Is it possible to be lonely in a crowd? It depends on how we define loneliness, I suppose. If it’s not about the quantity of people around us, if it’s not about how many friends we have on Facebook or other social media platforms, if it’s not about all the places we’ve been and worked and lived and projects on which we have participated, what is it about? Is being alone the same as being lonely? Dr. Bowen White talks about loneliness being a larger epidemic than any of the viruses or other physical maladies that seem to threaten our global population. Is he right? And do we resemble that remark?
Generalizing about what loneliness is or isn’t doesn’t really make as much difference as does knowing ourselves and how we define loneliness in our own lives. While there are similarities, I also believe the exact knowledge of loneliness is unique to each of us in relation to who we are and how we live and move in the midst of a highly populated world. What does being lonely look like for you?
Is it about feeling like you don’t fit in most of the time and spending a boat-load of energy trying to? And what does “fitting in” mean? It probably must mean looking like, acting like, talking like, working like, parenting like, doing relationships like… everyone else, because clearly everyone else has it all figured out. So you really just want to look like all those everyone else’s who never ever feel like they don’t fit in because they’ve figured out the secret, along with all the other people with whom they clearly fit in and never ever feel like they don’t. Okay, is that sentence simply maddingly wrong grammatically as well as being insanity-producing in thought process?
And yet, how often do variations of that conversation occur to us when we enter a gathering, whether it’s a party, a sporting event, a concert, or maybe even… church?!!!? Clearly that family sitting over there didn’t struggle to get their kids to come to church that day. Clearly that single person sitting by him or herself doesn’t feel like they’re the weirdest person in the world because they showed up for worship alone. Clearly that group of adults all understand each other and have an internal language and shared story that doesn’t and never will include me. Clearly all those perfectly dressed people don’t struggle to keep a job that barely pays the bills and leaves hardly enough time to get to the grocery store, keep the house running let alone deal with a leaky faucet and broken closet doors, and make sure the laundry’s done so everyone has appropriate clothes to wear to church even if they’re a little wrinkled and disheveled – clearly no one else has my. same. struggle.
Is being lonely the stark realization that no matter how many people love you and care for you and know you, finally they can’t completely understand your story and what you’ve been through in your life and how all of those things have affected you and made you who you are? And is it sorta seeing the look in their eyes when you start in to the story again and you’re trying your best to explain how hard some things are and you know they’re just done. They’re done listening, they’re done trying to understand the somehow un-understandable, they’re done with how long it’s taking you to “get over it” whatever the “it” is, they’re done sorting and sifting and lifting and carrying. And you understand why they’re done – you would be too – but it still leaves you feeling like no one can really know or will ever know who you really are and how hard life is sometimes?
Is being lonely the decision not to risk being vulnerable? Because while you want to be known, you also don’t really want to be at the same time because it’s scary? Because what if everyone else judges you as harshly as you judge yourself? Because what if someone tells you something you don’t want to hear and it challenges what you’ve already decided about your world? Because if you live out loud, someone might shuuush you? Because someone might ask you to share who you are with other people and you don’t really want to be around other people because they might ask you to share more of who you are than you really want to share? So it’s simply easier and less risky to stay in-vulnerable and lonely?
We are a complex and messy and BELOVED lot – we perfectly imperfect human beings, aren’t we? It was a revelation to me in seminary when one the most academically difficult and a bit hard-to-like professors suggested that our understanding of God’s priority on community comes from the simple existence of the trinity. That the very definition of God-self is community, when we realize God being known in Three Persons – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer… God, Christ, Holy Spirit. That one way of thinking about the complexity of the idea of the trinity was God refusing to allow us to “singularize, individualize, and privatize” God, because from the beginning God was community and chose to create community with and for us as well. I admit, I like that, a lot. God was never a “lone ranger” God – God was always known in three persons.
So what about our loneliness? NOT our ALONE-NESS, but our loneliness? Does it work for us? Does it allow us to claim a bit of a victim role rather than risking putting ourselves out into honest relationships? Because we might be invited into community with other imperfect people who might actually become family if we’re willing to find ways to hear and see each other in our weaknesses and our strengths, our agreeable-ness and our disagreeable-ness (I know, right?), our imperfections and our seeking-to-be-perfect-ions, our fun sides and our particularly annoying sides, our pasts and our presents (Christmas IS coming, see what I did there? *snort*) and our futures?
Jesus often spent time “alone” in the hills to pray, I also think to re-energize, to re-clarify an understanding of God’s vision, to gain perspective, and to rest. And then he came back into community. Some of that community he relished and celebrated with friends who were easy to be with and supported his vison, AND some of that community was adversarial, and hard to get along with, and quirky and snarly and questioning and threatening. And in each place and person, he revealed himself – sometimes through questions, sometimes through stories, sometimes through action, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through prayer, and even through death. Let me be clear, we’re NOT Jesus *snort*, but we ARE Jesus followers. So we learn what it is to be alone, AND we learn what it is to be lonely, and we decide from that place to risk moving into community with those like us and maybe even those not so much like us.
Do preachers get lonely? Yup, at least this one does. How about preachers who are married with families? Yup, from what I hear, they do as well. How about those with fantastic congregations with whom they care for one another and for others in the community? Yup. How about when they get offers for breakfast and lunch and dinner and trips to Costco? Yup. How about when they have a dog and two cats? Yup.
So can we rescue them? You know, those lonely old pastors who seem to be on the road to being cat ladies (and I use that description with great generosity and affection). I mean, can we rescue them? You know each other in all our unique ways of being lonely in the midst of the crowds? I mean, can we rescue them? You know each other when we see life is so hard and peculiar and filled with everything that seems unfair? I mean, can we rescue anyone and everyone from loneliness?
Sorry, but no. No, we can’t rescue pastors or parishioners or each other or anyone or everyone from loneliness. We can’t rescue from the hard times or the fun times or the boring times or the empty times or the scary times or the all the times. We can’t rescue. BUT… we can be friends with each other in our loneliness. We can be partners on the road of faith when it’s hard to understand and we don’t have much in common other than our questions. We can listen and try to learn. We can support and share our stories and our vulnerabilities. We can be brave enough to show up for one another and brave enough not to show up for one another when we just can’t. We can walk into crowds and realize most if not everyone there in some weird way doesn’t feel like they fit, but they came anyway because maybe… maybe we are best when we risk sharing life together, and maybe most especially when we don’t feel like we fit.