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Sermon: LONELINESS & SOLITUDE Dec. 5, 1999 Dr. John Young

In this frenetic American holiday season, it is timely to consider loneliness and solitude. Emotionally, this holiday period is the most difficult time in the year for Americans. Visits to therapists, counselors, and clergy, attempted suicides, and other indicators of emotional disruption escalate. Most of us can remember a time in our lives between the middle of a November and the middle of a January when we felt at the bottom of our lives, caught in despair, struggling with confusion, or deeply depressed. In the midst of thanksgiving and gift giving, family gatherings and friendly parties, why is there so much emotional heartache and turmoil?

My short answer is LONELINESS. Both my personal experiences and my experiences as a friendly listener have led me to the conclusion that loneliness is not, primarily, the fact of being alone, but the inability to embrace the gifts of solitude. This holiday loneliness is compounded by our cultural and internal tendencies to react to the holiday friendliness by focusing upon the inadequacies in our social and, particularly, our intimate relationships. Lonely people feel cut off from others, desolate, and sadly bleak, even when they are living right next to other people. We tend to paint solitude with these same negative connotations.

Today, I want to explore the gifts of solitude in an attempt to give us tools with which to respond more positively to our confrontations with loneliness. The word "alone" comes from two Middle English words, al for all, and one. The root words may hold the emotional key. As we are able to feel and understand the ALL IN THE ONE, loneliness evaporates. So, today, I will explore how embracing the gifts of solitude may help us to overcome the despair and confusion of loneliness. It is not a question of closeness but of wholeness. Solitude’s gifts can heal existence’s wounds

A quarter of a century ago, sociologist Philip Slater wrote a popular book, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. "Americans know from an early age how they are supposed to look when happy and what they are supposed to do or buy to be happy. But for some reason their fantasies are unrealizable and leave them disappointed and embittered." [xiii] I hear from you about your hopes and dreams, and reflect on my own. We tend to picture the ideal as getting away, escaping to an isolated environment over which we have total control. We think that there we can be happy because our individual fulfillment will not be disturbed by a trying world. In Slater's terms, we are pursuing loneliness. Slater argues that our American culture deeply frustrates three basic human desires: the desires for: community, engagement, and dependence. Americans are taught to be rugged individuals competing with everyone else for scarce resources, instead of concentrating upon becoming cooperative members of effective communities. We are taught to avoid confrontation and to remain uncommitted so that we may take advantage of every opportunity, but in doing so, we frustrate the human need for engagement based upon long-term commitments and responsibilities. We learn to achieve and maintain independence at all costs, but this frustrates our emotional need, and the reality, of being dependent upon many people in many ways. In our quests for personal aggrandizement through competition, avoidance and independence, we have put ourselves in the corner of loneliness, bereft of many of the benefits of responsibility, engagement, and mutual dependence. Slater argues that we are replacing the structured narcissism of early 20th century culture with the technologically regulated narcissism of late 20th century culture. [149] "Individualism finds its roots in the attempt to deny the reality and importance of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to "free" us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe." [26] Slater argues that the "avoiding tendency lies at the very root of American character. This nation was settled and continuously repopulated by people who were often not personally successful in confronting the social conditions obtaining in their mother country, but fled these conditions in the hope of a better life. If we gained the energetic and daring we also gained the lion's share of the rootless, the unscrupulous, those who value money over relationships, and those who put self-aggrandizement ahead of love and loyalty. And most of all, we gained a critically undue proportion of persons who, when faced with a difficult situation, tended to chuck the whole thing and flee to a new environment. Escaping, evading and avoiding are responses which lie at the base of much that is peculiarly American--the suburb, the automobile, the self-service store, do-it-yourself, and so on." [14]

These responses contribute to the appalling discrepancy between our material resources and our treatment of those who cannot adequately care for themselves. We incarcerate those who cannot function independently in our society. These institutions are human garbage heaps--they result from and reinforce our tendency to avoid confronting social and interpersonal problems. Our ideas about institutionalizing the aged, psychotic, retarded, and infirm are based on a pattern of thought that we might call the Toilet Assumption--the notion that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, unwanted complexities and obstacles will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision. We assume that replacing old buildings with new expensive ones will alleviate poverty in the slums. The result of our social efforts has been to remove the underlying problems of our society farther and farther from daily experience and daily consciousness, and hence to decrease, in the mass of the population, the knowledge, skill, resources, and motivation necessary to deal with them....Our approach to social problems is to decrease their visibility." [15]

If we take this troubling cultural critique by Philip Slater seriously, we will need to embrace the gifts of solitude in such a way that the excesses of individualism found in competition, avoidance, and obsessive independence are tempered by balancing them with support for cooperation and community, commitment and responsibility, intimacy and willing dependence.

The best exposition I have discovered which shares the gifts of solitude is Anthony Storr's 1988 book entitled Solitude. I recommend it. Anthony Storr is an English doctor, a Jungian analyst, an Emeritus Oxford professor. He concludes the book this way:

"The capacity to be alone is a valuable resource which facilitates learning, thinking, innovation, coming to terms with change, and the maintenance of contact with the inner world of the imagination. Even for those whose capacity for making intimate relationships has been damaged, the development of creative imagination can exercise great healing. Many creative individuals' chief concern was in making sense and order out of life rather than with relationships with others. The concern with the impersonal tends to increase with age. Human beings' adaptation to the world is largely governed by the development of the imagination and hence of an inner world of the psyche which is necessarily at some variance with the external world. Perfect happiness, the oceanic feeling of complete harmony between inner and outer worlds, is only transiently possible. Human beings are constantly in search of happiness but, by our nature, are precluded from finally or permanently achieving it either in interpersonal relationships or in creative endeavor. Some of the most profound and healing psychological experiences which individuals encounter take place internally, and, are only distantly related, if at all, to interaction with other human beings. The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation." [202]

As American culture has been too fixated upon an individualism based upon competition, avoidance, and independence, so, modern psychological thinking, beginning with Freud, has been too fixated upon interpersonal relationships. Many people find their satisfactions in life as much from interests and work as from people and relationships. Some of those we most honor have had little interest or aptitude for intimacy or even sociability. Einstein's marital life was disturbing. Gandhi was a bad father. Kant, Wittgenstein, and Newton all lacked close involvement with any other human beings. Beethoven was isolated by his deafness. Thoreau was a loner. It may be that many of humanity's greatest achievements were bought at the cost of their creator's personal isolation, but these loners, these solitary persons, were able to use their solitude to make connections with reality and meaning which transcended them.

Each of us may also benefit from the gifts of solitude. Each human being is existentially alone. We are separated at birth, and we are separated again at death, and, each of us knows, deep in our being, that we are by ourselves in between. We make connections with other human beings, and, for most of us, most of the time, those connections are crucial and central in our lives. But our interpersonal relationships are not the whole of our lives. Each of us also have our interests and our work. We have our chosen homes, and our holy places. We have our happy habits and our satisfying ideas. Each of us needs to learn to be at home by ourselves. We need to learn to savor life on our own. In doing so, I believe the key is to discover the All in the One in Alone. Whether it is May Sarton's connections with nature, the creator's imaginative connections with meaning, story, or a work of art, the diligent work of everyone in the midst of satisfying effort, or the quiet passion of each individual's chosen interests, there is still connection, but many of these connections are not dependent upon other human beings. They are, and always can be, gifts of solitude. If we try to be alone in a competitive spirit, a spirit of escape or irresponsibility, a spirit of frightened or angry independence, solitude will not be a blessing, but rather the curse of loneliness. So, if we want to savor the gifts of solitude, we need to do so in a spirit which embraces cooperation and community, commitment and responsibility, intimacy and mutual dependence. Each of us needs, throughout our lives, to choose our cooperation's and communities, commitments and responsibilities, intimacies and mutual dependencies carefully and wisely. Sometimes, they will be with other people; some times, they will be with nature and its other beings; sometimes, they will be with objects and places; sometimes, they will be with our own imagination, and our own soul and spirit. Sometimes, they will be with God, Creation, whatever you call the ultimate objects of your concern and attention.

The holidays can be full of reminders of what we do not have, of those we miss, of how we have failed, but we can turn those bolts from the blue into gifts of self-understanding, wise choosing, quiet savoring, energetic creating, and spirit embracing which do not depend upon anyone else but ourselves. If we fully open the gifts of solitude, we find connections and community beyond our wildest dreams or our deepest hopes. We are connected then, through our own creative impulses, with cosmic Creation itself. We are in community then, through attention, enjoyment and effort, with beauty itself. We become one with the spiritual All, with the ethically ultimate, and loneliness evaporates. We embrace solitude with its opportunities to see the big picture, to feel the emotional and spiritual depths, to realize our own wholeness and its connections with and community within a graceful world and a loving, evolving nature. We join, then, in our humble ways, the genius and the sage, the artist and the saint. We know the all in ourselves. We are no longer lonely, but rather wholly ourselves in solitude.

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