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. 

Loyalty and memory in response to the signs

He said to them … “In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’;and, in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.” – Matthew 16:2-4

Much of the world we once knew is flipping onto its side. People in power are causing us to have questions about what we thought were foundational values, about where their loyalties lie. When our leaders disturb the order that we once relied on — that once made us comfortable — it’s only natural for us to feel lost, confused and uncertain about how to interpret the chipping and shifting road signs.

If we haven’t learned the codes and the languages, the meaning of the signs, we may feel as if we’re traveling through the fog. We grip our steering wheels a little tighter. We pull to the side and put on our flashers, trying to gain some sort of sense about whether we are going in the right direction, trying to determine which routes — and on and off ramps — are part of the Way of Christ.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com

As we travel, as we follow Jesus, folks reach out to us from every direction, in need of our compassion, care, and prayer. Their worlds are crumbling. In the rubble, they feel unsteady. They are challenged by change, by death, by the demand to transform and adjust — the call to conversion for which they were unprepared.

Our call is to listen to their cries, to hold them close in the way of our example, Jesus Christ. We hear their heartaches and their longings for solid ground. We encourage faithfulness to God’s love, to the demands of relating beyond break downs and upsets to the status quo. And we try to find our own solid footing, as we love over the divides and disturbances.

One way to stay grounded when the signs seem to point toward the land of letting go, to transformation and conversion, is checking our own memories and loyalties.

For myself recently, I’ve been invited to this through the sudden departure of a colleague, mentor and a holy man, Mr. Steven Murray, who I was honored to minister with at Aquinas High School in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a few years ago. Earlier this month he died while mowing his lawn, leaving a giant gap in the hearts of many, as he served hundreds of people over the years as a compassionate educator. When I worked with Mr. Murray at the high school, he was the dean of students and we often would get into deep, faith-filled conversations about how to care for the teenager who doesn’t seem to care about school or others; we would grapple with the messy Jesus business of Gospel living together and always arrived at the same conclusion: we must imitate our brother Jesus, whose love was costly and full of second chances.

In my memories of Steve the signposts become clear. It is apparent where his loyalty was. It was clear what he wanted to most remember: the love of Christ. He would share this love of Christ in meaningful yet subtle ways, gently teaching how one’s dedication and devotion can inform one’s character and tone.

Loyalty is rootedness, devotion, connection. It is relational and grounded. It is based in memory of identity, in memory of fondness and hope, of memory of what values are foundational.

Influenced by loyalty and memory and built up by love, like Steve Murray, we can pay better attention to the signs surrounding us, we can gain direction and experience reflection. We can be grounded in love and truth.

Steve Murray published a song and a reflection online about his childhood friendship on the Mississippi River less than two weeks before he died. It seems, in this section, that he was paying attention to the sign of his mortality:

We had the utmost respect for the river and its power and even though we thought we were Tom and Huck, it did not take us away from our homes. We attended funerals but never our own. In those days it was not unusual to have the visitation in the front room of your house and the funeral procession would go from the church passed your house and then to the cemetery.

As we journey on this road of life with Christ, let us look around at all the people in our lives who are signs for us on how to love and live, to share and help others gain a sense of solid footing, even if their world is crumbling around them.

Like Steve Murray, let us be fed by the words of Jesus, as food for our journey to help us be awake and nourished enough to notice the signs.

For your prayer and nourishment, I offer this song “Words of Jesus” written and sung by Mr. Steven Murray. May it help you know the way. Amen!

Casting a vote beyond the political haze

For most of my adult life I have been incredibly fascinated with the interaction of politics and faith.

I was ecstatic when Pope Francis spoke to U.S. Congress last fall. I loved lobbying on behalf of the Catholic bishops in Iowa—and all the Catholic concerns for the entire state—when I interned with the Iowa Catholic Conference in 2004. And, I am a big fan of organizations like Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, who empower people of faith to advocate for justice.

Most of the time I am pleased with what I observe in the dance between politics and faith because I believe the actions of those of us who are religious—including our political actions—must be directed by our faith.

Many would agree that our religion must influence how we raise our voices, what we stand up for, whom we stand with and how—or whether—we vote. For those of us who are Christians, this means we aim to imitate Jesus Christ, who demonstrated that nothing was worth killing for and that real love makes everyone worth dying for, even in the political sphere. We are guided by Jesus’ most demanding teachings like “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) and “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:15).”

As a Catholic Christian, I am grateful my bishops insist that every person has a responsibility to inform their conscience and follow it in the voting booth. I love this Church document and I appreciate media like this that summarizes the document and highlights the complexity of voting:

Certainly, it is complex to weed through the issues and options and arrive at a decision, to prayerfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the voting booth.

I also keep in mind that no politician will ever save us from all our problems.

Unsatisfied with every party and politician, a lot of what Shane Claiborne wrote in his book Jesus for President makes sense to me. This article from the 2012 election especially resonates:

No party feels like home. No candidate seems to value the things we see Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Federal budget cuts have begun to look like the anti-thesis of the beatitudes where Jesus blesses the poor and hungry rather than the rich and wealthy. You get the sense that if Mary proclaimed her famous “Magnificat” in Luke’s Gospel today — where “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” — she’d be accused of promoting class warfare. As one theologian said, “Our money says in God we trust … but our economy looks like the seven deadly sins.” What would America look like if Jesus were in charge?

There just isn’t much talk in the debates about caring for the poor and loving enemies, the stuff Jesus was on fire about. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with a consistent ethic of life, a candidate who is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Many of us have grown tired of death, and share a faith that speaks of resurrection and proclaims the triumph of life over death and love over hatred. We want life—fewer abortions, an end to the death penalty, hospitality to immigrants, an end to extreme poverty, fewer bombs and wars and other ugly things.

~  From “Jesus for President 2012” by Shane Claiborne, Huffington Post

With such writings in his past I was amused, then, when Shane Claiborne tweeted that he will vote for president during this election:

 

Alternatives also fascinate me. Guided by their religious convictions, some folks have found other ways to participate in democracy and help promote God’s reign wherein all life is protected and peace and justice are triumphant.

I’m intrigued by those who choose not to vote, such as Christian anarchists. I can understand, somewhat, why they take that approach to help create social change. (Jesus for President is a good book to read to understand.) Personally, it is a big challenge to me that one of my heroines, Dorothy Day, never voted and was a suffragette. It is equally interesting for me to learn about those who will not vote this year, even though they voted a lot in the past.

I have never been convinced that the two-party system we have in the United States is the most fair or helpful: we are too diverse as a people to be divided into two camps. Related, I was excited to learn about the American Solidarity Party this election year and the presidential candidate Mike Maturen, whose platform is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. (I am not sure I’ll vote for him though.)

I am also fascinated by and well aware that, for many people of faith, political choices aren’t actually influenced by one’s faith but rather it’s the other way around—what they believe and accept as true is often influenced by where they sit on the political spectrum. This, of course, isn’t supposed to be the way it works. We are called to put our faith in Jesus before any political candidate, party, or nation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that to put anything before God is idolatry.

No matter how one decides to act, it is certainly complex and challenging for people of faith to participate in democracy. It takes a ton of study and prayer—and faith that God can make something good come out of anything.

Yet, people of faith are called to even more; we must move beyond the voting booth. Now, especially, we are needed to step to the front of the political haze and be healers and servants to a nation in need.

Such servant leadership requires communal prayer and discernment. Together we can create societal transformation by asking broad, visionary questions—questions that move us forward and beyond the violence, hate, and division that has wounded our nation, our communities. We must tend to those who are feeling left out, ignored, marginalized, neglected; those whose anger and pain has disturbed what we once thought of as normal. (Visionary questions and the need to care for the neglected are discussed in this in this On Being episode.)

With God’s grace, we will manifest hope, joy and reconciliation to people in need of freedom and peace. Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ we can be ones who show others that—really, yes—”blessed are the peacemakers” indeed.

By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas - Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213
By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas – Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213