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. 

The sacred tension of solitude

(Unsplash / Mike Petrucci)

My week alone is coming to an end. I’ve been in hermit mode, making a retreat in a cabin in the woods. It’s truly been a grace to be here, to escape from my normal routines and offer some focused energy to a big project. The solitude became a shelter; the quiet like a balm to my restless heart and mind.

While I separated from others, a great tension of my religious vocation was exposed as well: solitude versus community.

It seems that somewhere along the way I was taught to fear the solitary life, to associate lonely people with a haunted energy that compels others to reject, fear and avoid them — as if loneliness were a contagious sickness.

Many of the stories that I devoured as a child contained pictures of recluses living in an old, rundown house on the edge of town, feared by the whole village. The image repeats itself in so many books and movies that…   [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Franciscan Bookshelf: A Simplified Life: A Contemporary Hermit’s Experience of Solitude and Silence

By day, guest blogger K.P.—a good friend of Sister Julia’s—reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

For 25 years, Verena Schiller spent a life cultivated from quiet at the edge of the world. She lived alone in a weather-beaten shed on the precipitous edge of Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, battling both the elements and overpowering roar of her own silence. A member of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name and a consecrated sister, she shares her story in A Simplified Life, a book that rewards its reader for the slow turning of every page with a deeply felt sense of the holy struggle of solitude.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258

In prose that is as difficult and as raw as her salt-grimed cove, Schiller nudges her reader towards gentle insights about the interconnectedness of our inner and outer landscapes. The book winds together three complementary narratives: the rich spiritual history of the peninsula itself, overlooking Bardsey Island; the natural history of Schiller’s new habitat; her discovery of companion plants, animals, and tides; and the personal history of her journey from consecrated sister to solitary hermit. For readers interested in the ecological obligations of the Christian, the possibilities of practiced silence, or the structure of a life that is voluntarily secluded and driven by prayer and survival, Schiller’s story will be achingly beautiful, meditative in its rhythms and depths.

Two words that have drawn me, slowly but surely, onto my Franciscan path are the following—simplicity and solitude—and Schiller delivers a thought-provoking account of both. Silence … what a bonus that would be! But sadly, I think even at the edge of the world, I’d be pouring forth in conversation with the wildflowers, the gulls and the seaweed—as Schiller occasionally finds herself doing, actually.

This is not a journey white-washed for those (like me) who occasionally luxuriate in the idea of becoming a hermit: Schiller’s story makes clear that this is a life of struggle, but also of incredible purpose and beauty. I left these pages feeling extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these sisters and brothers whose quiet prayers animate the abandoned corners of our world.