There is no pain like the pain of loneliness. Lee Strobel wrote about the time Chicago Tribune columnist Marla Paul confessed in print a few years ago: I am lonely. “This loneliness saddens me,” she wrote. “How did it happen I could be forty-two years old and not have enough friends?” She asked her husband if there was something wrong with her. She wondered if people were just too busy for friends. It seemed as though “every woman’s friendship quota has been filled and she’s no longer accepting new applicants.” She wondered if perhaps “there are women out there who don’t know how lonely they are. It’s easy enough to fill up the day with work…[but it’s] not enough.”

Paul concluded her column:

I recently read my daughter Han Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. I felt an immediate kinship with this bird who flies from place to place looking for creatures with whom he belongs. He eventually finds them. I hope I do too.

She subsequently wrote about the unexpected nerve this column struck. People stopped her at work, while shopping, at her daughter’s school: “You too? I thought I was the only one.” Letters came in from homemakers and CEOs. This column elicited seven times her usual amount of mail, and the letters all had the same theme: Why do I feel so lonely? Why is it so hard to make good friends?

If loneliness is common for women, it is epidemic among men. One survey indicated that 90 percent of the male population in America lack a true friend. But we prefer not to talk about it. “No one wants to admit that they’re lonely,” writes psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds. “Loneliness is something people associate with losers.” Loneliness has such a sting, in fact, that people will admit to being lonely in anonymous polls, but when asked to give their names they will say they are independent and self-sufficient.

Loneliness, said Mother Teresa, is the leprosy of modern society. And no one wants anybody to know they’re a leper. — John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).