© Barbara F. Meyers 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 22, 2008

"All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" The Beatles


When I listened to the words of Eleanor Rigby earlier, I could feel just how much she ached from loneliness. The words and the music carry us to a place that we recognize because we have known that feeling, too.

I think it is safe to say that everyone knows what it feels like to be lonely. It is one of those experiences that, while deeply private and personal, has resonance for nearly everybody. We all have our memories of being lonely. Here is one of mine:

When I was 20 years old, I was engaged to be married to a young man named Mark. We were attending the same university and had many friends that we interacted with frequently. Everything was wonderful. Then Mark got sick with a mysterious intestinal ailment. When the doctors couldn't find a cause, they did exploratory surgery. He was recovering nicely from the surgery when he suddenly collapsed and died of a pulmonary embolism. My world was shattered. Beyond the grief, I felt intensely lonely, especially when I was in the company of friends who had previously done things with the two of us. It was as if their presence emphasized his absence and I felt like I would never know happiness again. When the semester ended, I transferred to another university where I knew no one. Strangely, even though I knew no one there, I wasn't any where near as lonely as I had been at the old school. I think it is because I didn't have constant reminders of the fact that I was alone, and I was starting out on a new life, making new friends.

So, loneliness doesn't mean that you have no friends or close relationships. People in all kinds of situations feel lonely: those who are married and those who aren't; people with children and people without; people of all ages and socio-economic levels; people with and without friends; healthy people and sick people; wise people and ignorant people; religious people and irreligious people. Probably the first experience of loneliness in a person's life is when they long for their mother's touch and she isn't there. That ache that later is defined as loneliness begins.

Loneliness has two major dimensions: interpersonal loneliness when what you get from others is not what you expect; and loneliness of spirit which is a void within, a perceived incompleteness of being, a lack of wholeness. Some call this second dimension existential loneliness. Either of these kinds of loneliness can happen in a multitude of situations, with and without others.

Let's look at some examples of loneliness:
Loneliness of an only child playing by herself most of the time.
Loneliness of a minister in a small town who can't be vulnerable with her parishioners or others in the town.
Loneliness of a gay man or lesbian woman in a small town without a gay community.
Loneliness of an elderly widow or widower who has just lost their life's companion.
Loneliness of a new student in school who is bullied by other children.
Loneliness of the only African American, or only Asian, or only Native American in a group.

These are all examples of interpersonal loneliness. It seems to me that if one experiences interpersonal loneliness for so long that it becomes the way that you see yourself, it can become existential loneliness - the feeling that no one understands you and that you are incomplete, not whole. Existential loneliness can also come from realizing at some level that one is living a superficial life in a world in which it is easy to live superficially; that the things that one does don't really have any important purpose and don't matter.

How do people deal with loneliness?

The anxiety we feel when we are lonely frequently causes us to take action to keep it at bay. There are many means that will take the edge off, if only for a while: Drugs, Alcohol, Sex, Gambling, Shopping, Eating, Obsessions, Working long hours, and Conformity are some of the more common ones. If some of these are carried to an extreme, they are addictive and can lead to serious problems in themselves which can destroy a person's life unless overcome. Sometimes there are frantic efforts to attract and grab onto friends which only result in pushing them away. Some people turn to therapy to fill the void. I'm thinking of the 2006 movie "The Dog Problem" in which a man terminates therapy and then begs his ex-therapist to be his friend, perhaps because it was only with the therapist that he felt understood and whole.

The philosopher James Park has studied existential loneliness and explains that "Interpersonal loneliness is usually temporary; when our relationships improve, this loneliness disappears. But loneliness of spirit" endures. Even if we rearrange our personal relationships, we might feel better for a while, but sooner or later, our feeling of a lack of wholeness returns. But, he maintains, if we can find a way to get to successfully deal with our existential loneliness, we no longer feel the need to chase after new relationships, or other new thrills to deal with the anxiety we feel. We are whole, complete.

But how do we do that? It seems like a tall order. Certainly many therapist's offices, psychiatrist's offices and rehab facilities are full of people trying to deal with just this problem. If it were easy to do, you think it would have been done before.

Loneliness vs. solitude

What I would like to suggest that an antidote for loneliness lies closer than we think. It lies within each of us. I posit that the way out of loneliness is to cultivate solitude. "What!" I hear you say. "I thought being alone was the problem." But hear me out.

There is a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is time to connect to that part of oneself that lies beneath the surface of one's daily busy life. It is treasuring the time that you have with yourself to connect to all that is central to your existence and to get yourself back into balance.

The poet and novelist May Sarton explains it like this: "loneliness is the poverty of the self [and] solitude is the richness of the self."

Artists, poets, philosophers and religious thinkers of all ages have advised us to treasure solitude as an essential part of our lives. The founders of all major religions and used it to form the most deeply held positions of their faith. The lives of Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed all contain significant time where they were alone, often in a desert, and returned with insight that guided their ministries. What they learned there enabled them to withstand persecution, stand by their principles and to inspire others to follow them. They discovered that by reaching their inner depth they avoided superficial lives and found riches that have changed the world.

How do you cultivate solitude?

I would like to tell you some suggestions from Rev. Mark Belletini, the first UU minister I knew, on how to cultivate solitude, and therefore overcome loneliness.

He advises: Start by deliberately carving out some time, a few minutes each day at least, to be alone with one's self "reflecting on the day behind us or the day ahead of us, remembering our blessings and losses, our passions and boredom, our hopes and fears. During this time we can try for a while to be less hard on ourselves, and, at the same time, more honest with ourselves. Call it prayer, call it devotion, call it makes no difference to me."

One does not need to run around frantically to end loneliness. In the poem we used as a reading McCarroll says: "Stop trying to find a ladder that will reach the sky. Stay still, the sky will come to you."

Sometimes people find the connection to solitude in nature. A poem by David Wagoner entitled Lost tells us that when we are in the natural world and think we are lost and alone, we are not.
"Stand still.
The trees about and bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.
Stand still.
The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you."

I suggest that we use the opportunity here this morning to get a start on solitude right now. For the next 3-4 minutes, I would like you to sit quietly and as Mark Belletini suggests reflect on the day, our blessings, losses, passions, boredoms, hopes and fears. I'll ring the bell to end the time.


I encourage you to try this at home each day. Beyond deliberately creating time to be alone, Mark Belletini shares these suggestions for what one can do to cultivate solitude:

  1. Stay still more, run around less. Listen more, speak less.
  2. Let go of as many expectations about life as you can
  3. Engage in creative activity
  4. Commune with nature [or with an animal]
  5. Several times each day, giving thanks for one's life
And here is the suggestion from the reading we had from Rev. Judith Walker-Riggs about two kinds of Christmas dinners: "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."

Instead of trying to cure loneliness by making new friends, or taking drugs, or sex or overwork, or any of the ways we use to fill up the void with places. Rather learn to know who you are and love yourself. Reinterpret your story. Solitude is one way to get there. It should be obvious, but I will say it anyway. Solitude is not a destination that you arrive at once and then are done. Instead it is a continual journey, an adventure in which you rediscover yourself again and again each day, and discover how you change each day as your unique and precious voyage unfolds.

I will end with a prayer from the Rev. Rob Hardies of All Soul's Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. "My prayer for this church is that we might build a community where the loneliness in each of us reaches out to the loneliness of the other, so that we might offer one another communion. And, further, that we might build a community where the solitude in each of us reaches out to the solitude of the other, so that we might offer one another a glimpse of the holy."

You are not alone.



From "Notes from the Song of Life" by Tolbert McCarroll

There are times when you will lose your way. At those times you will wander lost and lonely. Each step takes you farther from your path. Frantically, you will thrash around in the wilderness. One thought possesses can you stop the dull heartache? After a while you may give up. You play a game with yourself. You change your opinion as to what is important. You try and forget your path. You go seeking money or respect or knowledge or power or some other distinction. You achieve your goal and stand out from the crowd. The more distinctions you have, the more separate you feel. You are lonely. You look to people according to how they function. Is this the right teacher to impart knowledge to me? If I am in a relationship to this person, will I feel loving and warm? There are simpler ways to live. Stop trying to find a ladder that will reach the sky. Stay still, and the sky will touch you. Feel the earth beneath you. All the plants and animals have this common bond. You do not know the person who stands before you. If you try and detach from any melodrama about the two of you coming together, you may actually see this person. At that moment, there is no separateness. At that moment, there is no loneliness.

"Home Alone on Christmas Day" 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 melange 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."

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