When my dad and I left the driveway of my parents home a year ago to drive 1,600 miles to California, I placed Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never: The Remixes” in the CD player to kick things off.
I selected track 3, “Somebody to Love.”
Dad yelled out the window to Mom to help him. I had trapped him in a car with Justin Bieber.
About a minute into our journey I told him why I selected this song as our inaugural road trip tune. “Is she out there?,” Justin sings. I told Dad that maybe I would have better luck in landing a man in a region of 10 million. I pointed West and sang “Is he out there?”
My dad, who is able to switch from silly to serious in no time at all (and this is why we are the same person), said, “It’s not a numbers game, you know.”
I’ve been in Los Angeles for a year, as of last week. It’s been a great move for me, on several counts. The sun shines here. There is an ocean here. I am an extrovert, and there are millions of people living here. Disneyland is here.
The sun shines here.
I don’t resent the Midwest, or my childhood within it. I don’t think one place on this earth is better than another. But in my mid twenties I realized that gray skies and freezing temperatures and snow were not contributing positively to my mood. A place that has vitamin D on tap has been good for me.
My parents lived in LA for a little while a few years back, so they left some friends in their wake, and I have stolen most of them for my own. Last week two of these friends, a married couple, took me to lunch for my 28th birthday, then for a walk on the beach, then for gelato. In the last year these particular friends have prayed with me, fed me, shared books with me, played tennis with me. They love me, and I love them.
I’ve also made friends of my own this year. I am a social butterfly and never stop talking, so that makes the process of befriending rather simple, and natural for me.
I know a lot of people in LA, a lot of great people who have supported me like family. Yet in recent weeks the topics of community and loneliness landed on my mind, and they’ve been hanging out with me ever since.
The day after my birthday this year, I met some friends at a bar for drinks. I sent out a Facebook message several weeks before the event to see if people would be free. Some people responded. A lot of people left the conversation. I thought about scratching the idea. I created a Facebook event anyway. I invited at least 50 people. I got some spotty RSVP’s, but not much beyond that.
My birthday celebration was great. There were eight of us there, and everyone had a common thread to someone – other than me – who was there. Some of my high school friends were there, some of my college friends. In true Bailey fashion, I made a new friend that night. People bought me drinks. It was fun. Later my friend Susan told me, “Your friends are really nice.”
My purse sat on the table that night, however, with a novel inside. I had put the novel there before leaving the house because I wasn’t sure if anyone would show up at the bar. Or if they did show up, I wasn’t sure how long I would have to wait for them to arrive.
Obviously this story had a good ending, but did it? When I look back on this, and what I’ve told people in the week since, is that I drove to my own birthday party with a book in my purse because I wasn’t sure anyone would be there.
I believe that God provides for me, and He provides me with food and shelter but also with people. Dear friends answer the phone and let me sob, and I am able to move forward. Grocery store cashiers are friendly when I am feeling low, and I am able to move forward. An unplanned meeting with someone falls into my lap, and I drive away from these meetings sometimes in awe, so grateful and reminded, once again, that His eye is on the sparrow. I will be lonely, but I will be given respite.
I believe that, and when I have trouble believing it I don’t acquiesce to lack of belief just because I don’t feel great and safe in that moment. I like to stick it out for God, to trust that He is real and will help me even when I can't feel it.
But the story I’m trying to tell here is not “Positive Polly, Pollyanna, everything works out in the end, blah blah blah.” Nor am I trying to equate God to Pollyanna. God cares for us, but He is not Pollyanna.
This is also not a “Look at lonely, sad me” story.
This is a “Let’s look at lonely, sad US” story. Followed by “We need to do something about this. NOW.” story.
I have been job searching, and freelancing, and doing temporary work, for several months now. The past several weeks, especially, have been isolating and aggravating. I am impatient, conflicted on what step to take next. And alone. A lot.
I go to a very large church in LA. I’m not sure how many people attend my church, but it is in the thousands. Almost everyone there is young, like me. A lot of them are single.
I go to my church because the preaching is incredible. Some of the best I have ever heard. (Click here if you're interested.)
What I’m going to say next is going to make you think I’m a jackass.
I suffer through the “community” of my church in order to hear the preaching.
My church is very big, and I think that’s great. The pastor is incredible, and I want as many people as possible to hear him. I have a lot of non-Christian friends who are probably not interested in attending my church, even just once, even if they went alone and sat invisibly in the back. So the fact that a lot of people, whomever they may be, are there, is great. I want people to come.
My church is not too big.
But for what I need personally in terms of community, my church is too big for me.
I know what you might be thinking. “But Bailey, you said yourself you’re a social butterfly and you sang a Justin Bieber song on your way out of Kansas because you were so excited to head somewhere with tons of people.” That’s true. But stay with me here.
Bigger churches require a lot of orchestration compared to smaller churches. There are a lot of people to please. Pastors and leaders can’t know everyone in the crowd, so they don’t know how many seekers they are speaking to on a given Sunday, how many established Christians, people with families, single people, neurophysicists, cat people, etc.
So, in an effort to be a very welcoming body of Christ to a lot of strangers, there are a lot of chipper people in large churches. There are “teams” of greeters. There are – and this is huge – “community groups,” also known as small groups or Bible study groups, that people can attend during the week. The leaders of the church can’t reach everyone who walks in the doors, so community groups are a great way to make sure people aren’t forgotten. Big churches love their community groups.
I'm not mocking this. I'm really not.
I'm not mocking this. I'm really not.
But community groups are hard for me. I have been in Bible study groups before. I have sat in living rooms and discussed the Bible and God and life with these groups. I wouldn’t say it was a waste of time, and I would suggest to several people, especially in a huge place like Los Angeles, that they join a small group. But for me, personally, after spending a lot of time – I didn’t go just once or twice – in these groups, I have decided that it just isn’t for me. At least not right now.
Community groups provide an environment to be vulnerable, and I have seen people be vulnerable within them, but I am more likely to tell one of my best friends, when we are alone, the things that require me to really lay myself before them. I don’t like doing this with a bigger group than just one or two friends. Additionally, while I am not shy at all and enjoy large gatherings, I very much prefer one-on-one communication. I’m an attention hog, and a roomful of people, though smaller than an auditorium of hundreds, is still going to have me competing for attention. And I feel this takes away from a Bible study’s focus.
Recently at my church I said hello to a couple of people, and before long they started telling me about all the benefits of joining a community group. I explained, politely, what I just explained here.
I received the response, “Hmm, well you should give it a try.” Had they not heard me say that I had given it a try?
I know they were just trying to do the right thing. But I am tired – so, so tired – of having potential community in front of me, and being sent elsewhere for it.
I have a flip phone (yes) and my phone plan doesn’t include text messaging. This is for several reasons, but the main one is that I don’t want to stop talking to people. We’ve lost so much face time, with the ironically named Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. Texting is just another form of this phenomenon. I live thousands of miles from a lot of people I love. I can’t see them very often, but I can talk to them, and it can be very reassuring to hear a familiar voice.
My brothers, who do keep in touch with me, have told me that, essentially, they might keep in better touch with me if I put text messaging on my phone. I don’t want to text my brothers. I want to talk to my brothers.
This weekend my church put on a free event that I went to with my friend Rosie. Just before the punch and cookies were served, Rosie had to go home. I still wanted some people time, so I introduced myself to a woman who had sat near us at the event. We went to the snacks table together, and as we waited in line I looked at the crowd. And, just like that, I was hit with a profound pang of loneliness.
I started telling myself that the men in that room would not be interested in dating me, that I would not have real friendships with these people. Ridiculous stuff. I had been having a great night, and then this, out of nowhere. And when it hit me, it didn’t debilitate me, as loneliness and depression have in the past. But it indeed hit me, and it didn’t feel good.
I called a friend of mine when I got home, a friend who is going through a break up that has rattled her. I started talking about loneliness, and community, and in the process made her cry. I didn’t intend to make her cry, but what I told her made her so sad, she said. Sad that so many strong, confident people (specifically women, as we were discussing) should have to struggle through so much loneliness.
I feel like these topics of community and loneliness and the wasteland of dating and trying to make romantic connections are ones I spend most of my time talking about with my friends these days. I think some of this trend has to do with the time we are at in our lives. Most of my friends are women in their late twenties to mid thirties. Strong, FUNNY, single women. We’ve got the prowess to keep our heads above water, but the rough waters nag at us and thus our conversations come back to discussing the waters over and over.
Me and my cohort are also bound by technology, where we can communicate all day via Internet connection but have to make an effort to get out of the house and meet in person. We can be on our way to see one person, catch wind of another event going on thanks to our smart phones, and change direction, leaving that person who was counting on our contact now without it. We are living in a country that doesn’t expect us to get married as early as it once did. All of these things contribute to our loneliness.
My pastor, Rankin, said in a sermon that the only people who think that marriage will solve their problems are people who aren’t married, or something like that.
He’s right. I’m not arguing with him.
But it goes beyond just a romantic relationship. Sometimes I think my siblings, who are all married, think that when I talk about getting married that I have some sort of fairy tale idea of wedded bliss.
I just want someone to talk to, and not have to chase a person down to do so.
In recent weeks I’ve been thinking not of a husband, or a community group, or even a group of friends meeting at a bar for one night. I’ve been thinking about solid friendships.
What I want is focused communication between people. I was so aggravated and spent earlier this week that I thought, I just need someone to take me out for drinks and sit there and talk with me. Pure and simple. This “someone” had no gender attached.
My friend cried this weekend at the fact that we have to have a man to realize we are desired. Later I cried on the phone with my mom, telling her I just want everyone to stop, to just sit still and listen to each other. I hate that myself and my friends – my hilarious, strong, supportive friends – have to spend as much time as we do feeling lonely. Because there are so many people around us!!!
I look around me, and see people who are talking to other people, who are laughing, who are married or dating or single. I don’t look at them and think that they are set for life. I don’t think that I am lonely and they are not. Maybe in that moment they feel OK, but that won’t last forever. I really think that we all experience loneliness, to varying degrees, as a cycle. And it doesn’t always matter if we are in the presence of people to determine if this loneliness will follow us from one situation to the next.
Loneliness is a part of life. It makes us stronger. But it doesn’t need to be as rampant as it is. What I see is an epidemic, and it makes me crazy.
I’ve thought seriously in recent weeks about the idea of intentionally forming a group of friends. I’m not a planner or a scheduler, but enough’s enough, I say. I’ve thought about who among my friends are reliable and consistent in being open for social business. These people will be in my group, I think. I will continually invite those people to hang out together until we are used to each other’s company and miss each other when we are apart, prompting more get togethers. And then, one day, we will have a group.
I don’t know if I will follow up on this plan, or if it will be met with any success. I can’t single-handedly solve loneliness. None of us can. The Man upstairs is in charge of that. God loves us, and that is enough, but He designed us to love each other so that we’re not wandering around this place feeling as f*ing miserable as we sometimes do.
Beyond forming my proposed group, I guess my next step could be to shut up. As an unemployed person, people love to offer me advice these days. I need them to listen. I need them to give me several hours and not need to be somewhere else. I want to see them more than once every few months. I want real relationships. I can do this for other people, too; just shut up and let them vent, or cry, or just blab on about stuff that they haven’t been able to talk about because they’ve been hanging out by themselves or on Facebook instead of with people.
Since I’ve moved to California, my friends from back home are inclined to say things like, “That’s California for ya” or “Welcome to California” when I mention my annoyances with people and human interaction patterns. But I struggled with loneliness and people being flaky and casual long before I moved to California. This is a human thing, not a California thing.
I was driving home recently and saw a (presumably homeless) woman walking between cars at a stoplight with a sign. I caught a glimpse of it and I think it said, amongst other details, “Have no friends.” One thing I love about living in this city is that there are people so obviously in front of me who I can help. It doesn’t make me feel happy to see people living on the streets, but I like that if I have a granola bar in my car, I can give it to them. That’s doing hardly anything, but it’s something. When I read the woman’s sign, I thought about what it would be like to just listen to her. My opening line could be “Hi,” and then I could just let her talk. I could listen. I guarantee she needs that.
My wise and beloved father told me a year ago, “It’s not a numbers game.”
He was talking about romantic partnerships, but it applies to all of our relationships, and all of us, every day. The point is not whether there are 10 million of us in a city, or several of us in a living room, or two of us connected by a phone line. It’s not about who’s having the best party or who’s the most exciting person to be associated with. It’s not about where or who we “check in” with on Facebook or Instagram. So often it isn’t about simply having a person in front of you. It’s about having someone in front of you who is really there. And it’s about us, in return, really being there.
Let’s be present. Let’s look for the lonely (read: everyone around you). We’re all going to have our nights and our weeks of wishing we could be in the presence of people who aren’t around, or who didn’t invite us to join them to do something. But these moments shouldn't be the primary backdrop for our lives. Enough’s enough. Let’s stop the madness, shut up, look around, and let someone in our path talk to us. Let’s listen. Let’s commit beyond that initial meeting at a party, and continue the conversation. Continue the friendship. We all, I’m convinced, want the same thing. Connection. Love. The presence of another. So be present.