Missed connections and lonely souls

Once, while traveling home alone from a conference, I went to the airport early. I had some free time, and I was hoping to catch an earlier flight home. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I spent most of the day walking up and down the terminal, watching people and trying out different corners for reading.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Throughout the day, I probably saw hundreds of people, if not thousands, passing in and out of the gates, hurrying to get their luggage, walking right past me. But besides the clerk who sold me my lunch, I sensed that no one really saw me. I blended right into the crowd of people and was insignificant to everyone.

I noticed, though, that I longed for a connection with someone else. I tried not to ignore anyone I encountered. I offered friendly smiles and thanks to the housekeepers who were doing a great job keeping everything clean. I smiled at the restroom attendants and the mothers and children who were traveling together. Yet, I was never able to enjoy a real, human conversation (except for when I found a quiet corner and called my mother who was a whole time zone away).

At one point during that day, I walked by a whole row of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at an upscale bar. Everyone was silent. Well-dressed young professionals and middle-aged business people sipped drinks and ate their lunches, but no one spoke. Instead, everyone peered into their devices, staring at their screens. I noticed a man and a woman of similar age and style of dress, both handsome and classy looking, sitting side by side. In my imagination, they were two single people bored with dating apps and lonely but too disengaged from the people around them to notice the potential connection sitting just inches away from their elbow. They missed the chance to interact, to discover their attraction, to realize their potential for romance or even life-long commitment. It’s not impossible: I’ve encountered several happily-married couples that met by chance in a public place.

I felt sad for all the missed opportunities to love in the world, for all the lonely souls remaining disconnected and unknown, for all of us being less than God made us to be.

What I observed that day was not unusual; it is less common nowadays for strangers to strike up a meaningful conversation with others than for people in crowds to be staring at screens. And, although I felt sad about the scene that day, it doesn’t deeply disturb me that our styles of behaving as social creatures are evolving; that we like to read articles, play games, and interact with others on our devices when we’re in crowded spaces. What difference is that from when people read newspapers, did crossword puzzles or wrote letters while they were traveling? What does disturb me is the effect that our screens have on our spirits and health, on how we may be missing chances to love our neighbors as Jesus has asked us to do.

And, it isn’t problematic that I was alone in the airport that day. Being alone is neutral and a descriptive fact. Yet, Church tradition and Scripture teach us that it is not good to be alone — or lonely, more specifically: that this is not the way God designed us to be.

The word “lonely,” though, is not neutral. It describes a subjective feeling: a negative psychological and emotional state that comes from a feeling of being disconnected, from lacking closeness with other people. In other words, if no one else is with you, you are alone. If you are feeling disconnected from people and feeling sad about it, you are lonely.

Loneliness is the gap between the needing to belong and not belonging to others, to a group. It is an experience of being isolated, separate, disconnected; of feeling like a misfit. It is a feeling of emptiness and lack, a space between you and other people — people you could be closer to emotionally. Annie Lenox sings about loneliness very well.

It is key to understand that loneliness is a personal, interior and subjective, which means that we all experience this type of sadness differently. We are probably the only ones who can diagnose this feeling in ourselves.

The ironic thing about loneliness is that none of us are alone in having this feeling. As I have written about before, loneliness is so common that it has become a serious public health problem.

For some of us, loneliness can be something that storms around violently, creating disasters in our lives. We may evacuate the places of security and safety, the places where it is smart to be. We may allow it to consume us, to infect us like a disease and debilitate our courage and confidence. We’ll stay in our comfort zone and avoid interaction, because we stop trusting that we have something to offer others. We begin to doubt that others even want to be around us.

There is no way to completely avoid feelings of loneliness. But we can make choices about how we navigate through them.

And yet it is worth mentioning here that solitude can be healthy and sacred, that is is necessary for spiritual wellness. I can admit that I live in the tension between community and solitude.

The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate me to reach out; to get closer to the tribe, to the community. Study helps us see it: being in strong relationships with others helps keep us safe, accountable and provides purpose and meaning in our lives. The more people who know and care for you, the more likely you are to survive.

Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I feel lonely: these feelings God is giving me are signals. As awful as the feelings are, I can read them as a sign. God is calling me to connect with my family, to work on getting closer to a neighbor, to reach out to a friend. I am invited to serve others; I am designed to be a social creature.

For me, it is helpful to keep in mind that none of us are made to be lonely, that this is not the will of God. Rather, God made us for each other, and true love requires relationship, connection. In the second creation story, as soon as God formed the first person, he made a statement about him: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) This announcement leads to more creative activity on God’s part (for that is God’s nature: to be creative and self-giving, to express love): the first man has a companion, a person to relate to and grow with.

The expansive relationality of God and humanity’s call to imitate it comes through in the first creation story too: God creates both genders together in God’s divine image and likeness. God gives these first humans a particular dignity and worth before announcing the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

In other words, when loneliness is painful, don’t be alone. Relate to each other. And expand your relationships. Then, you will be building up the Body of Christ. 

On parenting, poverty, and privilege

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Nicole’s youngest daughter, Adelina, washes clothes at a pila. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

It’s been two months since our family abruptly said goodbye to the mission we were serving in Honduras.

We left because our five-year-old daughter came down with dengue fever, a nasty mosquito-borne illness that becomes even nastier if contracted a second time. In someone who has already had the illness, a second exposure can result in internal hemorrhage, shock, and death. The risk of these outcomes is greatest in young children.

As parents, we didn’t want to take that risk.

I’m pretty sure no parents want to take that risk … But many simply don’t have a choice in the matter.

Poverty in Honduras is both stark and pervasive. According to the World Bank, 66% of the country’s citizens live in poverty and one in five rural residents live on less than $2 every day. Our family felt called to international mission work because we wanted to accompany these beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

In college, I would have said we wanted to be “in solidarity with the poor.” But as a 34-year-old mother, I know better.

Because we could leave.

If we ever felt like the risks of our mission became too great, we could simply pack up our suitcases and go … which is precisely what we did. As soon as our daughter recovered from dengue, we bought four one-way tickets out of Honduras and flew home to the United States, away from the risk of a secondary infection.

I know this was the right decision, and I don’t feel guilty about it, but I do feel angry and sad that most of the world’s mothers don’t have the same option. They can’t simply buy a plane ticket and fly away from whatever threatens their children, whether it is dengue fever or gun violence or political instability or “just” diarrhea (which is the leading cause of death globally in children my daughters’ age).

Options are privilege. Nothing makes that clearer than living among people who don’t have any.

I open a full refrigerator, and I think of all the families in Honduras who eat just one simple meal of tortillas each day. Their bellies are never truly full. I research school districts in areas to where our family might move, and I think of the many children throughout rural Honduras who lack access to basic education. I read a story about victims of horrific crimes in Honduras, and I think about the luxury of avoiding violent Honduran neighborhoods and never going out past dark (which our program ensured).

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Kiara (left) and Adelina, Nicole’s daughters, experience the beauty of a Honduran beach. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

I think about all of my options. And I think about my privilege.

I have yet to meet someone who has challenged our family’s decision to end our mission in Honduras early in order to protect our daughter’s health. When I explain the situation to people, they usually respond with something like: “Of course you had to come home — you were being a good mother!”

And yet …. the official policy of the U.S. is to treat mothers at the border (many of whom are Honduran and all of whom are trying to protect their children) as though they are criminals. We rip their children from their arms and lock them up in dehumanizing, traumatic conditions. We violate international human rights laws and — more fundamentally — God’s laws.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor …” (Zechariah 7:9-10)

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Children and adults in the Finca community walk the Stations of the Cross, honoring the sacrifice of Jesus, during Lent. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

When I hear the heartbreaking stories of families separated at the border, I try to imagine what it would have been like if my daughter had been ripped away from me as we boarded our plane to fly home. I try to imagine what it would be like to be treated as a criminal for following my most primal maternal instinct: to protect my children.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine.

That’s because I’ve never run out of options in the way families at the border have. We left Honduras out of an excess of caution: my daughter might get dengue again and dengue might progress into hemorrhagic fever and we might not be able to get her to a hospital in time to treat it. We left Honduras because we felt it was too risky for our daughter to continue living there.

So why am I congratulated as a good mother for fleeing a potential health risk while others are condemned for fleeing far worse?

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the privilege of fleeing that risk on board a comfortable Boeing aircraft, rather than on foot at a dismal border crossing.

And I’m also pretty sure Jesus has something to say about this contrast in privilege:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
(Matthew 5:3-6)

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge recently returned with her husband and two daughters from mission work in Honduras. They spent nine months living and volunteering at a children’s home/school/medical clinic called the Finca del Niño. You can read more about their family’s experiences in Honduras (and donate to their solar energy project!) at www.lifeonthefinca.com.

Beyond lonely scrolling

photo credit: unsplash.com

Sitting alone in a living room on a dark winter night, I am staring at a screen once again. With a TV buzzing in the background, I scroll down through tragic headlines, past photos of smiling babies and occasional political rants. The warmth of the laptop upon my legs and its glow across my face create a cozy feeling perfect for a winter night.

Then, I notice the status update of an acquaintance from years ago; a little cry for help that sends a ripple of worry through me: Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about the movement of Jesus’ heart: In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and having nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way …”  (Mark 8:1-3)

Today, two millennia later, the great crowds are online. Now, we rarely sit on hillsides and absorb the wisdom of prophets and teachers. Instead, we stare at screens and connect virtually. We often ignore those who are in the same room or neighborhood. Instead, we share and retweet the insights of like-minded friends living in other time zones.

By each act, our needs and desperation glare out at us, reflecting back at us like images in mirrors. In the gap between these flat surfaces and real-time — lived human experiences — we meet our longings for intimacy and connection; for closeness with others, God, and our true selves.

I am fascinated by how technology influences our processes of building relationships with one another today. I am especially curious about how the changes impact the way we serve, love, share and care for others. With more ways for us to connect, are our communities stronger? Healthier? How are we living out the Christian call to create inclusive communities and care for one another? Does our modern tendency to connect more through screens and devices than through human contact, touch, influence our spiritual health?

The Incarnation — God taking on human flesh — insists that our human bodies are holy, sacred. Sitting around tables and sharing bread and wine is sacramental. Praying side-by-side and sharing air and space is communion on holy ground. We are made to be together, united as one.

Yet, we often are not. In fact, there is a rise in the number of people who are considered lonely. To give you a sense of just how alone we feel, in the 1980s, 20 percent of adults were chronically lonely; a 2010 study told us that 35 percent of people over 45 are now chronically lonely. It’s even more grim for millennials. As noted in Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan, “nearly 60 percent of those aged 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35 percent of those aged over 55.” (p 28).

And, it turns out that loneliness is slowly killing us. If you are chronically lonely, your blood pressure increases, your immune responses decrease, and you are likely to gain excess weight and suffer from insomnia, headaches and anxiety. Researchers tell us that chronic loneliness increases mortality by as much as 26 percent. It is such a serious public health problem that a year ago the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

We are social animals, we are meant for each other. We are called to be in community. It’s actually all science, as the research of John Cacioppo highlights.

So, what are we supposed to do? I’m not sure. I am still learning, making my way forward into serving and living in this mess. But I am certain that we are called to build connections, community.

It comes down to this: we all need to have strong connections to exist and be healthy. This is the way God designed it; nature helps us know it. Actually, scientists theorize that loneliness has a biological function; it is an innate drive that works to help our species survive. The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate us to reach out, to get closer to the tribe … the community.

Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

My scrolling pauses and I contemplate how to respond compassionately, kindly. I know that responding to the needs of others expressed online doesn’t have the same effect as responding in-person or over the phone, that whatever words I might type could go ignored or unread.

Yet, I feel compelled to serve and care. Is this pity? Like Jesus, when he looks upon the hungry crowd?

I recognize the scale and scope are vastly different, but the question remains: how do we respond to an expressed need? What is helpful, appropriate, meaningful, real? In seconds, I settle on an action and type “Have you ever considered trying MeetUp.com to see if there’s a group in your area that you’d like to join?”

My heart sinks some and prays a bit of blessing and hope for that person. I feel uncertain about what I’ve done; unsure whether it was enough, if it really made a difference at all. It’s hard to know what’s the compassionate, Christian way to act in this modern, technology-infused world.

I return to scrolling, reading. I don’t ever follow up to see if the person is feeling better. And I don’t feel any better, either.

Fear, faith and the flu

I am not a germaphobe by nature, but this year’s flu season has me in a tizzy of microbial paranoia.

Daily news reports about the severity of this specific flu strain and the extent of the epidemic have fueled my anxiety, as did a recent email from my daughters’ school informing us of confirmed flu cases within the student population. Yesterday, a doctor on NPR waxed dystopic about the particular vulnerability of people who have underlying health conditions.

As the mother of a 6-year-old with asthma, I feel frightened and exposed.

Although our entire household got the flu vaccine back in early fall (as we do every year), I know there is no guarantee of immunity. With the flu season now in full force, I want to wrap my kids up in Purell-lined bubbles and safeguard them against all the insidious germs that assault their immune systems on a daily basis. I want to protect them from the physical misery and dangers of influenza.

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Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

As a matter of fact, I want to protect them from all suffering. Forever.

But of course, the world doesn’t work that way. Try as we might, we parents cannot prevent our children from suffering.

We can get them the flu vaccine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get the flu. We can provide them with love and stability, but that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle with depression and addiction. We can raise them in a household of faith, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn away from God.

In this world – as in the flu season – there are no guarantees. And so we vaccinate as early and as extensively as we can … and then we trust.

As Christians, our trust is based not on the presumption that we will avoid suffering, but rather on our faith that God is with us when we suffer and that Divine Providence (aka “God’s Plan”) will ultimately triumph. We trust that the Good News of Jesus prevails, even when our lives are filled with bad news. We trust that our suffering is not in vain.

Easier said than done (at least for me).

Sure, some suffering makes sense – either right there in the midst of it or decades later, with the hindsight of lessons learned and otherwise-missed life journeys. But some suffering will never make sense this side of eternity; some suffering is so dehumanizing and apparently pointless that it falls into the category of the “Big M” Mysteries of Christianity.

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Image courtesy freeimages.com

This is the kind of suffering I fear most for my children and – by extension – myself. It is the suffering I find most baffling and scandalous … and the suffering for which I most need the baffling and scandalous grace of God.

Especially as a mother.

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It’s true. And it’s why, as I drop my children off at school – where H3N2 germs, Mean Girls and any number of other potential threats await them – I am thankful that they (and my heart right along with them) are ultimately in the hands of Someone I trust.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to 6- and 4-year-old daughters in the Seattle, Washington area. Her contributions to Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. For the record, she’s really not interested in a debate about vaccinations right now.

Hope and healing playlist

As we wait in the dark for the coming of Christ during these Advent days, it can be tough, at times, to keep going.

When we serve others we touch the wounds of Christ; we encounter the heartache and pain of our neighbors. When we read the news headlines right alongside the promises of Christ, it can be tempting to doubt that the Incarnation really changed things and made the world better. Our consciousness about global oppression and the weight of natural disasters can be crushing, discouraging.

One way that I keep my eyes open to the Light is to tune into songs that feed me with encouragement and strength. I want to have music in my head that keeps me singing with hopeful joy. I want to dance to beats that help me persevere and trust that God’s in charge, that the fullness of God’s goodness is on its way.

With all this in mind, I have created a playlist for all of you who are in need of hope and healing. Many good people gave me input for this list — thanks to all of you!

Perhaps you also will find that these tunes, and some of their particular lyrics, can energize your Gospel living. May you remain hopeful and strong, even when the messy chaos and darkness distract from Christ’s light.

“Till We Reach That Day” from “Ragtime,” the musical

Give the people
A day of peace.
A day of pride.
A day of justice
We have been denied.
Let the new day dawn,
Oh, Lord, I pray…
We’ll never get to heaven
Till we reach that day.

“You will be found” from “Dear Evan Hansen,” the musical

Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
When you’re broken on the ground
You will be found

So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
If you only look around

You will be found.

“Somewhere to begin” by TR Ritchie, sung by Sara Thomsen
People say to me, “Oh, you gotta be crazy!
How can you sing in times like these?
Don’t you read the news? Don’t you know the score?
How can you sing when so many others grieve?”
People say to me, “What kind of fool believes
That a song will make a difference in the end?”
By way of reply, I say a fool such as I
Who sees a song as somewhere to begin
A song is somewhere to begin
The search for something worth believing in
If changes are to come
there are things that must be done
And a song is somewhere to begin.
“The Transfiguration” by Sufjan Stevens
And keep your word, disguise the vision ’till the time has come.
Lost in the cloud, a voice. Have no fear! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Turn your ear.
Lost in the cloud, a voice. Lamb of God! We draw near!
“Open Up” by The Brilliance

Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
(As only You can love, oh God)

“All my hope” by Crowder featuring Tauren Wells

There’s a kind of thing that just breaks a man
Break him down to his knees
God, I’ve been broken more than a time or two
Yes, Lord then He picked me up and showed me
What it means to be a man

Come on and sing
All my hope is in Jesus
Thank God my yesterday’s gone

“Rise Up” by Andra Day
You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry go round
And you can’t find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid

Feel free to share in the comments section. Which songs provide hope and healing to you? Which songs keep you going and help you spread God’s light in the darkness?