“It is not easy to tell a story, certainly not when you have an indication to run quickly toward a happy ending. How can I find the courage to write stories that don’t fit a pre-fabricated frame?” -Henri Nouwen
On the morning of July 1, 2019, I woke up with a pit in my stomach. I had recently completed a rigorous post-graduate fellowship in Washington, D.C., gotten a full-time job, and moved to a new city. And yet, on the morning of my 24th birthday, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly, terribly wrong. As I stood weeping at my kitchen counter, I felt paralyzed by the expanse that lay in front on me.
On paper, I am a textbook success story. Since graduating from college in May 2018, I’ve checked all of the requisite boxes that come with a diploma. I moved to Washington, D.C., where I work and live among some of the most powerful minds in the world. I have a job that has a clear purpose. I live in a nice apartment. I am debt-free. I have a wonderful group of friends and worship at a thriving church.
Still, that morning as I stood alone in my kitchen, heaving with sobs, my heart ached with loneliness. For a decade that was supposed to be so full of promise and prosperity, I felt emptier than I ever had before. I struggled to mark the occasion, opening and closing my journal over and over again before finally resigning myself to the tears that spilled out. I felt guilty for being lonely.
A year later, approaching another birthday, there is still nothing could have prepared me for the crippling sense of dread that would accompany the first few years of my “adult” life. My list of existential questions seems to grow longer by the day and my bed becomes less and less of a place to rest my head at night, and more of a landing pad for innumerable thoughts and anxieties.
Like so many others, my life has been segmented by school: elementary and middle and high school all served as pre-planned phases that culminated with some kind of award or ceremony. My small liberal arts college education served me well. I learned how to calculate equations and annotate poems, but I also learned how to think. To be sure, I wrote my fair share of papers and bubbled in lots of multiple-choice answers, but by and large, my classes always pointed back to a fundamental question: how do we live?
Walker Percy, in his novel The Second Coming, writes “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” I was by no means a straight A student, but my own collegiate experience was mostly marked with success. Like many college students, I learned my fair share of hard lessons (never wait to study until the night before), but I relished the fact that I was a known entity on campus. I had found my people and accomplished things with great acclaim. I had made friends and squashed enemies. I waved and smiled at people as I walked through campus, checking things off of my proverbial to-do list. Then, in a flash, it vanished. In that fateful moment when I crossed the stage, all the goals and desires and ambitions of the past twenty years evaporated. In their place? A blank page.
Perhaps even more formative than the perspective I gained in college was the community that surrounded me as I learned. I shared countless meals and conversations with professors and peers who encouraged me, asked good (and hard) questions, and always pointed me back to Truth. Part of the beauty of college is the fact that community arises out of proximity. A mentor of mine often reminds me that “physical presence matters,” and he’s right. There is no better way to get to know your neighbor than standing next to one another in a communal bathroom, brushing your teeth, sharing a tube of Crest.
Those two losses: community and commitment, have left me at a startling and unexpected crossroads. For the first time in my life, I don’t have a looming milestone or a list of tangible goals. Just as my diploma begun to gather dust, I’ve begun to realize that without the boundaries and rhythms of school, it’s up to me to create a framework by which to live my life. That realization, combined with moving to a new city and being forced to re-build an entire community, makes most days feel like climbing Mount Everest, rather than an ordinary 24 hours.
Along with the rest of the world, my life was yet again upended this spring as the Coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe and brought life to a screeching halt. At home in my childhood bedroom, I’ve spent the past two months on a rollercoaster of emotion. I’ve wiled away hours scrolling endlessly on my phone, being tormented by the latest news and perplexed by social media crazes. I’ve found myself taking hour long walks, appreciating the feel of breeze on my cheeks like never before. I’ve wept and I’ve laughed. This season, if anything, has amplified my intense desire for friendship – and not just any friends, but the kind that come running when you call, no questions asked.
As humans, we long for community. After all, we were created in the image of our creator: God who made himself man in order to abide in the midst of earthly community. We are not meant to live alone, yet we live in a society that values freedom and individualism more than anything else. Many people, including myself, haven’t been given the tools to steward that independence well. The beauty of community is that it reigns you in. It provides direction and purpose. The boundaries set by communities of all shapes and sizes don’t merely hem people in for the sake of power and control, they offer their members a means to higher and better flourishing.
If boundaries are a consequence, or rather a benefit, of community, then community itself is paramount to the experience of feeling settled, however ephemeral it may seem. The challenge, however, is that community takes time to build. Unlike my time in college, where community was forged in the mundane moments of ordinary life, adulthood does not provide the same opportunities to develop deep relationships. College, in many ways, is a relationship pressure-cooker. The combination of close physical proximity, shared experiences, and major transition brings people together in a uniquely rapid way. People get to know your story quickly… spurred on by late nights of studying, communal spaces, and large swaths of unstructured time.
In contrast, the traditional work week that most adults abide by only leaves time for brief pockets of relational interaction. Time is precious and we are over-scheduled. You can’t begin to communicate the most foundational aspects of your story to a person over drinks and dinner while your phone buzzes in your pocket to remind you of your next appointment. A community, and the rhythms and structures and boundaries it brings with it, takes so much more time to formulate. I find myself sharing my story in bits and pieces as I test the waters of new friendships, knowing that time is mostly likely the only thing that will bring about true and lasting community.
As the days and months tick onward and I move farther and farther away from that fateful moment on the stage at graduation, I have realized more and more that what I desire more than anything in these moments of seeming despair is to be known. I long to enter a room and have to give exactly no one any context for my appearance or my existence. Instead, I am living in a phase of life where introductions are paramount. What is your name? Where do you work? Who are you?
I think it’s important to point out that the loneliness and fear that have framed my twenties so far do not define it. In the midst of deep despair, there are countless moments of joy. My windows face toward the west, and many nights, I sit on my couch, marveling at the colors streaking the sky. I run half marathons, and when I reach that final mile, and my lungs are burning, I am immensely grateful for my health. To have an apartment, to have a job, to go to church – those are all good things. In fact, I recommend them all! I don’t snub the checklists that were handed to me when I graduated, but I see now that they were not enough. Nothing is enough to fill the hole in our hearts, seeping with loneliness. The psalmist writes in Psalm 4:27 that “deep calls unto deep.” Our souls echo the voice of God, pointing us toward our deepest longings and desires. In my case, to be fully known and loved. Darrel Johnson, a Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, writes in his book Experiencing the Trinity:
“At the center of the universe is a relationship, that is the most fundamental truth I know. At the center of the universe is community. It is out and for that relationship you and I were created and redeemed. It turns out that community is the trinity. The center of reality is Father, son and Holy Spirit.”
At their most primitive level, human hearts ache for relationship because God created us to be a reflection of himself. And if the creator of universe is part of an eternal community, it is only natural that we would share that desire. The trinity is the framework upon which we build our lives. Without it, we are not whole. And until we reunite with our Lord in Heaven, we will continue to feel an acute sense of unbalance because we were created to want far more than this world can offer us.
In his epic poem, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot imagines what our homecoming might be like, saying “We should not cease from exploration and at the end of all our exploring we will arrive at the place we started and know the place for the first time.” In Revelation 21:2, John specifically references the “New Jerusalem,” a place that God is making for his people, where he will reign. The goal of God’s redemptive plan is a place where his chosen people will once again be reunited.
I’ve returned to this idea again and again: God desires for us to be in community with one another. Community plays a vital role in transformation. When we are lacking it, whether because of a move or a pandemic, our souls begin to suffer. I have felt so much suffering in my own soul over the course of the last eighteen months. I am beginning to emerge from the fog, to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and to understand just how profound it is to be known and loved. Because Jesus is my source of meaning and purpose, I am equipped to discover my identity in him. It frees me to feel a sense of loneliness in the midst of the unknown. And somehow, to learn to be content in the midst of every season, trusting that He who knows me fully and loved me first will be with me always.