Monday, December 05, 2005

Sermon: "Loneliness" (Delivered 12/4/05)

First Reading by Rev. Judith Walker-Riggs

“For every person stuck at home on Christmas Day, with nothing but a box of Kleenex and a good book, an orange and a mug of Cocoa, weeping in their isolation, there is another person stuck in a mélange of mismatched family members, bombarded by Uncle Thorvald’s political opinions, and Aunt Mildred’s religious rantings, and sister-in-law Sylvia’s greasy corn dressing, not to mention a group of high-pitched, excited children, carelessly breaking whatever they can before bedtime, who would give anything in the world to be alone, with a good book, an orange, and a mug of Cocoa.

“I learned this the hard way, when I accepted an invitation from a man to have Christmas with his family. And I’ve also learned this: that a lot of loneliness is the story you tell yourself about it. Not all, but a lot. Changing the story we tell ourselves is often the key to moving from losing ourselves in loneliness, to being able to use it, even to enjoy it.”

Second Reading by Emily Dickinson

The Loneliness One dare not sound --
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size --

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see --
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny --

The Horror not to be surveyed --
But skirted in the Dark --
With Consciousness suspended --
And Being under Lock --

I fear me this -- is Loneliness --
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate -- or seal –

Third Reading “Adam’s Complaint” by Denise Levertov

Some people,
no matter what you give them,
still want the moon.

The bread, the salt,
white meat and dark,
still hungry.

The marriage bed
and the cradle,
still empty arms.

You give them land,
their own earth under their feet,
still they take to the roads.

And water: dig them the deepest well,
still it's not deep enough
to drink the moon from.


As we move into the Holiday season, as the Calendar turns from eleven to twelve, as we draw closer to Christmas and Hanukkah and New Years, I want to lift up that this is a time of the year when loneliness becomes a powerful and painful thing that many people feel. For many people, the Holidays are a big old mind-trip mash-up of idealizations, projections, anxieties, insecurities, expectations: This is what my family should be like. This is what I should feel like. This is what I should give or get or have.

Speaking as a minister, you’d think that since helping people to get over the mind-trips they’re stuck in is something we’re charged with, that we ministers would have all those idealizations, projections, anxieties, and insecurities figured out. But during the Holidays, ministers may be particularly prone to these things as well. After all, we’re expected to express a lot of the magic of the season – as least as far as religious services go – and we’re expected to create it whether or not we really feel it.

In a book by UU ministers Jane Rzepka and Ken Sawyer, they tell the story of a minister about to celebrate Christmas eve but struggling to get into the mood. How could he speak to a packed sanctuary, “standing room only, pew after pew stuffed full of families reunited for the holidays, gathered in church if only for this one time all year to participate in the pageantry, the nostalgia, the beauty and the joy of the season… [all attention focused] on the miracle of birth itself, with the nativity of tale as an emblem of all such stories” when – to the month – it is the first anniversary of when he and his partner “gave up on the effort to repeat the same story… [their] fifth pregnancy end[ing] unsuccessfully, each [only having] begun with much cost and effort.”?

What I’m saying is that the Holidays can have the effect of magnifying any discrepancy there is between what we wish things were like and what they are actually like, what we’re told we should feel like and how we actually feel, what we should enjoy and what is not enjoyable, who we should be and who we are. A big old mind trip, I say. For some people, this discrepancy leads to anger, to snappiness. Others, melancholy. And for many people loneliness can be a big part of this.

There are a couple of caveats I might offer:

First, while I am aware that this morning I am no doubt speaking to some people who experience loneliness, I’m also preaching probably to some who do not, who feel connected and accompanied, and who do actually get jazzed for the whole Christmas season in a big time way. But I do guarantee that everybody here knows somebody who struggles with and suffers from loneliness. And I believe it is a good thing for those people here who do not struggle with it personally, to be reminded that loneliness is something that is a deep struggle for many people.

The second caveat I might offer is to say that while I cannot deny the reality of the deep pangs of loneliness experienced by many folks, there is a certain part of me that is quite hesitant to speak on the subject. The hesitancy is not in having nothing to say – to the contrary, “loneliness” is something that I struggle with and feel like I have something to say on the topic – but I am hesitant because even though it is a subject that has so much relevance, part of me wants to say, “Oh, that is not an important topic.”

There is a voice in me that says, “Hey, look at the world. War, poverty, hunger, disease, genocide, torture… that’s desperation, that’s need, that’s real pain and real anguish. And you’re going to worry about how the Holiday Season makes you feel?” I will admit that there is this part of me that rails when someone says they find the Holidays stressful, or painful. I want to say, “No, stressful is those folks living in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake. Or the Tsunami. Or Hurricane Katrina. Tough is being a Sudanese refugee, or a Guantanamo detainee.”

This type of reasoning reminds me, surprisingly, of a comedian from about a decade ago named Denis Leary. (Yes, this is the unlikeliest and most obscure sermon illustration of all time.) Denis Leary had a skit in which he played a brash therapist whose responses were what might be politely termed an “empathetic break.” People would come to him with their problems and he would say things like “Tough luck,” and “Who cares?”, and, “Nobody wants to listen to your whining.” The punch-line was that in the comedy routine people’s problems were resolved in this manner. If only real life were like this, if only we could say cavalierly, “That’s of little consequence.” I want to suggest to you this morning, as we enter into this discussion of loneliness and longing, that the solution is not found in some minimizing, some dismissing of this sense. The solution is not to be found in distancing, or rationalizing, or intellectually writing-off. Rather, we’re going to face what we’re faced with.

So, I want to tell you a bit of what I know, or at least what I think I know, about loneliness. The first thing to know about loneliness is that it is not the same thing as being alone, not the same thing as solitude. In the great religions, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, the proverbial enlightened sage sitting cross-legged on the mountain top: they all spend time in solitude, and yet, we would not call them lonely.

Loneliness is not a physical isolation – I suppose it is possible for it to be. But it is not likely for us to become castaways at sea, or to become lost in the rugged wilderness. These things don’t usually happen to us; for us, our floating adrift on turbulent seas and our wilderness wanderings are more likely to be metaphors of the soul than physical locations. Loneliness, paradoxically, is a thing that is sensed in the presence of others. Loneliness is often felt most acutely in the crowd. Our loneliness is magnified in the presence of others. What is this all about?

What loneliness is about, I might wager to suggest, is not so much a physical isolation, but a kind of non-connection with the many, many people who are actually very much all around you. This is I think what Emily Dickinson is saying, “The Loneliness, whose worst alarm / is lest itself should see / and perish from before itself / for just a scrutiny.” Emily Dickinson is not the most transparent poet, but what she is saying is actually something so profoundly upsetting that she uses lines of poetry in order to obscure and obfuscate the unsettling truth of it. And I’m going try to say plainly what I take that unsettling truth to be. As I read her, what she is saying is that if you probe that loneliness, and ask what it really is about, you will discover that the loneliness may in fact be rooted in realities that are something different than what we tell ourselves about loneliness.

The surface reasons we tell ourselves: I’m not likeable by others; I’m undesirable to others. I haven’t found the right other person. I’m so unique that it is impossible for others to understand me. I’ll just get rejected by others. This is not a place where I fit in with others because I’m different. But in the final stanza, Emily Dickinson offers a different resolution. She basically says, that if you plumb that loneliness, you’re really reading a map, not of other people, but of your own soul, and that such an expedition – a kind of spelunking of the soul – can either avoid all those closed off spaces, or unseal them, open them, illuminate them. And it is up to you to unseal them.

That is the great paradox of being around so many, but being so alone. Denise Levertov writes poetically of that person who is never fulfilled, never sated, never comfortable, always longing. Wanting the moon. She describes a type of longing – still hungry, still empty, still not enough – that, ironically, keeps one from moving beyond their own loneliness. Some people, no matter what you give them, still want the moon. Some people, no matter who they are with, are still lonely.

Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, whose writings are the required reading of every seminarian, interprets Biblical stories as parables of loneliness. Fascinating is his telling of the story of the prodigal son, where the father welcomes back his ne'er-do-well progeny not out of a principled righteousness, or a particularly developed sense of forgiveness, or even love. In Nouwen's telling, it is actually a profound loneliness that was the motive force leading to the re-acceptance of the prodigal son. He welcomes him back because without him he was lonely.

Similarly, and more fitting a sermon delivered at the beginning of advent, the story of Mary and Elizabeth, is an instructive story on the subject of loneliness. And to read it this way, it does not matter if you read it literally, metaphorically, historically, or skeptically. According to the gospels, Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, becomes pregnant at an advanced age, and not without cost to their family. Basically, the Angel Gabriel arrives and says, “Elizabeth, the good news is your wish to have a child will be granted, but the bad news is that we will have to turn your husband, a priest (a speaking profession) into a mute.” Several months later, and several miles away, Mary conceives a child – the story tells us – under even more unusual circumstances. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to imagine that this would have been a lonely experience – whatever we think the experience really was. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to imagine that both women experience isolation, worry, a feeling like there is no one else in the world who could possibly understand. And then, Elizabeth and Mary meet. And it is in this joining of two lonely souls, they are able to say words to one another that no one else, not even Joseph and Zechariah, are able to say: I understand what you're going through, you are not alone.

A big part of loneliness, not all, but a big part is the story we tell about ourselves... and about others. Changing the story that we tell may make us a little bit more OK at those times when we feel alone. And changing the story may serve to unseal those caverns and corridors, let a little light, or another person, in.

Change the story: you are not the only one; there is somebody else who gets what you are going through. Really, they do. Change the story: welcome the prodigal one and ease your lonely heart. Change the story: Face a crowd full of faces that struggle with what you struggle with, who feel in the ways that you feel.