Loneliness: A Beast? A Burden? A Beast of Burden?

Stephanie Shoot 5Since divorce ruptured my life, I’ve learned a great deal about loneliness. In fact, I may be on the way to becoming an expert on the subject, although a rather reluctant one. Many times over the last year or so I’ve had the occasion to reflect on something Henlee Barnette said to a group of us chaplain residents at the University of Louisville back in the early 1980’s. Henlee expressed the conviction that loneliness remains the biggest unrecognized mental illness our current society suffers. Now, I don’t know if it’s fair to call loneliness a “mental illness,” but it sure is mental, and it gets physical to the point of feeling ill, so I’ll not quibble with Henlee’s terminology. I’ve also come to the conviction that millions of people share the syndrome of loneliness. As Sting sang in his song, “Message in a Bottle,” “. . . seems I’m not alone in being alone.”

So . . . I’m going to share what I’m learning about loneliness and invite you, dear blog reader, to respond with your own reflections.

Sometimes, feelings of loneliness become physically palpable. At one point after I moved to Birmingham and my furniture hadn’t arrived yet, I sat down against the wall in my empty condo and felt sobs wrack through my body. I found myself actually hitting my hand against my thigh as if slapping the feeling away, as if a little beast lurked just outside my arm length. My loneliness felt like a beast with a sinister mind of its own. It could pop up unexpectedly, taking advantage of my finding a photograph, or hearing a piece of music, or smelling an aroma. The loneliness beast would stampede through my consciousness and create a major distraction.

Of course, I could also predict that I’d encounter that beast when I’d go home after work, lurking in the empty condo, ready to suffocate any sense of joy I’d found during the day.

I don’t like being lonely. Consequently, I’ve done some pondering as to the best way to handle this beast. I’ve tried a few approaches.

First option – let the beast be. Ignore it. I’ve rejected this approach because any beast left alone will do damage. It might eventually go away, but while it’s around, it could gnaw your leg off. I’m not going to talk much more about this option, because the very act of writing about it proves I’m not ignoring it.

Second option – attack and kill the beast. That’s better, but there are dangers in this approach, too. For example, if we attack this beast without giving it some disciplined thought, we end up doing some less-than-helpful things. We might go out to bars just to avoid the quiet of the apartment, or watch mindless TV simply to avoid the silence. In some cases, in order to kill the beast, people get into ill-advised relationships, or go out shopping (and pile up debt) just to be around people. We might go to inappropriate websites in a desperate attempt to find company, a sex partner, or spouse. In many cases, and I’ve noted this in myself, our addictive tendencies increase as we seek means of injecting pleasure into our lives. Substance abuse or process abuse (e.g. gambling, shopping, or pornography) which we thought would help us kill the beast, actually become tools the beast uses to chew us up.

Third option – tame the beast. This is my choice. I’m becoming more convinced that loneliness can be transformed into a beast of burden. Loneliness can actually become an occasion for growth, renewal, and transformation if we develop the capacity to “ride the hump of a question mark,” as Ernest Campbell said some years ago. If we tame this loneliness beast, as a beast of burden it can actually take us somewhere beautiful.

So, as I make these posts on Taming the Loneliness Beast, I’m going to talk about how loneliness can:

  • Distort thinking
  • Increase narcissism
  • Suppress physical health
  • Inflame fantasies of flight
  • Increase bunker mentality

I’ll also reflect on how loneliness can give us the opportunity to grow. It can open an internal space in which you can move around and explore yourself. You can survey the “house” of your soul, so to speak, and assess what you’re made of, clear out the outmoded “furniture,” and determine what you want and need to keep. You can plan and conduct a renovation so that instead of the five downers above, you have:

  • A broader and clearer perspective
  • The capacity for deep and meaningful friendship
  • A healthier and more vigorous body
  • Become more grounded in the present
  • Become more engaged in your community

A last thought: it’s good to learn how to harness the force of loneliness because if my experience is anything like yours, you’ll find that it never entirely goes away.

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A New Year: Surprises, Ambushes, and “Ground Glare”

What will this new year bring?  Prognosticators abound.  At the end of the year, we’ll probably see that most of them were clueless at the beginning of the year.  The fact is, none of us knows what this year will bring.  More than likely, the events that will most define us will be surprises, or in some cases feel more like ambushes.  For example, at the outset of 2013, I thought my biggest issue would be settling into retirement from pastoral ministry.  Lo, and behold, my marriage ended.

Now, I’d worked for a number of years to gain clarity concerning my leaving pastoral ministry.  Not surprisingly, I’d not spent any time gaining clarity about what I’d do were my marriage to end, so the issue that most defined me at the end of 2013 was something I was relatively clueless about at the beginning of 2013.  Something new had streaked unexpectedly through my life – sort of like a comet.

Do you remember Comet Hyakutake? A Japanese amateur astronomer spotted it in January, 1996 and the astronomical community got real excited about it. After some calculations, they determined that it would make one of the closest passages to earth of any comet previously known, including Hale-Boppe and the infamous Haley’s.

Comet Hyakutake on its closest approach to Earth on March 25, 1996.

Comet Hyakutake on its closest approach to Earth on March 25, 1996.

I got excited about this new comet and went out on the evening of March 24, 1996 to take a look. It didn’t really look like much from where I sat. It resembled a smudge of faint light in the night sky just west of the handle of Ursa Major (The Big Dipper). Of course “where I sat” happened to be shrouded in ground light which diffused in the pollution and natural haze in the air to produce quite a bit of glare. Because of that glare, I couldn’t easily see Hyakutake.

Now, at first glance, the night sky seems so permanent, so unchanging. Sure, presidents come and go, empires rise and fall, the affairs of humanity seethe with change, but the stars remain fixed, unaltered, steady, and reliable. It seems so. Then along comes a comet. It streaks across the sky and reminds us that even in the vault of the vast cosmos, things exist that render clueless even the professional experts.

Separation and divorce streaked through my personal skies leaving me angry, insecure, afraid, feeling like a failure, lonely, grieved, and depressed.  All that constituted a thick mental-emotional haze. That psychological-spiritual “ground glare” obscured my vision.  A powerful funk ensued.

And then, Grace happened. Despite my cluelessness, I managed to do a few things right, with the help of loving, attentive friends. 1) I stayed connected to a community of wise and faithful people. 2) Despite an intense internal resistance to it, I sought out a therapist. 3) I remembered counsel I gave hundreds of people over a pastoral career and 4) actually put into practice (most of) what I’ve preached.  All of that has given me vistas unobscured by “ground glare.”

So, now that I can see a bit more clearly, this unanticipated thing that has streaked through my cosmos is taking on a different shape.  It looks less like a failure and more like an opportunity, less like something that has shut my life down and more like something that has opened my life up.  I’ve still got a way to go in all of this, but I take solace in the fact that comets have long orbits.  Calculations say that Hyakutake was last here 17,000 years ago – before human beings invented writing!  For us in our time, it’s a unique event.

Indeed, Creation continues in your individual life, as well, which means that things are likely to happen in the near future about which you’re currently clueless.  I imagine that if you manage the four things I managed above – 1) stay connected; 2) seek counsel; 3) remember your best wisdom; 4) put wisdom into practice – you’ll get past your own “ground glare.” You’ll begin to see awesome things you never anticipated.  You’ll feel less clueless. What new, unanticipated wonder is about to occur?  Don’t worry – you’ll be surprised!

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