Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 4:9-12, Psalm 139:1-18
Unafraid: Fear and Loneliness*
The chapter on loneliness in Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid begins with this quote from Sue Borne, the producer of a documentary called The Age of Loneliness: “We’re all a bit scared of loneliness - of being alone. Of being left. Of not being loved. Or needed. Or cared about. “Lonely” hits a spot of fear in all of us even if we don’t acknowledge it.” Hamilton describes loneliness as “the feeling of sadness that comes from a sense of social isolation - from feeling alone as though we have no real companions with whom to share our life.” (115) Are you a lonely person? Sometimes? Often? Does thinking about being alone, lonely, make you anxious and afraid? Loneliness, and an accompanying fear that we will always be alone and feel alone is something many struggle with, and it isn’t always a fear that’s easy to assign to people. What I mean by that is that sometimes it is the people who seem like they’re never lonely who are actually struggling most with feelings of isolation. You can be surrounded by people and feel deeply lonely.
I remember, once, being at Camp Aldersgate as a senior high student. I was at Creative Arts Camp, a camp I had gone to for a few years in a row. Some of the girls who were campers with me I’m actually facebook friends with today, twenty-five years later. And yet, for some reason, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of loneliness during camp that week. I’d been having a great time, but then I got in my head a little bit, and I had half talked myself into thinking that no one really liked me, and suddenly, though I was surrounded by people I called friends, I felt very lonely. I felt very separate from everyone else, and I was really struggling with my sense of worth.
Being lonely, an abiding sense of loneliness isn’t the same thing as just being alone, as solitude. (115-116). People can be introverted or extroverted, can recharge better by being alone or being with others. Personally, I enjoy many things about living alone, traveling alone - most of the time. After I’ve spent a week with my dear friends, part of me just can’t wait to get to my house and just be alone for a little bit. I enjoy solitude. I appreciate quiet. When we talk about loneliness, we’re talking about something deeper.
The 17th century poet John Milton wrote, “Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.” (116) “It is not good for humans to be alone,” God said. Our fear of being alone begins when we are but infants. (117) A crying baby often most just wants reassurance that they haven’t been abandoned, and being able to trust that someone will come and care for them if they cry is a major part of the essential attachment that newborns need to adjust as healthy humans.
Indeed, sustained loneliness is a matter of health. Long periods of loneliness - not being alone, but lonely, can have “the same impact on your physical health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.” (12) And yet, we’re in a societal loneliness epidemic, because of the changing rhythm of our lives. These days, unlike generations ago, many people move an average of 11 times during their lives. Everytime we move, we lose meaningful relationships. And people are much more likely to change jobs multiple times, rather than working at one or two places throughout their working days. When we change jobs, we lose some support networks. People experience divorce at significant rates - friendships are lost and family connections severed. Our dependence on technology sometimes disconnects us from others, even from physical touch. (120-121)And of course, there are the things that always happen in the course of life. We retire. Loved ones die. Loneliness is a particular challenge for folks as they age. On losing a spouse, a widower asked, “Now what? Was I going to have to endure this empty feeling the rest of my life?” (120)
To complicate things, when we fear and dread being lonely, we start to jump to conclusions about our friendships and relationships, which in turn, actually make us more likely to experience loneliness. “People who fear loneliness tend to interpret social interactions in the most negative way possible. If someone doesn’t respond to my e-mail within an hour or a day, it can’t be because they were busy or missed the e-mail; it must mean they don’t like me. If someone walks by without talking to or looking at me, it can't be because they are preoccupied; it must mean they are mad at me. If someone is in a bad mood, it can't be because they have other problems; it must mean they don't want to be around me.” (122)
So, what do we do with our loneliness, and our fear of being alone? How do we respond, as people of faith, to our fear and loneliness? First, for us, we turn to the scriptures, and we find that loneliness is something folks in the Bible experience too, even if it isn’t spoken of in the way we’d talk about it today. Our first reading comes from the book of Ecclesiastes. You probably know the book’s most famous passage. Chapter 3 begins: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die,” and goes on from there. It’s classified typically as one of the books of poetry in the Bible, and certainly, some of the passages are written in a poetic form. But I think it is best described as the writings of a wealthy philosopher, ruminating on the meaning of life. Some have suggested that King Solomon is the author, although that’s likely not true. But the author is a person of privilege and status. They have a lot of material means at their disposal. And they go by a title that means something like “Teacher.”
Despite all the seeming advantages the author has, he spends much of the book thinking about the meaning of life - or more accurately, the seeming lack of meaning. In chapter 1, the author laments, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? … All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing … there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.” Oof. The author can’t seem to find meaning in anything he’s experiencing. He’s weary, dissatisfied, and feels like his life is so insignificant that eventually, no one will remember him. Despite having what many are sure makes for happiness - wealth and power - the author seems to be utterly alone.
Most of Ecclesiastes strikes a similar tone. It’s not a very long book, and if you’ve never taken the time to read it, I encourage you to do so. In the midst of what seems to be mostly a dreary reflection on the meaningless of everything, though, we find a few standout verses in chapter 4. There’s no lead in or lead out that makes them “fit,” no way we can see how the otherwise pessimistic author gets to this way of thinking. But we find these powerful words in our second reading from Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Even if the author seems mostly alone and separate from others, he has a vision of what it is like to have true companionship. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” These words are often read at weddings, but it speaks to more than romantic love. Together, with someone else by our side, as a friend, as a partner, as a co-laborer, what is impossible or difficult is transformed.
Our reading from the Psalms gives us yet another perspective. Psalm 139 is one of the most well-known Psalms, for its beauty and comfort and hope. It is attributed to King David, and begins, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” In this Psalm, it is clear that God is our perpetual companion. We are never alone. God never leaves us. God knows us inside and out, and what’s more, God likes what God sees, and wants to be with us always. As the psalmist says: knowing that God feels that way about us is nearly too wonderful, too incomprehensible. And yet, it is true.
But how do we get from reading about how much God loves us and is always there for us to believing it? I think I’ve told you before that I had some times in older elementary school when I was very much picked on by other kids. I was pretty miserable for a good chunk of sixth grade especially. And I remember, even then, knowing that Jesus was supposed to be our friend. We sing songs like that, even, right? “What a friend we have in Jesus!” And yet, I didn’t feel that at all. A friend was someone you could talk to, who was there for you, who you could hang out with and do things with. I love Jesus, and I believed he loved me, but I didn’t feel like he met all of these qualifications! Jesus couldn’t sit with me at lunch. How do we bridge the gap between knowing with our heads that we’re never alone because Jesus loves us, and knowing it with our hearts?
The only thing I can figure out is that the way we can fend off loneliness is by making sure that others aren’t lonely. Remember, Jesus says that the first are last and the last are first, that he comes not be served, but to serve, and we’re called to do likewise. So the best way we can ensure we aren’t lonely is by focusing on making sure that others aren’t lonely. Because if Jesus can’t sit at the lunch table literally with a sad sixth grader, then we have to make sure that actual sixth graders who love Jesus can be Jesus for their classmates. Maybe that sounds like a huge task - and it is! - but that’s exactly what we’re called to: We are the body of Christ, and so we get to embody Jesus for others, represent Jesus in the world.
We struggle with many things as the church, finding our place in an ever changing world, but supporting people who are lonely is one of the things we can get right. According to studies, people who are connected to a community of faith are 40% less likely to report being deeply lonely than others. People who are part of faith communities are happier, healthier, and they live longer. (125) And why? Because together, building each other up, we can remind each other that God is with us, that God loves us, and that we are never alone.
If you are lonely, I want to encourage you to think about how you can serve others. There are folks who are a part of our congregation and broader community who are lonely too - folks who are confined to home, or in the hospital, or in a nursing home, or in prison, or who are just feeling disconnected - who would be overjoyed to have a visit, or a phone call, or an email, or a note. If you talk to me, I will gladly connect you with some people who need encouragement. You might already be thinking of people in your life who would just love to hear from you. Make it a point - this week - to reach out to them. Ease your loneliness at the same time as you ease theirs. Boldly be Christ for them - the hands and feet of Jesus for them - as you find that you see Jesus in them too! Or come talk to me about how you’re feeling. I promise, I can relate, and I want to hear from you. Or I can help you connect with someone to talk to. And as much as you can, stay connected here. As I said, being a community is one of the things we can do well, if you’ll invest your heart and soul and time with us. You’ve got a whole bunch of people here trying to learn how to best be Jesus in the world, and we do it so much better with all of us than with just a few. And don’t give up. Sometimes it takes a few stumbling tries to fight of our fears of being alone. That’s ok. Just try again. We’ll support each other in the journey.
God loves you so very much that God could never leave you alone, even in the moments when you wish God would! Sometimes, that news is so good, it’s unbelievable. So our task is to help each other believe, by being the best Jesus we can be for each other. We have to show up for each other, comfort each other in our loneliness, be the visible Jesus, the hands and feet of Jesus for each other. The more we do that, the more we practice living our faith like that, the less room there will be for loneliness. The cords of love, friendship, and community are not quickly broken. Thanks be to God. Amen.
* All quotations are from Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. New York: Convergent Books, 2018.