Loneliness

Carla: As you know, I am one of the 21 presenters at Christianity 21 (Oct 9-11), an unprecedented event that promises to be a cultural shake-up. There are some astonishing presenters involved and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say. PLUS: Caryn and I are hosting a Mommy Revolution hang out time so that all of you can meet each other, have some wine, and do some serious fomenting.

After much debate, I have decided to use my time to talk about loneliness. I have come to believe it is perhaps the greatest bane of human existence. But I have also come to believe that it is one of many human ailments for which the church is uniquely positioned to be the ultimate cure.

And yet I don’t think we’ve found the right approach to loneliness. For all our small groups and book clubs and community meals, too many people leave churches feeling just as isolated and disconnected as they were when they arrived.

Loneliness seems to hit nearly everyone–men, women, parents, non-parents, single people, married people, people with lots of friends and people with no friends at all. It cuts across every demographic category–age, race, social status, income, gender, educational achievement, etc. And it sucks. It is the worst pain I know and the pain least likely to be eased by words or even the company of other people. It’s deep and awful and self-perpetuating. But I think there is something we can do about it.

I’m not going to tell you what that is of course–I have to save something for the conference, which is why you should come. But I do need your help as I put this presentation together. I would love to hear from you about what loneliness feels like to you–just a few words or phrases or even images. I want to know what has kept you stuck in that place of loneliness or how you’ve found your way through it. What has helped and what has just made it worse.

Caryn: I’m glad we’re back on the loneliness kick. Because last week I had a tiny epiphany. As you all probably do NOT know, I’m on the board of my kids’ school. (I am now the boss of the man who was my high school principal. God is good.)

Anyway, as a member, last week I was tasked to call 17 of the new families. One of the members had rightly worried that parents of new students might feel as lost and disconnected as new students often felt. She thought just as we encourage veteran students to embrace these new kids (not literally, because then we’d have to expel them probably), we ought to embrace the parents (again, you catch my drift).

To be honest, this sounded like a nightmare to me. Aside from going door-to-door, the idea of “cold calling” literally leaves me cold. It takes every last ounce of “why SURE I can be outgoing!’ energy I have to do this. So I prayed hard for the words and time and plain ability to pick up the phone. And then I did.

The first day I only got through three people because each conversation lasted a long-ish time. But they were great conversations. They moved quickly from a place of “do you have any questions” to talking about where they were from, to me telling funny stories about my days at this school and decoding some jargon, to sharing about our kids, to hearing what they worried about.

After those first three phone calls, I sat down on my front steps and thought about loneliness. Specifically, that same thing you said a bunch of paragraphs up. There are a lot of lonely people in this world. And I think my conversations with these strangers attested to that. They were lonely. I was lonely. And a simple conversation with a stranger can do wonders to alliviate that. (This is starting to sound like how all affairs start! Hence the danger of loneliness!)

So I guess, my little idea for how the church ought to respond to loneliness is basic: pick up the phone. Start a conversation. Start chatting at a bus stop (though not if I’m trying to tweet at that moment). Say hey to the guy next to you on the train. Head over to chat with your neighbor when she’s out picking tomatoes. Ask people how they’re doing. Ask if they have any questions.

My fear of the cold call and the  door to door and (frankly) everything I just listed above is that I think everyone has full lives and is so bursting with friends that I’m just an intrusion. That I’d be the pathetic one trying to make friends (which I am). But my little phone-call epiphany sort of proved me wrong. I called barely-connected-to-me strangers close to dinner time and asked how they were. An hour-and-a-half later, I had three more people in this world I can’t wait to chat with again.

Carla: I think you’ve hit on something so crucial to the way we approach loneliness. I get freaked out about making new friends because I worry I have nothing to say. But I’m starting to think that all it takes is a few ordinary questions to get a conversation–”What’s the dumbest thing that happened to you today?” “What book do you wish you had time to read?” “What song do you secretly love?”–and a friendship rolling.

So please share your stories with us. What has helped? What has hurt? What do you wish was different?

On a completely unrelated note, I have declared this academic year “The Year I Get My Crap Together” and so in the last 24 hours I have made 4 dentist appointments, 2 vet appointments, an orthodontist appointment, and set up a lunch meeting. I was also two days early for a “Meet the Teachers” thing at preschool and I think that should count for something. Feel free to stand in awe of me.

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