I didn’t grow up deprived of opportunities to make friends. I had a loving family. I enjoyed playing with my little brother. Still, I always felt like I was missing something. Whenever a house went up for sale on our block, I would pray that a little girl would move in. I remember writing and illustrating stories about best friends. Loneliness was something that lived in my body. It followed me wherever I went.

I’ve tried to work against loneliness. In college, I tried to be the life of the party. After I graduated, I joined various groups. I would strike up conversations at church, at the library storytimes, while in line at the grocery store. If I could just get that core group of friends, my village, I wouldn’t feel lonely anymore, I thought. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough, trying the right thing or trying with the right people? It felt as if it was my fault.

But then I had a revelation. No clouds parted, no audible voices came from heaven, but it felt momentous. A small, calm question slipped into my head: What if there is another way to think about this?

I began to explore my thoughts about loneliness in earnest. I knew loneliness didn’t feel good, but I wanted to go further. What, if anything, had I learned from it? I realized that, over the years, loneliness has pushed me to try new things and to be open to the people around me, even when that makes me nervous or uncomfortable. It has also given me empathy for others who’ve felt isolated or left out. Other questions came to mind: How much of my life would be different if I was never lonely? What would I have missed?

I don’t like to be uncomfortable. It’s not something I seek it out. But discomfort can have a purpose. When my stomach starts to grumble, I seek out food. When I accidentally touch a hot pan, I recoil and run my fingers under cold water. Discomfort, even pain, often signals that all is not as it should be.

What if loneliness, mine or yours, isn’t a personal failing or something to be ashamed of? What if it is simply a reminder that all is not as it should be?

When I’m paying attention to the world around me, I’m more aware of the pain that exists everywhere. In a time of extreme individualism, people in our contemporary society are divided by ideologies, socioeconomic backgrounds, and even simple choices like whether to use cloth diapers on our babies. Many of us don’t have more than a passing conversation with neighbors. The wonder isn’t so much that we are lonely, but that our loneliness is not excruciating.

Imagine a place without social anxiety, stranger danger, hatred, war or cliques. I believe we were made for that place—a place that we, as people of God, call heaven. I believe we hunger for it when we feel disconnected and not at home in the world. Heaven awaits us. One of the things that most appeals to me about heaven is the thought of finally leaving loneliness behind. But what about now?

Now, instead of pushing away my loneliness or hiding it behind other emotions, I am learning to listen. I’m learning to ask myself, “Where does it hurt?” I want to be curious about how to satisfy that hunger, be at home here and now, and make the world more hospitable for others. My loneliness is helping to show me the way.

Cara Strickland writes about food, faith and life from her home in the Pacific Northwest. You can read more of her work at carastrickland.com.

This article appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Gather. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.