The Deadly Current of Loneliness

Justin Whitmel EarleyBy Justin Whitmel Earley7 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Made for People: Why We Drift into Loneliness and How to Fight for a Life of Friendship by Justin Whitmel Earley


I am a father of four young boys. Last summer, we took a trip to the beach where I found out that my third son, Coulter, absolutely loves the water. While the other boys played in the sand or bodyboarded nonstop, Coulter (who was four at the time) just strapped into his life jacket, ran out into the waves, leaned back, and let the time pass.

This was wonderful, at first, but I quickly realized that every time I looked up Coulter had drifted waaaaay down the shore. Luckily, my wife, Lauren, had bought him a neon-green swim shirt. So I’d jump up, scan the beach for a bright green dot bobbing peacefully in the water, and run what felt like half a mile down the coast to haul him back. Then we’d rinse and repeat. (I promise I’m a good parent.)

Now, this kept happening because—I know I’m about to blow your mind—currents exist.

Currents are the things that inevitably pull us down the shoreline unless we swim against them. And cultures have currents too. Like the most dangerous currents in oceans, cultural currents derive their power from being invisible. Usually, we have no idea we’re in a current until it’s too late.

We are all much more like Coulter than we think.

Modern culture moves us with a remarkable and silent speed down the shore of life toward isolation. The easiest thing to do is to do nothing, and like a kid in a life jacket, you will be swept away from the ones you love. Every. Single. Time. Loneliness is where we arrive when we do nothing else. John Stott once wrote that “holiness is not a condition into which we drift.”[1] I would add, neither is friendship. Because that’s not where the current goes.

How do we drift toward loneliness? The ways are as infinite as they are invisible. We tend to move for jobs, not people. We tend to build back decks, garages, and other architecture that draws us away from one another instead of front porches and sidewalks that push us together.[2] We tend to mediate our relationships with technology (and that may be the wildest understatement of this book).[3] The clubs and associations that formerly gave people myriad intangible connections have now almost entirely disappeared.[4] We tend to gather in front of glowing screens to relax (alone) rather than in front of glowing fires to relax (together).[5] As you can see from the footnotes, entire books have been written about each of these trends. Most of them you probably already recognize.

But what you might not realize is that when all of these are put together, you live in a fierce current.

Which means that to do nothing is actually to do something very significant—it is to accept the drift of modern life. The current of modern life is to become busier, wealthier people who used to have friends. And mostly you won’t even notice that this is happening. When everyone is drifting in the same current, you won’t notice anyone moving at all. If you’re going to fight to swim upstream toward a life of friendship, it will look and feel very strange. But loneliness comes without the cost of choice. You don’t choose it; it chooses you.

We are not friendless because we want to be. None of us chooses loneliness on purpose. I have never met a single person who does not long wholeheartedly for friendship. But we live with a tremendous dissonance.

It is common sense that friendship is the good life. But common practice is to drift into loneliness.

Why!? Because we live in the world of Cain. We are made for people but cursed to restless wandering. We want friends, but we can’t seem to do the one thing we were made for. And like the studies show, it is killing us body and soul.

In the words of Paul, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”[6]

The death sentence of loneliness is like the enormous waterfall at the end of the current. And as you see in all the cartoons, you never realize you’re going anywhere until suddenly you’re at the edge of the waterfall and there is nothing you can do.

That is, unless someone who is bigger than you, stronger than you, and who loves you runs down the shore and pulls you out of the water.

That someone is Jesus.

[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 193.

[2] Eric Jacobson, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).

[3] Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World (New York: Convergent Books, 2022).

[4] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[5] Jennie Allen, Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2022).

[6] Romans 7:24 (NET).

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Taken from Made from People by Justin Whitmel Earley. Copyright © August 2023 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan, www.zondervan.