this situation, and you're listening, and you feel like, yeah, I feel like Jon, curled up on the floor, I feel miserable, and lonely and, and isolated and alone, I want to say to you that what you're experiencing is torturous. And it's terrible. And it's awful. And when by saying if I'm recommending embracing loneliness, it isn't to say that it's okay. It's not minimizing the horror and the dissidents and the difficulty of it, because it's horrible. Solitary confinement is a form of torture. And so when you're in the grip of of loneliness, and the waves are just crashing over you, I care about that. I'm so sorry. It's awful. You're absolutely right. And everything in you that screams This isn't okay, is actually reflecting the heart of God. One of the questions I was curious about in my book is, are there resources in Scripture that speak to loneliness? And and the answer is yes, but here's the here's one of the things I discovered, we get so used to reading the story of Scripture through the lens that we were taught in Sunday school, so maybe some of us learned the lens of creation, fall redemption, and that's those, those are fine for what they are. They're good shorthand, but we get so used to reading the scriptures through that lens, that we assume that the scripture is the story of God dealing with human rebellions, sin and evil. And yet in the story of Scripture, the first problem is not the problem of evil and rebellion. It's the problem of loneliness. Genesis 218, every time God looks at creation, notice his creation, up until this point up until 217. God says, It's good. It's very good. It's good. Creation is good. We get that drummed into our ears, and then all of a sudden God looks. And he says, It is not good for the human creature to be alone. It is not good. And so I started to think about that, you know, what if the main story of Scripture isn't the story of God dealing with our sin and rebellion? That's super important. I'm not trying to minimize sin and redemption at all. But what if the bigger story that Scripture is trying to tell is the story of a God who recognizes it's not good for us to be alone, and actually God's heart and God's action and God's energy moves towards creating and restoring relationships, restoring relationships to the point of taking on the greatest forms of isolation. Jesus was lonely. When Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, the one thing Jesus wants is where the book title comes from. But he wants his three best friends to wait with him. Because he knows he's about to face the most trying situation of his life. And his three best friends go to sleep. When Jesus goes to sit in the courtroom of the Sanhedrin, Jesus says this poignant phrase, he sees his two disciples in the courtyard. And they ask Jesus a question, and Jesus says, Why do you ask me? Why don't you ask those who heard and let them testify? What Jesus wants more than anything else, is for a witness to stand up and say, I was there I heard what he said, asked me and his disciples stay silent. Yeah, in the cry of desolation on the cross, Jesus turns all of that experience of desolation and loneliness to God. He says, My God, My God, why have you even you forsaken me? And Jesus is expressing this profound sense of, of loneliness, isolation, with profound theological consequences. Now growing up, he had a kind of a therapeutic, moralistic kind of Christian faith. I thought that those kinds of experiences that Jesus went through meant that when I was feeling really lonely, Jesus could be my buddy and could relate to me, right, Jesus could walk with me and my loneliness, he could understand. It isn't that isn't that comforting? Here's what I learned. I learned that if I was willing to embrace, to wait with Jesus to allow the loneliness that I experience, to lead me to deeper compassion for, for myself, for other people, for Jesus, all of a sudden, I realized that, well, I know what it's like to be betrayed to lead a friend, and have them fall asleep on me. I know what that's like. But I don't know what it's like, when people are trying to kill me. Oh, I know what it's like to say, hey, I need somebody to testify on my behalf to stick up for me. Because people are saying some bad things about me. I need somebody to stand up and say, no, no, no, no, I was there, right? It wasn't like that. And I know what it's like to have that betrayal. I know what it's like to feel abandoned by God, I don't, I will never know what it's like to actually be abandoned in the way that Jesus was in the mystery of that. And what this means is that if I can enter into that, and grow in compassion, all of a sudden, it's not about Jesus relating to me, it's about my ability to go, oh, my gosh, I understand a little bit more about who Jesus is, I understand a little bit more about his life, I can have compassion for him. And if I can have compassion for Jesus, when he's betrayed, or when he's lonely, or when he's going through something, that means I can have compassion for my neighbor, who's lonely. And the next time she starts talking at me, and I just want to get my groceries put away, maybe I can remember, maybe there's an opportunity, there's access to compassion, I can be compassionate to a person who's somebody like me, who feels lonely, who needs to connect in this moment, and maybe I can, I can offer that week as it is, you know, so. So that's what I mean, when I talked about, you know, enter into embrace your loneliness.
Jon Steele 23:40
Wow. Okay. So if, if I can, if I can, like distill this, maybe poorly, into into one phrase here, Jason, what you're telling me is that embracing my loneliness actually has the potential to open me to relationship, yes, to a relationship with Jesus to relationship with others,
Jason Gaboury 24:03
And embracing relationship with yourself, because a lot of us are so busy trying to avoid our loneliness that we can't even name it.
Jon Steele 24:12
That I mean, that is… that is just… it's just so counterintuitive, that the way that God has built us compared to the way that our culture functions is actually upside down. Because oftentimes, it almost feels like loneliness or sadness, or some of those things, is an enticing companion in a way that I should not give into, like you're just going to go into this downward spiral but there are ways to engage with this. Not just getting rid of it, but actually acknowledging and leaning in, that that can lead to health and stronger relationships and and to see loneliness as something that can be used For, for the sake of having compassion for Jesus, who has ever thought of that? Certainly not me, you're like you're blowing up my brain here, Jason talking about some of these things. So how can we do this? Well, if there are resources that you have, or things that you've kind of developed are that you found along the way? How can we engage in a healthy way with our loneliness?
Jason Gaboury 25:25
Sure, for some of us, we're going to need to find a good spiritual director, we're going to need to find a good therapist, and I'm all for therapy, I'm all for getting the help we need getting the pastoral help we need. And so for some of us, that's what we're going to need, that's a healthy way to that's a healthy way to pursue that other healthy ways to pursue that, you know, obviously, I wrote a whole book on this, you can take this book that I've written, and you can work through it. And I've designed it in such a way that there's a chapter and there are questions to reflect on in their scripture to reflect on which will help you go deeper, but the the, it's even better, if you can do it with at least one other person. In the show notes, we'll put some resources, I've got three that I think can help folks. One is a adapted form of UCLA loneliness indicator, and so they can try that out. And they can find out how lonely they are, at least according to other people who participate in the UCLA study. And then there's one that I created on the risks of loneliness, your risk factors for loneliness go up in certain seasons. Most people who are listening to this podcast who are in a season of transition have an increased risk of loneliness. So understanding your risks are really important. So that you can maybe take some proactive steps to help you think about and work through the loneliness piece. And then there's one more tool that I developed, which I want to unpack a little bit, we can get into these distorted thinking patterns for like, I'm lonely, I will be lonely forever. And there's nothing I can do. So on this assessment, there's two lines. And the first line is your social appetite. How much social engagement? Are you hungry for a 10? Just wants to connect there, Ariel, I want to be where the people are. That's, that's, that's, if you're a 10. You want to be where the people are? And that's it, right? Yes. A one would be somebody who comes home from work or whatever they're doing. And you know, if somebody was to ask you, did you talk to anybody today? You'd say, No, didn't even talk to people today. That's so real, or I forgot. That's line number one. Line Number two is what's your social risk tolerance? For example, a 10. On the social risk tolerance is I will start a conversation with anybody, anywhere, at any time. You know, if you go to the dentist and you're 10, you're constantly talking to the dentist while they're cleaning your teeth. you're chatting up the barista at Starbucks, yes. Anybody you're interacting with, you're willing to engage them and talk to them about anything. If you're a one, on that scale, you can be in highly scripted situations, a highly scripted interaction is a highly predictable one. That's what I mean, you know, all the rules. You know what you're supposed to do, you're in line at Starbucks, and you're ready to order. But if you're a one, speaking to the cashier, and saying, I'd like an oatmeal, shaken, iced brown sugar latte, please. I gotta psych myself up. I gotta get in the zone. Yeah, so that's the one to 10. Okay, extreme examples. Here's what I notice. People will have different numbers, they'll they'll place themselves in different places. But you'll notice like somebody talked to you recently did this with somebody and they like, Well, where are you on the social appetite? They gave themselves a seven and say, Okay, great. Well, where are you in terms of your social risk, they give themselves a three. So their desire for social connection is seven, their comfort with social risk taking is a three, all of a sudden now I was able to help this person and begin to coach them and say, Okay, you do not have an unsolvable chasm of loneliness, which is great, yes, you for the rest of your life until you die. You have a four point gap between your comfort and taking social risks, and your desire for social connections. What step can you do today or tomorrow to move a little bit towards a four. And then you can move a little bit more towards a four and a little bit more towards a four and then you've got a three point when you get to a four you got a three point gap over time, what you find is, oh, my desire for social connection and my capacity for relational risks are the same. Now you Do that, without doing any of the inner work we were talking about theologically, spiritually, it's going to help you a little bit, but do it in concert with some of that spiritual work. It'll transform you, in more ways than one.
Jon Steele 30:13
What I really like about that is, as you're saying, it takes this fairly emotional, nebulous experience of loneliness, I'm lonely, and I wish I wasn't. And it puts it into simplified terms, that gives you a starting point for plotting a course forward. Jason, I really appreciate this conversation. I this is one of those conversations. It's like, Gosh, I wish that I could have listened to this podcast, you know, 15 years ago, when I was when I was in a similar space. And so I'm grateful because we have many of our alumni, as you well know, who are experiencing this exact situation. And I'm grateful for your investments for your thoughtfulness for your meaningful, right sized challenges that you're giving to us here. And, and for some thought provoking concepts, I'm still hung up on compassion for Jesus growing and come in a good way, hung up on the idea of growing and compassion for Jesus. I love that. So thank you, Jason, for for giving us your time and experience today.
Jason Gaboury 31:19
Oh, it's my pleasure.
Jon Steele 31:23
Friends, I hope that at the very least, this episode provides a little relief, some balm for the pain of loneliness that you might be feeling. A reminder that feeling lonely is human. You're not messed up because you feel this way. You're normal. Even Jesus felt lonely. But how might your loneliness give you insight and compassion for Jesus, or for others around you who also feel lonely? I hope this episode is helpful for that. But I hope you won't let it stop there. Let this be a first step toward embracing loneliness in healthy ways. And Jason has provided a few things to help us do that really well. First, check out the show notes and follow the links there to the different tools that Jason described for better understanding your own loneliness. And second, read Jason's book, Wait With We: Meeting God in Loneliness, we have five copies of this book that we want to give away. So here's what I want you to do. Go to Instagram, find us there @afterivpod and send me a DM. You don't need to follow. You don't need to like any posts. You don't need to share anything or subscribe to anything. Just send us a DM and let us know that you want one of these books. It's a fantastic resource, and we want you to have it. So just let us know. And we will send it your way if you're one of the first five to get in touch with us. Jason, thanks so much for joining us this week. This has been yet another fascinating and incredibly helpful conversation with you. I love every time you're on the show. For all of you who feel the same. There are a few more moments from this conversation that didn't make it into the episode. And when I say a few I mean like two thirds of another full episode. You can keep your ears open for more from my conversation with Jason in a bonus episode that's going to come out in December. Even more great stuff to learn there. But for next week, we're shifting gears. Have you ever completely disagreed with someone like at your absolute core? Would you like to know how to have a conversation with that person about the topic that you disagree on the most without it turning into a fistfight? Or better yet, how to have a conversation that's productive, meaningful and maybe even enjoyable for both parties involved? Come back next week. If that's you, I've got someone that I'd like you to meet. I'll see you in the after alumni.
Podcast Outro – (Upbeat acoustic guitar music)
Hey, thanks so much for joining us today, Alumni. If there was anything that you learned, really enjoyed, or that encouraged you from today's episode, would you send us a DM or tag us in a story? We'd love to hear about it. You can find us @afterivpod on Instagram and Facebook. And if you haven't already, take just a second to unlock your phone and subscribe to the podcast. If your platform lets you, leave us a rating and a review. And if you like what we're doing here, share us with your InterVarsity or other post-graduation friends. Thanks again for listening. And I will see you in the after, Alumni.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai