Last week we talked about growing older and illness and dying, now we are talking of loneliness. Maybe the sermon series should be called “Talking About Stuff Nobody Really Talks About.” We all have periods of loneliness. Yet few people want to admit that they are lonely.
This is for all the lonely people.Is it for you? If not, it is for someone you really care about.At any given moment 4 in 10 people report that they often or frequently feel lonely.Two in ten people are chronically lonely.
Being lonely is different than being alone. Many people can be alone, live alone, without being lonely. They have a perspective that keeps them vibrant and feeling connected. Loneliness isn’t really about whether you are in a long-term relationship.
You can be in a crowd of people and feel lonely. You can have a thousand Facebook friends and a dozen pals who “like” everything you post and still feel lonely. You can be in a marriage and feel lonely. Lonely is being on the outside looking in feeling that you don’t really belong. You can be with a group of friends and still have a lonely feeling.
Being lonely is feeling that no one really gets you, understands and accepts you for who you are. Sometimes a bout of loneliness turns into a black hole, an internal void.
The British documentary, Age of Loneliness, demonstrates how an epidemic of chronic loneliness can be devastating. The documentary shows people of every generation and social and relationship status who feel a constant sense of loneliness.
People like Jane, a 39-year-old single woman. She talked about lying in bed wondering, “Why nobody wants me, what I’ve done wrong and for what reason I am undesirable to everybody.” She worries she will always be lonely. “What if this is it?” She asks.
She talks about people who seem so glib in offering advice about how to get out there to find someone. “Try so-and-so website.” But what they don’t realize is that after so many rejections, any new attempt to meet people feels like “just another platform where a whole host of other people can affirm that they are not interested in me. That something is wrong with me.” Please realize how risky it feels to put oneself out there where you may very well get rejected or alienated by yet more people. Past experience is screaming at them, telling them that your idea is only going to make them feel worse.
The film introduced Richard, a 72-year-old widower who is lonely for the first time. He said, “I’ve got material things enough for my lifestyle and a superb family but it doesn’t do the business. I am lonely. I need a soul mate. I need a pal. Sure, I’ve got people to go out and do things with but I’ve got no one to do nothingwith. I want to give and you cannot give unless you have someone to give to.”
Often loneliness is precipitated by the loss or breakdown of a close relationship. It can be a death, a breakup, a move where someone important to you who was a part of your identity is now gone and you have to figure out who you are without that relationship. During these vulnerable periods, what we have to be cautious of is catastrophic thinking, that the feeling of being alone or unlovely or rejected is going to last forever–that you are not worthy of having friends, of having people take interest in you.
Sometimes we can make things worse if we have experiences that have taught us that others aren’t safe or that it’s better to pull away from someone than to risk getting hurt if things don’t work out.
In the documentary we meet Christine–contemplating suicide. She finds it hard to make friends and keeps others at arm’s length. She said, “I’m good at listening but not sharing. I don’t think I’m a nice person and deserve to be someone’s friend. I’ve decided to turn my body to science when I die because not really for research but because I’m afraid when I die no one will show up at my funeral and that would be the loneliest thing.”
Loneliness often leads to a downward spiral. The lonelier you feel, the more you push away and isolate and the worse it gets. More and more young adults experience loneliness. We live longer and move to different communities more than previous generations. Millennials are told that in order to succeed they need to plan on changing jobs every three years for their whole careers. Despite online connections, social media can exacerbate the depression when all you see are images of how happy and fun everyone else’s lives seem to be in relation to your own. We used to sit down and tell people what is going on and they’d pat us on the back or give us a hug or sit with us in silence. Now they text back with a frowney face emoticon and it just isn’t adequate.
Not only does chronic loneliness cause emotional pain, it also has has profound physical and social effects. They say we are now in a loneliness epidemic. Lonely people are more likely to develop high blood pressure, obesity and a whole host of other impairments. They are 45% more likely to have an abbreviated life span and die early. In fact, the physical effects of loneliness are the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And don’t forget the social costs as many lonely people wind up committing acts of violence or engagement in some other unhealthy behavior.
The initial feelings of loneliness function like other biological warning systems we have. If you are hungry, you know you need to eat. Get some food in your body. Genetically, we are hard-wired for social interaction; it’s a biological need. We evolved as a species by gathering in groups. If you feel lonely your system is telling you that you need to get connected.
If you are prone to bouts of loneliness you can take action to do something about it. A counselor can help unearth what is going on and give strategies for addressing past experiences, negative thinking and behavior patterns. Some simple practices of affirmations and exercise can help.
There is also a spiritual component to addressing loneliness. There are mindfulness and gratitude exercises we can participate in.
- Build a sense of being okay alone. Sometimes we are trying to get others to fill a void inside of us they can never fill. We need to do the spiritual work, the emotional work of finding a way to be comfortable in our own skin. Remember our Psalm 139, how it says we are never truly alone. We belong to God. See yourself as God sees you. Not as destined for loneliness, but built for connection, worthy of connection. The God who created you loves you and desires for you to be connected, to take the risks, to get involved.
- Learn from Jesus to stay in the present moment, not getting caught up in fears about the future and negative thinking. Do the breathing exercises we talked about, mindfulness practices. Go to church not to go through the motions, but to really invest yourself in worship. Build up spiritual reserves to get you through bouts of inevitable loneliness. Get out of yourself and recover your sense of purpose, find ways of helping others.
- And give thanks that God has given you something wonderful—a church. Good people who want the best for you who will respond. I’ve seen so many wonderful things here. If someone shows a need, there will be beautiful, authentic things. Invitations to events, cards, phone calls, sitting with someone at coffee. Those little things make a huge impact.
Let me tell you about Gayla. Gayla was brilliant, a former Fulbright scholar who got kicked out of the program because of her difficult personality. She actually learned decades later that she suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. She just didn’t have social skills or the ability to pick up on social cues. She came across as harsh, blunt, uncaring, and not vulnerable at all. Over the years, she alienated herself from all her family and acquaintances.
In retirement, she found my wife’s church in Orange. She loved music and joined the choir and, predictably, alienated herself from everyone there. When they found out about why she was acting like such an insensitive jerk, they made room in their hearts and stretched the boundaries of their patience. They knew Jesus commanded us to love one another, not just the people who are like us, but the people who are difficult to love.
They hung in there with her. She told Dayna that one of the things she liked about going to church was that it was the only time and place in her life that she had any physical touch with another human being. Not something sexual or weird. Hugs. Handshakes. She never knew she needed that but then realized everyone needs a little human touch.
This summer Gayla died from unexpected complications of a surgery and when they had the memorial service on a hot summer day, every member of the church choir showed up at the cemetery and sang. Even though she had bothered the bejeebers out of everyone in that choir at one time or another, she belonged.
I’m sure she crossed paths with plenty of people who are spiritual without needing to be part of a church. But none of them bothered to show up at her graveside. It was only church people. Because that’s what we do. We show up for each other. People organized to increase love and kindness in the world—even when it’s hard.
Here is the thing that haunts me and I want to challenge you with. One out of every five people who walk into this sanctuary every week feels lonely on a profound level. Will they feel any less lonely when they walk out? Will there be kindness and genuine acceptance?
Here we are in this sanctuary, in varying degrees of loneliness. Sanctuary literally means safe space. Can we be safe people and love even the people who are hard to love? Can we commit to being safe for one another no matter how screwed up anyone may feel? When you see someone in church, can you take just a minute before or after church to connect? “I’m Dave. I’d love to help you feel connected here, so donuts afterwards?”
For all the lonely people. You showed up here today. You belong to us. We belong to you. You belong to a God who loves and cares about you. For all the lonely people, please know that we get you. We know it’s hard. And we’re here for you. You’ve got a church. And we’re here for you. We hold you in our hearts. And we’re going to sing the refrain again and you can place your hands over your heart if you want. Maybe it reminds you that you are loved. Or a signal to someone lonely that you are a safe person. Maybe it’s a remembrance that God loves you or that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.