Loneliness? Yes, but not the temporary feeling we get when we're away from our loved ones for a time, not the pain of separation from one who loves us. The loneliness of our time is the deep, restless feeling that no one really cares very much. It's the lack of relatedness, the feeling of standing alone, isolated, without any genuine companionship or understanding. It's that bottled-up feeling of never being able to unburden ourselves to another, the feeling that no one has time or inclination to listen and to hear us through and that, even if someone did hear us, the result would be rejection. It's the feeling that if people really knew us they wouldn’t like us or have any respect for us. It's the lack of any real communication with others.
People wear masks to hide who and what they really are, probably not because they wish to be dishonest, but because they're afraid to be known. We all know what this's like, for all of us have done it to some degree. How we've longed for a friend to whom we could fully reveal our thinking, our deep feelings, our dreams and our hopes, our frustrations and defeats, our temptations and our sins, our doubts and fears. But often we don't dare to trust our closest friend with such secrets. One man said, “My life's been a closed book.” Another said, “I desperately need a place of confession.” And another one said, “Even my wife doesn’t know what I’m really like. I've never let her know.”
To add to this tragedy of loneliness, we often deny our real feelings to ourselves so successfully that we lose—or never gain—a realistic and honest view of ourselves. Thus we deceive ourselves and live in a false kind of world, taking refuge in daydreams or imaginations that are self-glorifying, self-gratifying, self-pitying, or otherwise self-deceiving. But then the harsh realities of life must come back, and we're less prepared than before to meet them. Many serious emotional and mental disorders clearly arise out of this sense of isolation or estrangement from other people and even from ourselves. Fear 'n guilt may result from something we're afraid to reveal to others or even afraid to face frankly ourselves. They can lead to real trouble. But we're not interested here in the extreme disorders. We'll leave that to the specialists. What we see in the extreme...in serious cases...is true to a lesser degree with “normal” people. The extreme cases call for psychiatric treatment, but some simple lessons and an awareness of the love of God could save many of us a great deal of heartache. That’s why as Christians we need to understand and appreciate the genius of the gospel and the healing power of genuine Christian fellowship. God’s love mediated through the deep relatedness of Christian friends who know the meaning of forgiveness can work wonders of healing.
The loneliness we feel today is different and more intense. It's also more dangerous. In the days of the American frontier, people experienced the loneliness of separation from others by distance. Now we're surrounded, even crowded, by other people yet separated by walls of fear, prejudice, hostility, pride, or just plain indifference. We're preoccupied with things, money, status, and work.
In frontier days, while separated from neighbors, the family was generally close-knit and did many things together. They worked in the same fields and kitchens, and they spent long evenings in family activities and fun. Now we're crowded into subways or buses, jostled on the streets, or caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and when we get home it may be to a house where only part of the family is present for the evening meal. It may be to a place where real human relationships are not felt. Home may be only a stopping place. Parents may be too busy to be companions to their children and to each other. Many people live around us, yes, but few experience real relatedness and understanding. (The loneliest spot I can remember was on Times Square in New York one evening at the rush hour.)
In earlier days people could find some relief for their kind of loneliness by taking advantage of any opportunity to get together. They had barn raisings and corn huskings. They got together to peel apples and make apple butter. The country funeral was a major social event—at least in the hills of Pennsylvania. People came for miles—even those who had no family relationship or personal friendship. They stayed nearly all day, going home late to do the chores. Incidentally, in those days the revival meeting was widely popular as a means of evangelism. It was a social phenomenon. People were eager to be together. They came in droves. Now they seem to stay away in droves. Today we have television at home, movies at the theater, and sports at the stadium, but these diversions do little to relieve the deep loneliness we feel.
To add to the loneliness, our eardrums and our eyeballs are assaulted every hour with the clamor of high-pressure advertising and flashing neon signs calling for our money, time, and loyalty. Through all this I hear people saying, “Well, who in all this world cares anything for me?”
Even the Church in its attempt to reach people has often employed similar tactics and techniques, counting people and money as success. It presents itself as another organization calling for people whom it wants to use. Often, it shows more contrivance than compassion, more social prestige than spiritual power, more concern with statistics than with salvation, more lust for financial affluence than love for persons. Is it any wonder people today turn away? Through all this maze and confusion the gospel still says, “God loves you.” The true Church still says, “We love you.” The voice of our Lord may be lost in the din and clatter, but it's just that voice of love, so often drowned out, that people so desperately need to hear. What does this say to us in our churches?
Unfortunately our problem doesn't stop at mere loneliness. It eventuates in alienation—the feeling that we don’t belong, that society's heartless, that everything is stacked against us. The result can be a silent and sullen resentment, a protest against the establishment, or other antisocial behavior. Public school teachers know so well that the child from a loveless home where tension or hostility exists will likely be the one who's a problem in the classroom and who will find, perhaps unconsciously, a thousand ways to disrupt and rebel. It's a law of human nature that the feeling of isolation and alienation leads to hostility.
Think of how many factors and structures of society lead to this. Families are separated by staggered work schedules. Crowded and unwholesome living conditions multiply. Resentment against employers grows in an impersonal industrial complex. Artificial tastes and demands are created by modern advertising against the backdrop of affluence and glamour.
For millions of people, constant pressures produce discontent and frustration. Add to this pressure the enormous injustice imposed upon minority groups, upon people caught in the rapid change of industry to automation amid mushrooming technology, upon people who have no way to prepare quickly for new forms of employment, or those caught in massive movements of the population to the already crowded areas of great urban centers. Here you see some of the powerful forces at work today that rob one of personhood, dignity, and worth. The depersonalizing forces are many and strong. They often are beyond our understanding and control. All this leads to almost overwhelming feelings of alienation. It’s the kind of world we live in now.
Of course, alienation is not confined to the poor or to minority groups. It's found also among the affluent, the privileged, and the educated. Any professional person could point out examples of husbands and wives living under the same roof but really living in different worlds, and of children alienated from one another. Here's fertile soil for unrest, rebellion, and violence. People go to their doctors to be treated for stress-related illnesses, to their lawyers to seek divorce, or to their ministers to achieve some solution through spiritual counsel. Psychiatrists’ offices are full of people who are alienated from one another and from God. Life is so made that we can't realize ourselves or satisfy the desires of your own heart unless we come to terms with God, with ourselves, and with others. People hate because of their feeling of hopelessness and frustration or because of their own inner conflicts. When a basic honesty—possible only as we accept God’s love—leads us to confess and to accept ourselves, then we can begin to see the natural tendency in human nature toward love and acceptance of others. Only then can relatedness be established or restored. This's where the fellowship of Christian love holds a key.
Loneliness and alienation lie deep. They can't be faced and cured in a moment or by something happening from the outside. They have to be faced in solitude and in encounter between the individual and God. To take refuge in more pleasure, greater thrills, louder noises, stronger stimulants, and temporary escapes only increases the problem. Such escapes may provide temporary relief, but actually they prevent the real answer from coming through. Alienation is three-pronged. It includes a sense of separation from a righteous God, a frustration and confusion within, and a hostility toward other people and the cruel, impersonal forces found in society. This adds up to defeat and to a sense of unreality or falseness. People fear being known by others. They even have a subtle fear of knowing themselves. Most certainly, people fear to stand in the presence of God. We must force ourselves to keep up appearances. We play a role; we wear a mask; we take refuge in things and pleasures. All of this fails to satisfy or bring any sense of reality. So, many who don't understand their real need for relatedness go through life accepting and trying to live by the substitutes. The pitiable souls who desperately try to lose themselves in drink, promiscuity, drugs, and sensuality are really like children lost and fearful in a world that has relentlessly driven them down dead-end streets where they end up destitute and alone.
Unfortunately, to say the least, Christians have often condemned the symptoms rather than discerned the real sickness or offered from the rich heritage of the gospel the only real cure. We can catalog all the sins and condemn them one by one. We can denounce the world and cry, “What’s the world coming to?!” But look deeper and we see that loneliness is a sickness that has reached epidemic proportions and is being fostered further all the time by the impersonal society in which we live.
The many analyses of sociological trends, while very informative and helpful for our understanding, leave the individual just as alienated and lost as ever. We're dealing with people. When people are sick they hurt. And not all suffering is in the body. Perhaps the greatest anguish is that of the mind and emotions.
God called to Adam and Eve, who had violated their relationship to the Creator. They “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord” (Gen. 3:8). And “the Lord God called [Adam], and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ ” Adam was ashamed, but God called him out into the open. God is always doing that—calling people out of their hiding places into the openness of honesty and confession. Adam, of course, blamed Eve, and she in turn blamed the serpent. Aren’t people always blaming each other or conditions? Sure, other people and surrounding conditions have an influence upon us, but we all know that the responsibility comes back upon us to muster up the courage and come out of our hiding places. In a genuine loving fellowship that becomes possible. We're called out of hiding into genuine community.
Could it be that the Church has sometimes added to the problems? Is it possible that in our very anxiety about holding to a high standard of conduct we've been more forbidding than loving? If a person feels alienated and guilty, does our attitude invite or repel? Do we “come across” to the guilty soul as compassionate and redemptive, open to accept in love, or do we appear judgmental and perhaps a little self-righteous? If one's guilty, that guilt is probably felt already, and often very deeply. How shall we deal with it? If we follow our Lord Jesus in the way he dealt with the condemned woman (John 8:3–11) we'll neither condone the sin nor condemn the sinner. We'll have compassion. Or course, she didn’t come to him voluntarily. She was brought by force. People like that seldom have the courage and will come on their own. We have to find ways to reach out to them. Even in the Church we find lonely, alienated people who haven’t the courage to reveal their needs. Perhaps it's because we simply haven’t found the ways to help them lower the barriers. Perhaps they were deeply hurt in early life or rebuffed by some well-meaning but misguided person who was not sensitive to their feelings. A lovely woman about sixty years of age was in a conference I conducted in which we dealt with alienation. She said, “I don’t really know who I am. I’ve been pretending so long, trying so hard to please people that I feel false and unreal all the way through.” She'd been a professing Christian for many years. Was she really a Christian? She had lived a very acceptable life, conforming to all the standards of the Church, and yet she felt isolated and alone.
What was wrong? She'd tried hard, but she'd never found real freedom. Was the Church for her...a community of Christian love?
A young man came to a camp. He sneered at Christians. “They’re a bunch of phonies,” he insisted. He had been brought up in the Church. He didn’t point to any gross acts of sin in any of the people, but he felt they were pretending. The church he belonged to was given to legalism with strict standards regarding dress, places of amusement, and other life patterns. But he felt that minor points were emphasized while other more important matters were omitted. What happened? Where had the Church failed? What can we do to be a more vital Church, to be the community of Christian love? It’s a responsibility laid upon all of us.
A few Questions for us to consider...
1. Do we have one or more very close friends with whom we can share our deepest feelings with the confidence that we'll not be rejected?
2. Do we ever have the feeling that if people really knew us, they'd not accept us?
3. Have we ever been able to help another person who felt isolated or guilty, and whom no one cared about? Are we a good listener?
4. Do we have any small groups in our congregation in which persons feel free to open up? Is their confidence respected?