Finding Friends in the Desert of Life
Everywhere I look, people are together—together with their families, together with their friends, together with their neighbors. Mothers and daughters shop together at the market. Parents with their children play together on the beach. Friends hang out together in cafés, and neighbors sit together in front of their door talking, laughing, and sipping mint tea.
I sit alone.
My family lives on the other side of the world. I have some expat friends who work with me, but they are busy with their own families and their own lives. I keep trying to build relationships with my national friends, but it’s so hard to build trust and deep connection in a foreign language.
I feel alone.
For those of us who feel isolated and alone, how can we find friends to connect with, especially when living in a foreign land with multiple layers of language and cultural barriers?
How can we find others to fill the deep void in our hearts and souls for relationships, those fellow sojourners to walk with us through life?
One Woman’s Journey
The following is a recent interview with a middle-aged single woman, Sarah, who lives in North Africa.
See Beyond (SB): How long have you lived in North Africa?
Sarah: Over a decade.
SB: What has been your greatest challenge in living alone in this foreign culture, in this particular season of life?
Sarah: Having a sense of community and finding loyal friends . . . asking for help when I need it and being open to disappointment. Accepting love from others and accepting that I may be a disappointment too.
SB: Do you regularly experience feelings of loneliness and isolation? What are the factors that contribute most to these moments?
Sarah: Yes, especially in circumstances that require community—throwing a party, organizing events, getting help with household repairs, or doing things that are labor intensive. Also, not having access to “brothers” or “men” when needed (issue for single women). You just don’t know who can help you.
SB: What symptoms do you experience when you feel lonely?
Sarah: Sadness, discouragement, discontentment, frustration . . . loss of hope.
SB: What have you found to be most helpful to combat these feelings?
Sarah: Calling and talking to a friend who speaks honestly to me, listening to inspirational music and messages, visiting people I like and enjoy, cooking, doing something life-giving. I also have a car. Without my car, I couldn't really thrive here. It gives me protection and allows me to have more flexibility to invite other women to go out and offers more options for visits.
SB: What are the factors that make people living in foreign lands, like North Africa, more susceptible to feelings of loneliness and isolation?
Sarah: If you don't have a car, you are limited by time and location. Gender, when you're a woman, you are limited to functioning during the daylight hours. It’s also strange for a woman to be alone outside, especially in conservative areas. Unreliable schedules in this culture. The role of establishing routine and activities/events you can look forward to is really important to be able to feel some sense of stability and community with others.
SB: What have you done to find and establish meaningful friendships with fellow foreign expats?
Sarah: What’sApp and visits with other singles within the country that are occasional, but deeply refreshing. I realized this is part of the emotional and social well-being for a single and is a future non-negotiable in my travel plans and budget.
SB: Does the transient nature of the foreign expat community affect your friendships?
Sarah: Yes, people come and go. There are “seasons” in the community, and it changes a lot. It’s just part of life here.
SB: What have you done to find and establish meaningful friendships with nationals? What are the added challenges in these cross-cultural relationships?
Sarah: Doing life together and making visits and tea are the primary form of establishing friendship. Bringing small homemade gifts, and sometimes consulting my friends with personal problems that involve cultural understanding. My friends are sincere and loving and become my extended local family. Because I am comfortable speaking the local language, this community is more accessible to me than to others just arriving. Sometimes you just have to “get over” the language and cultural barriers, accept the reality of your situation, and accept the choices you have made. This is a deterrent to becoming depressed and lonely.
SB: What advice or resources would you give to someone living in North Africa as a single or to anyone else living abroad who feels lonely and isolated?
Sarah: It’s important to remember that you are not alone. I have been reminded of this by certain inspirational songs. It’s not an easy path to walk, but our struggle is a common one that requires us to persevere in hope and to find something or someone to sustain and comfort us. If not, loneliness and isolation can become a very serious problem. Reading about others going through similar struggles, putting them into perspective, and hearing others confess the same feelings (whether in a book or in real life) is comforting. Also, talking to others you can trust and reaching a place where you can accept your own struggles is very helpful.
SB: Have you ever attended a single’s retreat (or other) during your time in North Africa? If so, was it helpful to you? In what way?
Sarah: I've attended retreats, and I highly recommend them. This is an opportunity to meet friends who understand the lifestyle and choices I've made. Both men and women alike are highly valuable people to get to know in that moment. It’s a gift that may or may not last long, but it’s important to receive the blessing while you can.
Here are some suggestions on how to navigate this season and how to find friends in the desert of life.
Learn to grieve well and to count the losses in each season.
Recognize and accept the reality of your context—that it can be difficult to make friends.
Become the type of friend that you would like to have—listen well.
Socialize—be willing to put yourself out there AGAIN.
Don’t wait to be invited, but invite others.
Ask someone to listen to your story. Sometimes just "feeling heard” is enough.
Get someone consistent in your life—a coach, mentor, or spiritual director.
Limit or avoid social media if it is giving you a false sense of being connected. Seeing others connect and feeling that you don’t have that same connection in your own life can lead to increased feelings of isolation.
Don’t limit yourself to thinking that you can only be close with people from a similar background.
Share small, vulnerable bits about yourself. As people respond well, and you feel safe, take more steps with vulnerability.
Be a person with whom it’s safe to share vulnerable things. Suspend judgment of others, keep confidences, consider what it is like from their perspective.
Reach out today and say “hello” to someone who sits alone. This one step may lead to a friendship that could fill the void in both of your hearts. Having just one friend and fellow sojourner in the desert can make a world of difference! We weren’t created to live alone but to live in community.