Tag Archives: loneliness

Triggered in church: On the road to secure attachment

Aching loneliness, feeling detached, a broken sense of belonging or being able to connect — all these feelings are flourishing in the church right now. The Times is talking about it and so are we. The experience is not new or foreign to any of us. But we need to be reminded. We can forget that we all have a sense of aloneness we don’t like; it’s not just them and it’s not just me.

Let’s be careful

Image result for baby inside the adult
“love” by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov , at Burning Man 2015

We should be careful with each other!

Maybe you should stop what you are thinking most of the time and picture an adorable baby in front of you instead of a threatening or threatened loved one.  Stuff is happening inside!

Maybe you should let the first thing someone says go right by — that thing that hurt you or disturbed you. Let it go by and let the person have another chance.  They might not be clear on why they say what they say: why make it worse by holding them to their first try?

Under it all they might feel detached and trying not to feel that, or they want to be attached and they are really trying to feel that. We are complex. And the church is an ideal, God-given setting to sort things out. But quite often it is the place where things get messed up. [Bonnie Poon Zahl on Christians and attachment theory].

Things can get hurtful

Image result for gossip chain rockwell

This is hypothetical, but it will probably sound familiar. Let’s say you are a worship leader and you overhear someone telling one of your friends that she feels you have an annoying singing voice. You feel so hurt you go find your husband and make him take you home immediately. You feel so defensive you tell your husband the whole story and that you want to quit singing. You start listing why the person who talked about you is terrible, even worse than you.

When your husband tries to talk you out of it, you are furious that he is not on your side. He tries to get the other person, who he knows, off the hook. That makes you feel like he is leaving you alone in your distress. You even say, “Just like my father never took my side and then he deserted me.” You refuse to talk about it anymore and just look mad and sulk the rest of the day.

The next day you go and talk to your women’s group about it. They are upset and they tell you to call the pastor. So far you have not talked to the person you overheard or your friend to whom they were talking. But at least fifteen people are having your attachment issues. Their own loneliness, detachment, broken senses of belonging and connection are triggered. Vicariously, they are all mad at your father for abandoning you. You can’t stand to feel that aloneness from way back, so you pile the feeling on everyone else and blame them, from your father to the person who talked about you.  Now your listeners are invited to do the same.

Some dangerous-feeling relationships are also places to heal

A woman recently told me about feeling things like this in church and asked me why she went to meetings! Who knows what could happen? It has been hard for her and she expects people to keep hurting her!  She always sits in the back, when she goes to the meeting, so she can slip out easily, without risking the connection she wants for fear of the hurt she dreads.

I felt for her. Her past is full of the worst kind of hurts. So I suggested her strategy might be OK for the time being, as God eased her way into love. The church is great for easing into love, if we let people move into it at their own pace, and help them keep moving. I also suggested that, in the long run, God is going to keep after us until we are securely attached to Love, until our security breeds security and alleviates conflict rather than creating or perpetuating it.

Someone you know, or maybe you, are emotionally unable to tolerate being part of the church where their attachment issues were triggered and repair was not made. I know you can’t just “let the feelings go by.” But whatever it was that triggered your exit might not be as bad as you think it is. After all, the woman who who was hurt in my example had not even talked to the woman who hurt her or the friend who was listening to the criticism she overheard. God is with you if you want to try to get back into the community and do the repair work that not only wins a friend back, but provides an opportunity for your wounds to be healed. God touches our aloneness and is present in it to sustain and even help us be born again.

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We are God’s antidote to loneliness

Humans have always been lonely. But people are beginning to think the human condition these days is facing forces that make loneliness life-threatening!

Jesus has a promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” As the Lord’s hands and feet in the present, we are part of the fulfillment of that promise. We are the antidote to loneliness. We are the hug of Jesus. A lot of people are acting self-reliant when they don’t want to be. Way too many people have just given up on real connection. But we are created to alleviate that.

Why are we experiencing loneliness more than ever before? There are several interconnected reasons, according to Ronald Rolheiser and others.

Increased Leisure

Up until the very latest generations of humanity, most people didn’t have the time or energy to spare for their psychological and spiritual needs. They were surviving and usually just plain tired. Today, mainly because our recent ancestors rose from rags to riches, many of us were born into affluence and privilege in the United States. Compared to much of the world, we are all rather privileged in the Empire. The modern condition has set us loose to pursue the depths of ourselves or to pursue any distraction that will divert us from facing the depth of ourselves or provide a false replacement. The recent four-year election campaign and subsequent obsession with the results may be indicative. We have a lot of time to waste on our hands.

The “psychic temperature” has been turned up and is pushing on us. Most of us don’t experience that as an opportunity to grow. We just experience a force pushing us into things, like getting excited over the Superbowl, or freaking out about GMOs, or meticulously grooming our dog, or carefully calculating our food practices. We don’t always know why we are doing things, we are just restless and do more things. It’s like we are searching for a place, but we never reach home. It feels lonely.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are making a home together in Christ. Our faith is not just another leisure activity, just another distraction (although Lord knows it is used that way). It is the goal our restless hearts are seeking. Like Augustine said way back when, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Resting in God is a lot more than a good experience in church. But we are part of finding home. We are people someone can touch and know who are working beyond our mere restlessness together. Some of us never settle down very well, but all of us are held in the process by a love beyond any of us.

Habitat fragmentation

Fragmentation in society

People formerly lived in extended families. There was little that was impersonal in their lives, little privacy. Not so long ago (and still, in some places) people did not have much physical or social mobility. The United States has rushed into something totally different and preaches the change like it is “freedom” and “progress.” Now we live in a society characterized by the nuclear family (at best), impersonality, and much mobility (which shows like International House Hunters normalize). We have greater freedom to choose how we relate, but we are lonelier — catastrophically lonely and often depressed and anxious as a result. We take meds to stay self-sufficient when we might better heal if we could connect to God and others.

The changes in society undercut the interdependence on which relationships are built. We became  habituated to seek privacy and autonomy, to make all our primary relationships chosen ones. When we marry (if we marry or make any love covenants), we break away and make our own nuclear family: a private life with a private house, car and office; plus we want a private room in the house, private cell phone, flatscreen, and so on. We want our kids in private schools, or at least ones we choose. Once we have cut off all our interdependence, we wonder why we are lonely. Even when we live in huge cities, there is no reason to meaningfully connect and we walk the streets wondering how to meet someone, feeling it invades someone’s privacy to talk to them and even taboo to make eye contact.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are audaciously an extended family, a village. Some of us moved in a long time ago and stick with it because we know mobility has some peril for our souls. For many of us, this intimacy and continuity require some re-culturing. We are patient as we all grow, since we know we are all in recovery from the enforced loneliness to which society condemns us.

Future shock

As the future breaks into the present, we experience people, places, objects and organizations and knowledge passing through our lives more and more rapidly. Formerly we might relate to the same people in the same place, in the same institutions (like school or church), according to the same body of knowledge our whole lives. Now, as technology and knowledge explode around us we don’t relate to things or people for very long.

People, places, things are here today and gone tomorrow. Our government leaders disorient us by talking about “alternative facts” — even truth is being manufactured and changes with whoever is in power, no relating necessary, no testing required! Every few years it is like our location has changed and we have moved into a new culture and started over. We may not have changed our address but the culture changed so much that our surroundings are just as disorienting as if we had moved. Our congregations on South Broad and Frankford Ave. are experiencing such gentrification and development that they don’t feel at home in their own neighborhoods!  Science is advancing so rapidly and corporations are acquiring so voraciously that we are not sure where to connect. And we feel very lonely.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We at least provide the opportunity for people to make face to face relationships in the middle of the swirling catastrophe of the future. I hate to call it catastrophe, but it is hard not to see climate change and info synchronicity as forces so large we really need someone to hold onto. The scientists are now tracking loneliness as a disease more deadly than obesity, more fundamental than many other maladies. We are a place where hearts are healed and people learn to find confidence in their future.

Media influence

Advertising presents many of our ideals of love, intimacy, freedom, community, laughter, presence as elements of the good life which people have already been attained. Those other people on the screen have what I need! Everyone else apparently has what we can’t seem to attain! We know Jennifer Aniston’s real life has not turned out as close-knit as her character’s on Friends. Nevertheless, we spend hours alone watching people who have attained redemption. We are trained to hope that the screenwriters will tidy up all the loose ends on Downton Abbey — and they do.

Watch just one thing in commercials and TV shows: how often people are touched freely and self-confidently. This daily feature, alone, could make us feel more alone. The lack of being touched is so common among us that it is causing a generation of psychological damage, especially among men. As a society, we are very alone.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are a place where real people do real things. We are stubbornly just us, not an idealization or a competition. We don’t choose one another as much as we are chosen to be together by being chosen by Jesus. It is a lot of actual freedom for some of us to bear, but it is a sweet suffering.

Humans have always been lonely. We learn both connection and aloneness as babies. But due to the factors listed, and more, our loneliness seems to be intensifying, even slowly building up pressure as if it might explode into some kind of crisis. What do you think, are the first spasms upon us? What are we becoming? I think Jesus has made his church the antidote to the present malady and to what might be coming. It is not like someone will walk into a meeting and automatically feel connected (although that regularly happens). But we have the solutions to the problem, when it comes to loneliness. We have a lot of damage to repair, but Jesus is still the Healer.

The Common Loneliness — Francis Day 2010

On Francis of Assisi Day, 2010

It could have been that Francis
Crawled out into the bushes of La Verna to die
Like an old alley cat —
Scrawny from fasting
And disappointed that his dream turned so human.

Or it could have been that Francis
Longed so much for home, he couldn’t resist.
Like the prodigal son,
He came to his senses
And gave in to seeking the meal his holy memory could taste.

Either way, he ended up in the wilderness
And the mountain was a lonely silence,
Like nothing but a frightened man
With nothing to offer but emptiness.
And yet he had to keep going, step by step, up the hill.

Either way, he ended up alone,
Experiencing the pain both of separation and union —
Like a young man leaving home
And like a father letting go,
And he aware of it all, yet powerless before it.

It could have been that Francis
Did very few of the things people recalled.
But what believer is not so lonely
With disillusion and desire
That they would dare to disabuse us of their own story?

Let’s Talk Back to the Loneliness

Take a look at the famous picture of Buchenwald concentration camp. Many of us have seen the picture. But you may not have known that the famous author Elie Wiesel is actually in the picture. He is circled in red.

 In his 1981 novel, Testament, Wiesel creates a character who represents Jewish intellectuals killed by Stalin in 1952. Stalin’s mass murder outpaces Hitler’s by millions. In the story, the man is encouraged by his prison guard to write an autobiography, since it might contain further confession. Although it seems like a hopeless task that none of his loved ones will ever see, the man writes it in the spirit of the ancient story about one of the Just Men who came to Sodom. “Night and day [the Just Man] walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening; he no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst.

One June a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words: ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it is hopeless?’ ‘Yes, I see,’ answered the Just Man. ‘Then why do you go on?’  ‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’

This story has many applications for the many different people who read this blog. The application that touches me today has to do with how lonely some of us are. Apply it to that. Keep acting on your gnawing aches, your feelings about being unloved or trapped, your fears of always being isolated, your self-condemnation and devaluing. The loneliness must not be allowed to change you.

I wish I had a universal solution to the universal problem. I just have one fact and two suggestions.

God is with you. You are not alone if you are turning to God who is turning to you in Jesus, God-with-us. I know God is not the same as us, so he won’t offer skin and phone calls and someone who can respond to the look on our faces. I’m not going to say sticking with him will fulfill all our desires. But we can experience deep togetherness with God, and experiencing it often frees us to connect to others. “Be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’” (Heb. 13:5-6)

Let God turn loneliness into solitude. This was Henri Nouwen’s advice. All of us are alone, since we are unique. No one feels, thinks or acts exactly like I do. So we have a lifelong issue about being alone to deal with. Our aloneness can turn to loneliness or solitude. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling desperately to others and resent their absence. Solitude helps us respect the uniqueness of others and create community. Solitude, where we meet with God and discover ourselves, is a cleared-out space inside ourselves, and a quiet place we find outside our busy schedules, to pray, to listen for discernment and to experience grace. When we are lonely, we must turn to God and let loneliness become solitude.

Allow yourself to keep trying. We have to talk back to the loneliness or it gets the last word, it ultimately changes us. Let’s hold on to the connections we actually have, whether they are what we truly want or need, yet. And let’s not denigrate the therapists, church leaders, pastors and other professionals who care about us, even if they don’t seem like the intimates we desire. Let’s keep working at being a member of the community. The church is a community that is often so diverse, so unique, so fluid, that it takes time to form and effort to keep. Even when it does not meet all our emotional needs it is still a place where we belong and where we are likely to find some love. Keep building it, not just expecting from it. The world can be a lonely place, we must keep building a community that is lovely, or the world might change us.

I hope I have not been overly dramatic by using a concentration camp picture to lead into this topic. But I feel the sense of imprisonment a few of my friends feel – they are being hemmed in by their loneliness and whatever they try does not seem to help them escape. Don’t give up! God is with you. You belong among God’s people. May you experience more solitude in your aloneness than loneliness.