Margaret K. has just lost her husband of 30 years; the victim of a heart attack. The initial shock, followed by a feverish schedule of arrangements and decisions, has now subsided. As she talks to me about the past, Margaret has entered a new period of life — the period of gnawing loneliness.
Loneliness is an emotion from which none of us are exempt. If you have traveled to an area some distance from home, you know the feeling. Students going off to college for the first time feel it as do young men and women going into military service; graduates taking up new jobs in a strange city or sometimes even people embarking on vacation trips feel lonely. While the unfamiliarity of the territory contributes to this feeling, the major problem seems to stem from the fact that there is simply no one to whom we can really talk.
A few years back an American sociologist, David Riesman, wrote a book titled The Lonely Crowd, in which he reminded us of this fact of life. Riesman believes we can be just as lonely in a setting surrounded by thousands of people as we can if we were stranded on a deserted island. It is not physical isolation that determines our mood, but emotional and spiritual isolation.
Loneliness is one of the major problems of modern living, and it touches us all from time to time. It may be a physical separation from others, or the loneliness of not having anyone to talk with, or the loneliness which sickness and pain may bring, or the loneliness of grief such as Margaret’s following the loss of a loved one. Whatever the cause, the feeling is the same; a deep emptiness gnawing in the very pit of our being. Ministering to the lonely is a concern for pastors.
The poet Longfellow captured a picture of what we often experience in daily life when he compared living to two ships passing each other at sea during the night. There is a brief light or sound to acknowledge each other’s presence, then quickly the darkness returns. That brief passing describes so much of our human experience. Think about the waitress who served our table at lunch, the appliance repairman who came to the house recently, or the teller at the bank. Each served a purpose, however brief, but we know so little about them as human beings, or they about us.
An awareness of loneliness has caught the attention of many writers. Thomas Wolfe described it, “loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man.” In their plays, Steinbeck describes the loneliness that comes from being away from home, Arthur Miller talks about loneliness of working in a society where we really don’t know each other, and Tennessee Williams portrays the loneliness that exists in a family when members do not communicate.
If our literary giants and playwrights talk about loneliness, so does our music. Simon and Garfunkel describe it as the “Sound of Silence” and compare it to a cancer which grows like a wall and prevents us from reaching others, causing our words to fall like raindrops that echo only in the “wells of silence.” And one of the great theologians of our day, Paul Tillich, called this feeling, “estrangement” and insisted that the state of our lives is estrangement, by which he meant separation from God, from others, and even from ourselves.
Perhaps even more significant than our loneliness stemming from limited social contacts is that which is a result of our failure to enjoy the deep personal relationships we dream of having, but seldom do. A couple may be married for many years yet feel a void in the relationship. Often I have heard one or both partners tell me in a counseling session, “We just can’t seem to communicate.”
We also experience loneliness when we question our own identity. Our search for who we are and what’s it all about pushes us to the point where we begin to question the value of life itself. The depersonalization of our automated society is a factor. Specialization in our jobs may leave us with little knowledge of or identification with the finished product of our company and the corner grocery store where we knew the owner by first name has been replaced with packaged foods, self-service and a computerized cash register.
Ministering to the needs of those who are lonely has become a major concern in personal pastoral ministry. How can clergy assist their church members in dealing with this problem? The following strategy is suggested:
1. Help them to understand that they must take for granted the fact that periods of loneliness will occur. One woman commented to me, “I feel so different from others when I start to feel lonely.” She simply didn’t realize that others feel the same way. Help these people to realize they are not alone in the boat, but that, with God’s help, they overcome those periods.
2. Help them to understand they can’t blame loneliness on circumstance alone. Of course losing a loved one, as Margaret did, can cause loneliness, but it cannot be used as an excuse to keep people from dealing with loneliness. A good example of a healthy attitude was shown to me by a woman crippled by infantile paralysis and forced to be alone for long periods of time. When a friend offered the sympathetic observation, “affliction does so color one’s life,” the woman responded, “Yes, and I propose to choose the color.”
3. Discourage feelings of self-pity. An illustration from the history of our language is appropriate. A sulky is a horse-drawn vehicle consisting of a single seat on two wheels. The driver sits alone as an essentially solitary person. By a stroke of common sense development in our language sulky interprets the real meaning of sulkiness. If pastors can encourage their parishioners to cultivate a prayer life that brings them in touch with a loving God, those experiencing loneliness can receive the strength to move beyond the solitary seat of self-pity.
4. Encourage them to get involved in a “cheering section,” that is, start rooting for something or somebody. Getting involved in their children’s athletic teams, joining a club or company bowling team, or working in local political organizations are bit a few among the many outlets available. People involved in cheering sections soon discover others with common interests. It is one of God’s way of bringing people together, and this being together with others is one of the best antidotes for loneliness.
5. Encourage them to seek ways to serve the less fortunate. There are opportunities all around for doing something for others. A young people’s group in a church I once served found their organization to be very dull and without much purpose until they discovered how much joy they could bring to a group of aged persons in a nearby rest home by visiting them regularly. The dull mood of the group suddenly disappeared, having been replaced by a sense of purpose. Psychologist, Allan Fromme, expressed it, “If you want to enjoy the water, you first learn how to swim; if you want to enjoy the snow, you must first learn how to ski; if you want to enjoy people, you must first learn how to do things for them.”
6. Establish a group in your parish which meets at a specific time and is led by a person with counseling skills to help the victims of loneliness and to implement the suggestions made in the first five points.
The Christian pastor realizes that being a Christian does not make people more or less prone to the pervading feelings of loneliness than are those who do not share a belief in God’s unique revelation in Christ. But pastors can help these people develop a strategy for dealing with such periods. Circumstances can indeed color people’s lives, but with God’s help, they can ultimately choose the color. TP
DR. DICKSON has been a parish pastor and college professor for 48 years. He has also worked on counseling staffs of local clinics and mental health centers.