A Song for the Lonely | Paris | Stefano Corso | Flickr

Look at All the Lonely People

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Sermon Video: https://youtu.be/DljyLHBTGdA

Before the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down in our country, there were people warning us about loneliness. Be careful, I remember hearing, we can’t let the social distancing lead us to social isolating. We must be mindful that steps to prevent the spread of viruses can also lead to consequences in terms of our mental health – in particular: loneliness. Some clever person along the way coined the phrase Lockdown Loneliness.

A study about loneliness and the impact of the pandemic came out about 6 months into it all, in the fall of 2020. The Journal of Medical Internet Research published a study focused on (unsurprisingly) the digital solutions available to us. The study touted the recommendation many of us were already working on – to manage our loneliness, they concluded, we need to maintain our social networks of family and friends through digital means. https://www.jmir.org/2020/11/e22287?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=JMIR_TrendMD_1

We certainly tried. But online social connections are imperfect and lacking in a certain something. More than century back, French sociologist Émile Durkheim used the phrase “collective effervescence” to describe an emotional excitement people experience together in communal settings.

We would recognize this feeling from sporting events, concerts, theater performances, and religious ceremonies. There is something particular about the emotional aspect of a group experience. “Collective effervescence,” he called it. It is something that didn’t translate well over zoom.  Our efforts to maintain our social networks through digital means have ben worthy but they couldn’t cover for everything we were missing

The current US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has tackled the topic of loneliness as a public health concern. Not limiting his concerns to only the big concerns like the opioid epidemic and gun violence, Dr. Murthy has also singled out the dangers of loneliness among Americans. He said:

“Loneliness is different than isolation and solitude. Loneliness is a subjective feeling where the connections we need are greater than the connections we have. In the gap, we experience loneliness. It’s distinct from the objective state of isolation, which is determined by the number of people around you.” 

He is far from the first to clarify the difference between loneliness and being alone. But I do find his clarity about the distinction helpful. Solitude can be refreshing and quite enjoyable. But loneliness can be truly awful. In the gap between the connections we need and the connections we have, we experience loneliness.

Loneliness is not a new problem. In the late 1800’s Ella Wheeler Wilcox penned her poem ‘solitude’ with the opening stanza

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;

Weep, and you weep alone;

For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,

But has trouble enough of its own

  • Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Solitude’

Loneliness has been known and felt through the ages. It is not just about the pandemic. There was, for example, a recent Cigna study of 20 thousand Americans on the topic of loneliness. I say ‘recent,’ but that is a relative term; the study was published two years before the current pandemic. The study found 46% of the participants reported they “sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”

And it has long been noticed that loneliness leads to other problems. In an article from more than a decade back decade, we can read about how chronic loneliness can significantly contribute to other health problems. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.331.6014.138

Loneliness compromises your immune system and messes with both your cardiovascular and nervous systems. Studies have long found that “socially isolated people have shorter lifespans and increased risk of a host of health problems, including infections, heart disease, and depression.” I find it is significant that what leads to such problems is not something objectively measurable such as the number of social contacts a person has. Instead, it is about the subjective feeling of loneliness.

And that is all from what we knew before the pandemic. Loneliness took on a noteworthy development with the call for lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing. And interestingly the impact of lockdown loneliness lingers even when restrictions are lifted. People have, when asked, reported that they are not ‘bouncing back’ like they used to, that negative moods last longer, that our resilience has been hampered despite the easing of restrictions. https://mental.jmir.org/2021/8/e29419?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=JMIR_TrendMD_0&__hstc=102212634.b6745b88e1d468273b08dfd17534f610.1635520374593.1635520374593.1635520374593.1&__hssc=102212634.1.1635520374594&__hsfp=2238041096

Have you felt lonely through this pandemic? Even now, after restrictions have eased? Have you experienced that gap between the connections we need and the connections you’ve had? Have you felt that bleak sadness of isolation and disconnection? Has it been bad for you?

Have you noticed that admitting to being lonely is like admitting a failure of some sort, like you are a loser, like you can’t handle it? Maybe that is less true in the current situation. Maybe that is a sign of just how many people are feeling isolated and lonely that the stigma of it has lost its sting.

As you’ve surely heard me say before, we are social creatures, we need each other to be fully ourselves. Isolation is a deeply painful experience. Anthropologically speaking, being isolated would have been a ‘chronic stress state.’ Loneliness is probably and experiential link back to that time when our species always lived and traveled in packs. Being alone would have led to a heightened ‘threat’ response, we would have been on high alert all the time; needing to rely on only our lone capacity to deal with predators or problems. Perhaps the experience of loneliness is a hold over from that time in our evolution when it as a survival issue.

It is important for our sense of wellbeing to have connections with other people, to have ties with groups. The past several sermons I’ve delivered have touched on this in one form or another. I imagine you’ve noticed. When we’ve been through this long, hard, isolating pandemic time, it might be hard to recall how to make connections again, to remember the ways we used to reliably reach out when we needed to find friends. We might be out of practice. Let us be reminded.

You know, you just know, that I am going to suggest the solution for loneliness is about getting more connected, reaching out and being vulnerable and taking risks to meet people and all that. And, I will suggest that, but I also know that that part is obvious and if that’s all we needed we all would have done that part already.

If we were making a list of ‘loneliness solutions,’ joining a group or organizations would be on anyone’s list. Get out and join a bowling league or a church or a hiking club. Yes. Or even better, volunteer somewhere; serve meals, or tutor underprivileged kids, or build ramps to create access for people. All of that. Yes.

And with the pandemic, those suggestions are harder to pursue. Many organizations are not able to offer opportunities like this to connect and serve. We’re getting closer, but it still is not quite safe. And, perhaps this is an invitation to get creative with how we connect and help others.

And seeing as we are here, I’ll make this pitch to everyone – not just those here who are feeling lonely. Reach out to someone because you might be lonely or because they might be lonely or simply because it is a kind thing to do. Make it a practice for the month of November – make a connection with someone every day. Send a card, make a phone call, deliver a plate of cookies. Make up a reason to reach out to someone. Try to do it every day for a week or several weeks. I’ll even offer this: if you send me a card, I’ll send one back. We can be creative with our connections.

And, remember, loneliness is not simply a problem of isolation. It is not just about needing to have more proximity with people. While many of us would benefit by that, it is not the whole point. Many of us have discovered that we don’t need constant company to ease our loneliness. A few brief, quality experiences can be profoundly sufficient.

Dr. Jeremy Nobel, a physician and public health researcher says; “Loneliness is a subjective experience—part of what makes it so hard to identify. If you’re on Mars and you have the most powerful telescope, that can look through walls, you can find all the isolated people on planet Earth. But you couldn’t find the lonely people.” Being alone is not the same as being lonely. An anonymous wit put it like this: “Being alone is good but being lonely is the worst”

All of that brings me to the big suggestion I would put on my list for dealing with loneliness. Make of it a practice in being alone. I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive. I tremble a bit at the way it sounds. “Dr. I have been feeling lonely, what should I do?” “Well, have you trying being alone?” (sigh) But hear me out.

Some of what is going on in our lives is within our control to change. Some of it is not. If you find you are limited and cannot reach out the way you used to before the pandemic, you may as well spend the time leaning into your loneliness. There may be something else going on with it which you can uncover by spending time with it.  

For this, I suggest your goal is still to connect, but with yourself instead of with other people. Perhaps you will find yourself grappling with some bitterness or resentment or even guilt that you’ve been carrying. It can be uncomfortable spending time alone if you have unresolved stuff to deal with. Maybe this will be a path of self-forgiveness or to make overdue amends in some way.

It is often the case that time alone is time spent looking at things about yourself one would normally be able to avoid through distraction and an outward focus. But you’re stuck with yourself alone and end up gnawing on or being gnawed by old hurts and mistakes. Take care of yourself. Stay hydrated, get some sunshine, find a variety of activities, but do not neglect whatever it is that has been caught up for you with your loneliness. It is not necessarily the case, but it is true often enough. Chronic loneliness is often entangled with something else, a bitterness, a regret, a broken relationship or commitment. Not always, as I said, but often enough to warrant investigating.

Being alone can be a practice, a deepening time of self-awareness and self-discovery; a time of re-connecting with yourself. And, through that deeper self-connection, we are better situated for reaching out to connect with others. The key is not about how few or how many social interactions a person has. It is about the quality and meaningfulness of those interactions. Our loneliness is not about being alone. It is about being seen and known by others.

In response to that hundred old poem saying that when we weep, we weep alone; I offer an even old sentiment, dating back roughly two thousand years. Paul’s counsel to the church in Rome: Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. (Rom 12:15) Part of our work as a faith community is to share with one other in the celebrations and the burdens.

Yes, there is a part of your loneliness that you and only you can address, for loneliness is a singular experience in your heart. But there is also a community around you, surrounding and upholding us all. We are here to build a more just world, to explore religious ideas together, to celebrate the earth, to challenge hate and spread love. And … and we are here to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. That too is our work. 

May we be a blessing to others. May others be a blessing to us. May the blessings we have to offer spill out into the alleys and byways of life, and may we return laughing and rejoicing together.

In a world without end

May it be so.