Elchanan Poupko

The Loneliness of Suffering

Illustrative: David Composing the Psalms and playing the harp with Melodia behind him, Paris Psalter, 10th century (public domain)

With suffering comes loneliness. More difficult than suffering itself can be the loneliness that comes with it. Even when surrounded by loving friends and family, suffering brings with it an inherent sense of loneliness; when engaging with others we are screaming inside, “there is no way you can understand what I am experiencing.” 

The more unique our suffering is, the more unique our loneliness becomes. In a way it is similar to what special forces soldiers describe when they encounter difficulties in their personal relationships: no one can fully understand what they have been through.

I remember visiting a friend who was going through rehabilitation in a large New York nursing home. His floor was comprised mostly of people who were there for the long run. I still remember people on the floor almost getting into fist fights over who could speak to me, the visitor. It was heartbreaking to see a highly accomplished man in his 90s aggressively pushing his way into our conversation, even though he had never met me, just to break the vicious cycle of isolation.  Whether for circumstantial reasons or internal ones, with suffering comes loneliness.

Addressing loneliness is not something we must do merely because of how unpleasant loneliness is; loneliness can be the lens through which we see our entire experience in a far worse way than it needs to be. What is true for the negative is also true for the positive; overcoming loneliness has the potential to heal a great deal of our pain. Loneliness during this time can be not only a social or circumstantial experience, it can also be spiritual loneliness. Yes, another aspect of loneliness is the theological and religious aspect. This feeling can alienate us from our most important partner at times of difficulty and isolation—God himself. This is best articulated by King David with his famous words (Psalms 22): 

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? [You are] far from my salvation [and] from the words of my moaning. My God, I call out by day, and You do not reply, and at night I do not keep silent.”

Anyone reading these words cannot miss the heartbreaking loneliness they contain. Anyone who has experienced the loneliness of suffering knows exactly how King David was feeling when writing those words.

Needless to say that there are many powerful tools and resources by researchers, psychologists, neurologists, and social workers, and that these lines are not here to substitute for them. 

When talking about the creation of man, we are taught:

“And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.” (Genesis 2:8) 

Nothing portrays loneliness as a non-ideal situation like the description of creation. God sees man alone and unequivocally rejects the state of loneliness. “It is not good.” Humans are created as a community. We do not do well alone. This is why God creates partners and communities for us. We need to belong, so we can reach our maximum potential. 

If this is true under ordinary circumstances, it is all the more true when going through life-altering difficulties. Enduring challenging times alone can be one of the hardest things to do. Part of helping ourselves through these times is making sure that we connect to those who will help dissolve our feelings of loneliness. This need is often met through regularly attending religious services in a house of worship. Studies show that regular attendance at religious institutions extends life expectancy, highlighting how crucial doing things together is for us. 

And yet, at the same time, we are not always in a position to make those connections. Going to weekly services or other group activities is not always possible nor is it always what we need most. This can be because of being bedridden, familial and social situations, geographical limitations, our emotional state, or other conditions that do not allow for normal social interactions. It is at those times—when defeating loneliness through ordinary measures is no longer possible—that we must see how we can turn loneliness from our foe to our friend. We must find ways to seek strength in the midst of our loneliness. Because yes, sometimes loneliness can be a sign of strength; loneliness can be a sign of self-sufficiency. As Ilchi Lee of the Korea Institute of Brain Science writes

“Aloneness that we resist is called loneliness; aloneness that we embrace is called solitude. Loneliness fills us with sorrow and anxiety; solitude is the beginning of true wisdom and true self-knowledge. So, when you feel lonely, dive into that feeling rather than avoiding it. Solitude is your time to come back to the center of your being, free from the distractions and demands of other people. “

Being alone is often like a huge wave trying to drown us; if we run away in fear, it can drown us. If we turn around and decide to surf it, it may even help us reach our goals. 

When Moses blesses the children of Israel before his death, he says: 

And Israel dwelled safely and alone as Jacob [blessed them], in a land of grain and wine; also, their heavens will drip dew. (Deuteronomy 33:28)

Loneliness can also be turned into a strength. 

The great Hassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslow, would encourage his students to take time to be alone each and every day; to speak to God as if they were speaking to their own friend. He wanted them to use loneliness as an opportunity to engage with God in a meaningful way, a way that would allow them to be sincere with God and with themselves. Rabbi Nachman’s followers went on to do exactly that; they went to the deserts and forests at night and poured out their hearts and addressed the Almighty. 

Those who pass by the forests and deserts in Israel near areas where Rabbi Nachman’s followers live, often hear heart-wrenching voices late at night coming out from the deep darkness, voices filled with yearning, tears, and hopes. These prayers are made possible by virtue of the solitude that goes into them. 

Laying alone in a hospital bed can be a horrific experience. However, it is during these times that we can think of not only how to survive loneliness but how to thrive in it. Lindsay Detwiler writes in a 2017 article:

It is sometimes when we are stripped of all connections and relationships that we can finally hear the most important voice in life: our own. Away from the noise of society and the clutter of demands from others, we can discover what happiness truly means to us.

And so, as we encounter the pain of loneliness, we must do our best to fight it off even as we embrace it and learn to make the most of that very same loneliness. This is no contradiction. On the one hand, we must make sure we enjoy the protective shield of friends, family, and strong connections; on the other hand, we can also learn to feel empowered by loneliness; we can learn to use loneliness as a tool that deepens our connection with ourselves and with God.  We can take this loneliness as an opportunity to learn more about who we are, what relationships matter to us most, and realize that we are strong and can do so much—even on our own. 

While loneliness in and of itself is a vast subject, loneliness, coupled with our faith, can be even more challenging. 

In his book The Lonely Man of Faith, the legendary rabbi and philosopher J.B. Soloveitchik speaks in detail about the uniquely lonely experience every believer goes through in this modern world. He outlines two models of loneliness we can experience as people of faith in the modern world. During times of illness, tragedy, and other major challenges, both of these models are magnified and amplified. Both need to be addressed and attended to so we can make sure we are in the best position to fight off the challenges we are facing. 

The first model Rabbi Soloveitchik explores is socio-religious loneliness, a loneliness that comes from being religious in surroundings that do not share that same faith. He writes: 

He [the man of faith] looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society, which is technically minded, self­-centered, and self-­loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here ­and now sensible world the only manifestation of being. What can a man of faith like myself, living by a doctrine which has no technical potential, by a law which cannot be tested in the laboratory, steadfast in his loyalty to an eschatological vision whose fulfillment cannot be predicted with any degree of probability, let alone certainty, even by the most complex, advanced mathematical calculations—what can such a man say to a functional, utilitarian society which is saeculum­oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart?

We have all been there before. The time we realized many of those surrounding us do not share our own faith. In the context of health struggles, it can be wanting to pray before a medical procedure and fearing others in the room will not accept us for who we are or may look at that in a judgmental way. 

I cannot help being reminded of the words a young religious man shared on an online forum:

Since I…became more and more traditional, I have been losing friends to the point where I basically now have no friends. I don’t think I’ve hung out with any friends in at least two months now. I basically just work on my summer work, go to the gym, play video games, and read, and that’s it. I’m 20 and in college, too, when it is supposedly easy to make friends… I cannot share my beliefs with anyone…

This heart-wrenching account is a reminder of how faith itself can become an isolating factor can. Regardless of the scenario, people of faith in a secular world often feel their loneliness amplified by being religious or spiritual in a secularized world. So, what do we do with that loneliness?

The first thing we need to do is to acknowledge it. Realizing what it is that we are experiencing and why it is that it makes us feel isolated can help us recognize what is and what isn’t happening. Another thing that can help a lot(!) is to explain to others what it is that we are doing. That is something that can help transform negative experiences into empowering experiences that make us proud. If we are about to pray, engage in giving charity, or any other kind of religious behavior, it helps to tell others what we are doing. 

As an orthodox Jew, I put on phylacteries daily. These are small black boxes that contain pieces of parchment with scripture on the inside, wrapped around my arm and head with black leather straps as described in the biblical verse: “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.” (Deuteronomy 6:8)

When I am about to do it, however, if I am on an airplane, I make sure to let the stewardess know what it is that I am about to do. People fear and resent the unfamiliar. Sometimes an easy way to avoid difficult situations is to preempt those reactions by letting people know about what it is that we are about to do.

One the trips I love making most is visiting with the Amish. Be it in Holmes County, Ohio, or Lancaster, Pennsylvania, visiting with the Amish is always a pleasure. While the Amish are known to be very different than so many 21st-century Americans—from the young girls all wearing bonnets to the men walking around with their flat hats—there is a great deal of understanding and excitement surrounding the Amish. This understanding owes a great deal to the fact that so much information about the Amish is so readily available in TV shows or online. Being familiar with a culture, even if it is very different, helps others relate and act in a more understanding way. 

However, we can’t always explain ourselves to everyone. There will be times that as religious people, we will be doing things that others are not familiar with. This brings us to the next thing we can do—pride.  

When engaging in what we think is important, we should never hide or feel embarrassed by what we are doing. We need to take pride in what we stand for. If we are on the street, in a cab, in a hospital room, or any other place and need to pray, we should do it without embarrassment. No words echo this sentiment better than Charles Dickens’s in Great Expectations: 

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of the earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”

What is true for our faith is even truer when it comes to tears and sorrow. We never ought to be ashamed of our tears, whether tears of sorrow or tears of hope. Wherever we are—in trouble or just hoping—we should feel free to express ourselves proudly. It is also important to be cognizant of the fact that people are probably judging us less than we realize and to recognize the goodwill there is out there. We must be aware that if people know what we are praying for, they will often empathize with us. This can help us feel comfortable with what we are doing, when we are doing it, and where we are doing it. Believing that humans are created in the image of God includes the belief that there is an inherent good in all people. Thinking this way can help alleviate feelings of difficulty and pain. 

Furthermore, people have great respect for those who have the confidence to be different. Albert Einstein famously said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” This truth ends up winning us the respect of others in many cases. 

One of the greatest experiences I have ever had, and will never forget, is the first time I visited Houston, Texas. When I was ready to leave—already at the airport—I realized I would need to pray before takeoff. Orthodox Jews pray three times a day: once in the morning, once before sunset, and once at night. I realized that if I waited until the plane took off, the sun would set. I looked around the terminal and found a quiet corner in which I would be able to stand and pray. I stood in solemn prayer, my eyes closed, and my forehead wrinkled with focus. Suddenly, I heard the cheering voice of two young kids who came to the seat next to where I was standing. They were calling out loudly and talking to each other in what some would call an “outdoor voice.” Then, a hushed, urgent, and whispering voice told the children, “You need to be quiet now.” 

The children did not understand why. “I will explain later,” the voice said in the same urgent undertone. When I finished my prayers, which can typically take up to five minutes—a long time for children—I saw a beautiful family sitting next to me. I realized that a profound lesson had been taught to those children—and to me. A lesson of respect, dignity, and difference. There I was, standing out in the middle of the airport scene, and that difference brought us so much closer. 

My difference ended up earning the respect of this family and also ended up being an opportunity to teach younger children the importance of respecting differences. Being different should not mean being disrespected. This is a powerful lesson that can be internalized when celebrating our dignity of difference.

It is important to recognize that our being different makes this world a better place. Allowing for a world that can contain differences and synthesize all those differences makes this world a better place. As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book The Dignity of Difference

“Just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.”

Our differences not only make us better people but make this world a better place too. So whenever we feel like being different might single us out or shame us, we should remember how much good it does for this world. 

With the uniqueness of our faith, can come an added level of loneliness. 

“[And] they will say on that day, “Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?” (Deuteronomy 31:17)

This second kind of loneliness, which comes with hardship, can be even harder than the first; it is an experience unique to people of faith, those with a spiritual conviction. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes this loneliness in poetic terms. He writes:

I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me” (27:10), ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience, engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as a stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence, feel frustrated. 

This sense of being abandoned and forsaken by God is unique to those with a deep sense of faith—the deeper the faith, the deeper the loneliness. When we rely on God to be our best friend, feeling the loss of that friendship leaves us lonelier than anyone else. The closer we felt we were to God, the stronger the feeling of loneliness when feelings of closeness make way for feelings of abandonment. The feeling of being abandoned by God does not go away easily. Yes, when a person is happier, has better social support, and feels a greater sense of hope, the chances are that those positive feelings will positively impact our relationship with God. However, there are still theological issues that must be addressed; there are elements of our theological loneliness that will not just fade away with friends and support. This theological loneliness can be devastating and must be addressed due to its many implications. As we face the many life challenges we may be dealing with, the unnecessary theological loneliness must be resolved and moved out of the way. We need to restore our feeling of fidelity to God.

The importance of restoring our feeling of connection to God is not just of spiritual importance; there are also important physical and bodily implications to it. One of the practical implications of not feeling alienated by God can be found in a study on the topic of religion and suicide. The NIH published a meta-analysis examining 2339 suicide cases and 5252 comparison participants. The study concluded that:

Religion plays a protective role against suicide in most settings where suicide research is conducted. However, this effect varies based on the cultural and religious context

Our sense of connection to God is one that has a real impact on us. Even as we actively address all other aspects of our loneliness, it is also essential to address our sense of “estrangement” from God. In contrast to studies that have examined the correlation between prayer and mental well-being, a different, fascinating study examined our perception of God combined with our prayer and how it affects us. What the study found was astonishing. Perceiving God as a loving and caring entity that is close to us is good for our well-being. When we perceive God through this lens, it is good for us, and our prayers bring us even closer to God. On the other hand, perceiving God as remote, not caring, and aloof to our needs is correlated with worse well-being and diminishes the impact prayer has on us. Although these are not spiritual or theological reasons to value our relationship with God, they are still important—especially in times of distress. This is why it is essential that we evaluate how we are feeling and whether or not we are feeling spiritual alienation. 

While our intimate encounter with God can be either enhanced or challenged through our sense of loneliness, religious communities also have a lot to do with how we address this difficult issue.

In addition to online resources, there are countless tools out there to combat isolation, and yet there is something unique religion has to offer. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shows a fundamental difference between what religious communities can do to combat isolation and broader society’s approaches to combating isolation. Rabbi Sacks writes:

Self-help books dominate the bestseller lists. Yet in many of them, one thing is missing… the help that does not cannot, come from the self but must come from someone else: a family member, friend, neighbor, mentor, even a stranger, anyone so long as it is not me. 

In Judaism, and doubtless in most other religions, the community takes it upon itself to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, give hospitality to the lonely and help to those in need. The therapy comes in the knowledge that the sufferer is not alone. Indeed, the first time the phrase “not good” appears in the Bible, it is in the sentence: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

By contrast, modern therapies tend to seek a solution within the self. It began with Rousseau, who thought that individuals were good and society bad, and it has continued unchecked ever since. Nowadays we are led to believe that it is we alone who are masters of our fate, we who preserve our freedom by steering clear of the entanglements of commitment and community. Hence the idea of self-help. But sometimes staying within the self is not a cure but the problem itself.

One of the great blessings of religion is that it moves us beyond the self. It bonds us to others and to God. It trains us in the habits of loving-kindness. It teaches us relational intelligence. It sustains oases of community in the desert of the lonely crowd. It supports the kind of friendships that can heal broken hearts. Sometimes, along with self-help, we need a little help from our friends.

This idea that self-help is not always all we need and that connecting to others is powerful and therapeutic lays at the heart of religious communities around the world. There is a reason that in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, full religious service takes place only in the presence of a community. Religion is about our personal and most intimate relationship with God. At the same time, religion is about something very public; it is about connecting with others, even as we turn inwards. 

All modern tools of self-help and self-reliance must be utilized when we fight adversity, and yet, traditional tools should also be maximized. Fighting for our life and how we would like it to look is a battle in which we can spare no weapons. Making sure we are part of a loving and caring community where others are there to support us is just as—if not more— essential to our recovery process. 

This article is from Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s upcoming series and book on why bad things happen to good people and coping with adversity.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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