Modern Loneliness: Never Alone, Always Depressed

Now that we are several weeks into feeling the effects of the coronavirus, the word “pandemic” has become commonplace. While the virus is devastating in its own right, it is also likely exacerbating the effects of another, more subtle pandemic that has been prevalent in our culture for much longer: the pandemic of loneliness.

People are not always willing to talk personally about their loneliness. One person who is not afraid to talk about his own loneliness is the pop singer Lauv. Lauv may not be a singer that everyone is talking about yet, but he’s an artist that a lot of people are listening to. With over thirty million listeners a month on Spotify, his artistic voice is reaching the same number of people as that of international pop star and former One Direction member, Harry Styles. With his puppy-dog eyes and soft, earnest vocals, Lauv is the emotional poster-boy for Gen Z and young millennials, a voice in pop culture that is honest about deeply-felt emotions, both positive and negative.

How I’m Feeling: Lonely
Loneliness is a main theme in Lauv’s music. Three of the songs on his 2020 album, ~how i’m feeling~, have the word “lonely” or “loneliness” in the title. But Lauv is not a downer who is raining on everybody’s parade with negative feelings. He’s actually bringing attention to the silent epidemic of loneliness that is inflicting itself on his generation. Because Gen Zers or millenials are reluctant to start a conversation about loneliness, few people would know that young Americans are the loneliest demographic. Lauv has opened up the conversation about loneliness with songs like “Modern Loneliness,” a song which he describes as “my favorite song I’ve ever made, and to me, the most important song I’ve ever made.” It is long, but it is worth reading the first verse and chorus of “Modern Loneliness:”

I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout my father lately
The person that he made me
The person I’ve become
And I’ve been tryna fill all of this empty
But, ****, I’m still so empty
And I could use some love
And I’ve been trying to find a reason to get up
Been trying to find a reason for this stuff
In my bedroom and my closet
The baggage in my heart is still so dark
Modern loneliness, we’re never alone
But always depressed, yeah
Love my friends to death
But I never call and I never text

Lauv describes the lyrics to “Modern Loneliness” as “everything that I felt and wanted to say for a long time, but didn’t really know how to say.” Lauv is saying that he thinks it has become normal for people of his generation to feel loneliness—often with anxiety and depression accompanying it—even when surrounded by people. The music video for “Modern Loneliness” illustrates this by showing Lauv laying on the grass singing about loneliness. As the song continues, the camera pans out to show Lauv surrounded by other people lying next to him on the grass. Surrounded by others, he is “never alone, but always depressed.” Loneliness is not the same as being alone, as psychologist John Cacioppo confirms in this article from The Atlantic. Lauv understands that loneliness is not just about the need to be with people, but also about the need to be seen, known, and valued.

Loneliness plagues millions of people from every age demographic, but surprisingly, teenagers and young adults are the hardest hit. While they may despise their loneliness, many young adults are actually choosing it. Lauv attests to this in “Modern Loneliness” with the lyrics, “love my friends to death, but I never call and I never text.” While he could reach out to those he cares about, he chooses to remain in his loneliness instead. This is because loneliness begets loneliness; someone who is already struggling with loneliness is more likely to engage in activities that will compound the effect of loneliness instead of engaging in activities that will combat loneliness. Lauv acknowledges this dilemma in his own life in “Drugs and the Internet:”

Traded all my friends for drugs and the internet
Ah s***, am I a winner yet?

Lauv asks, “am I a winner yet?” tongue-in-cheek, knowing that the things he has traded his friendships for are worthless and are, in fact, having a negative effect on him. Countless teenagers and young adults every day choose things that actually make them more lonely—social media, online gaming, Netflix, or even drugs—because they feel an immediate need to find entertainment, pleasure, or soothing. In the film End of the Tour, a drama about the acclaimed novelist and cultural critic, David Foster Wallace, Wallace’s character says that in the pursuit of more and more pleasure and fulfillment, we “sit alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.” For our own convenience and momentary enjoyment, we sell our time, our minds, and our relationships to these people who do not love us but do want our money. The price we pay for the gratification is steep; screen time and social media has been increasingly connected to anxiety, depression, and loneliness. It is too easy to fix our gaze on a glowing screen instead of looking into the eyes of another person. Instead of fighting off the things that beset us with loneliness, we become complicit in our own psychological and spiritual death.

Although it is counter-intuitive, loneliness drives people away from others. Lauv’s lyrics suggest that part of this cycle is self-hate. In “Tell My Mama,” he sings:

Now I’m standing here doing lines in the bathroom
I hate myself, but I felt like I had to
I been hiding pain, it’s underneath

Like loneliness, self-hate is seldom talked about but often felt. Recently, I was at a theology lecture with a group of young Christians in which someone said, “It’s the 21st century, nobody loves themselves.” The statement was met with general agreement, because in this room full of young Christians, each person knew that either they or many of their friends, deep down, did not love themselves. The reason that the cycle of loneliness continues is because self-hate also pushes us towards isolation and loneliness. Those struggling with self-hate don’t know how to be kind to themselves and seek out friendship. Although Lauv may be one of the few to admit it publicly, countless people struggle with loneliness and self-hate, even Christians who love Jesus.

How I’m Feeling: Free of Loneliness
What can we do about this epidemic that afflicts so many? For those struggling with loneliness, the first step might be to stop hiding their loneliness. In “Lonely Eyes,” Lauv sings an encouragement to those hiding loneliness, because they are not alone:

She has those lonely eyes
I only know ‘cause I have them, too
Lonely eyes
No, you don’t have to hide,
The things you feel inside I feel, too
‘Cause I’m lonely just like you

Lauv sings, “No, you don’t have to hide,” because it has become part of our “modern loneliness” to hide our loneliness. As much as it is easier to look into a screen than into a person’s eyes, it is easier to hide the things we feel inside than show them to anyone. But Lauv is right: you don’t have to hide, and opening up about loneliness to people you trust could be the first step to fighting it.

Christian answers to the struggle of loneliness like “love Jesus more” or “Jesus is the answer to your loneliness” seem to fall flat. This is because such answers are incomplete. To be clear: all we need for salvation is Christ and his redeeming work on our behalf. The first thing we need to fight loneliness is Jesus; but to live as fully alive Christians, we need more than Jesus. God has created us to need more than himself alone to thrive. Adam Young, a therapist based in Fort Collins, Colorado, hosts a podcast called The Place We Find Ourselves. A guest on the podcast made this statement: “it is the humility of God that created us to need something more than just himself”. It is a provocative statement, but the Scriptures attest to its truth. God made Eve as a companion to Adam, because “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Just as Adam needed Eve in order to thrive, we need people in order to thrive.

To help us thrive, we have been given the community of other Christians in the Church. Christians love to speak of being the “hands and feet” of Jesus, since we are his body (1 Corinthians 12). Usually we think of being the hands and feet of Jesus as our mission to the world. But in addition to this mission to the world, we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to other Christians, too. As Jesus says, it is by our love for one another that we will be recognized as God’s disciples (John 13:35). Our love for other Christians is the sign that we love Jesus. In this way, our human needs are met by God through his people. We find a remedy for loneliness and self-hate in both Christ and the community he has blessed us with. We need relationships with those around us. We need those who can hug us. We need those who can look us in the eyes and feel what we feel. We need those we can play with, work with, laugh with, and weep with. Relationships are some of the good gifts that our Father in Heaven gives to us (Matthew 7:11).

Loneliness begets loneliness. But instead of falling into the cycle of doing things that make us even more lonely, how can we choose to do things that push us towards people instead of away from them? Instead of indulging in the things that give us immediate pleasure, we could deny our misdirected desires (Matthew 16:24) for easy entertainment or pleasure. Just as if we do not deny ourselves our sin will kill us spiritually (Romans 6:23), if we do not deny ourselves the sort of things that will perpetuate loneliness, loneliness will kill us from the inside out.

Since self-hate often accompanies loneliness, what can we do to combat this hatred? Let us take the concept of being the hands and feet of Christ a degree further: being the hands and feet of Christ means not only loving unbelievers and loving other Christians, but it also means loving ourselves. This passage from Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul explores why we as Christians should “love ourselves:”

“That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ. All these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do to the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, that these are within me? And that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness. That I myself am the enemy that must be loved, what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed. There is no longer the question of any love or compassion, we say to the brother within us, “you fool!” and condemn and rage against ourselves.¹”

It is a simple-yet-revolutionary realization that the poorest of our brethren is within ourselves. To be kind to yourself and to love yourself is thoroughly Christian. We may freely reject self-hate because the command to love one another extends even to ourselves.

Speaking up about loneliness can be difficult, but artists like Lauv help those struggling with loneliness to know that they are not alone. Loneliness is an epidemic in our culture, but not one that we have no way to fight against. With Christ, we can find a lasting remedy for loneliness; but we should also embrace the good gift of relationships that God has given us in order to find freedom from loneliness and self-hate. It is not wrong to desire relationships with those around us. It is a good desire and it glorifies God. Let us neither idolize nor reject God’s gifts, but embrace them as an act of love for him.

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Jesse Childress

Jesse Childress has a deep appreciation for good food, philosophy, theology, and literature. He is the former Lead Content Editor and Writer for Summit Ministries' worldview blog Reflect, and spent a term studying at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Jesse has an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University (now Houston Christian University), and began attending Denver Seminary in the fall of 2022 to study counseling, focusing particularly on the relationship between trauma and faith.