If you are one of those people in a big city who is feeling lonely or disconnected, I’ve got a nearly sure-fire way to change things. Go look for someone who is even lonelier and more hurting than you, and go be that person’s friend.
I’m always astonished that there could be so many lonely people in the city. This would seem to be an easy problem to solve; just go be each other’s friends. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. I think in part that’s because we’re always looking for relationships that are going to deliver value to us, instead of us looking for how we’re going to deliver value to others. We always want to network up. We seldom want to network down. (Though we often stay in our lanes on social media, as I noted above).
This is an area where I part ways with a lot of the secular self-help gurus. Most of those guys tend to recommend pruning the deadweight relationships out of your life, and purging the losers, energy drainers, etc. There’s a place for that if you’re in unhealthy relationships. But Christians simply can’t apply that as a rule for life. We are called to be there for those who have nothing to offer us (or at least that we think don’t have anything to offer).
Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35). Living in New York, I constantly see people who are obviously lonely and looking for friendship (and romance, and other kinds of relationships). I see them in my own church. Presumably there are many people in NYC I don’t meet who are even more disconnected. There are a lot hurting people in the big city.
The best way to find a friend for yourself if you’re lonely is to be a friend to someone who’s even lonelier and more hurting than you. As I discovered, this often isn’t even very hard if you’re simply willing to regularly spend time with the person. The relationship itself will then often just happen. (If you have some severe social interaction problem or disability, this might still be very challenging for you. I want to acknowledge that some people do have genuine problems here).
I think you’ll find that when you think you’re helping someone else, you actually end up helping yourself too. That’s the paradoxical nature of the Christian life. We’re called to do things contrary to our natural (sinful) inclinations. But this has a tendency to end up being the best policy for ourselves over the long haul. The gospel isn’t a rulebook for life, or a set of if-then precepts for getting what we want. The law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. But God’s ways aren’t just arbitrary commands designed to make us practice jumping through hoops. They are also the best path to human flourishing properly understood. Even some of the secular self-help people get it when they point out that you first have to give before you can get.
So don’t be surprised that if you decide to befriend someone in need that you think has nothing to offer you that you end up getting way more out of it than you ever thought you would.
Aaron is writing about loneliness and city life, but I think this applies equally to daily life for most people, anywhere at this point. In very real ways, daily life in suburban communities is not only as segregated and atomized as it might be in cities, but it’s also more difficult to meet your neighbors, because there’s not the physical closeness for spontaneity and for running into one another.