Generally, I am okay being alone. I have become more aware in the 20 years I’ve been since a Unitarian Universalist minister, that I need time with people and time without people. I am not a fan of multitasking, and yet ministry often is multitasking: preaching, pastoring, teaching, studying, learning, sometimes all at once. And so alone time is needed to sort through it all, to be quiet, to reflect, to write, to read, to try to understand all that is taking place around and within me. But there are times, whether I’m with people or taking some alone time, when I feel lonely.
Have you felt lonely? I am going to assume the answer is yes for
all of us gathered here. Perhaps it was
when you were alone, isolated, away from family or friends. Perhaps it was during COVID time. Perhaps as you have started to return to the
world as we move out of COVID, yet you’re still feeling a little more lonely than
you did in the “before” times. What
makes being alone different from being lonely?
What do you feel physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually that
differentiates the two? (pause) U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy recently
declared an “epidemic of loneliness,” and the U.K. appointed a Minister of
Loneliness. To diagnose this condition, doctors at U.C.L.A. devised a
Loneliness Scale. Let me share it with you.
Do you often, sometimes, rarely, or never feel these ways?
I am unhappy doing so many things alone.
I have nobody to talk to.
I cannot tolerate being so alone.
I feel as if nobody really understands me.
I am no longer close to anyone.
There is no one I can turn to.
I feel isolated from others.
Even as I considered these questions, I thought that loneliness is a vague term. I mean I know it when I feel it, but I wonder if how I experience loneliness is the same as the way others experience it. I notice it sometimes when Martha is out of town and I have little to occupy my time, alone and lonely. It is a faint uneasiness or emptiness, like things aren’t the way they are supposed to be.
In The New Yorker article “The History of Loneliness” American Historian Jill Lepore (March 30, 2020) writes: “Neuroscientists identify loneliness as a state of hyper-vigilance whose origins lie among our primate ancestors and in our own hunter-gatherer past…[this] evolutionary theory of loneliness has been tested by anthropologists at the University of Oxford, who have traced its origins back fifty-two million years, to the very first primates.
Primates need to belong to an intimate social group, a family or a band, in order to survive…—either finding yourself alone or finding yourself among a group of people who do not know and understand you—triggers a fight-or-flight [or-freeze-or-fawn] response…We act fearful, defensive, and self-involved, all of which drive away people who might actually want to help, and tend to stop lonely people from doing what would benefit them most: reaching out to others…Loneliness…lies behind a host of problems—anxiety, violence, trauma, crime, suicide, depression, political apathy, and even political polarization…”
Now I am sure that Lepore would agree that not every problem, whether emotional, physical, societal, or political, is caused by loneliness, but loneliness can exacerbate underlying issues within a person or in a family or community. I believe this: “We all need to feel we belong.” Without a feeling of connection to someone or to a community of friends and/or family, we just don’t function as well as we could. Now I know some people are more introverted and some more extroverted, but while this may influence a person’s experience of being alone, it is the experience of belonging, feeling connected to others with whom we feel safe, whole and loved that is at the core of whether we feel lonely or not. As we heard in the meditation, when we feel a meaningful connection to others, we:
[Discover] together the way our voices rise, and fall together
In harmony, in hope
Claim here a resilient freedom
The choice for love, for light, to live with joy
and gratitude and praise
as a form of resistance
And yet I wonder about how we develop this feeling of belonging. Think for a moment about a community—a community could be one other person or many other people-- that you feel you belong to, I mean really feel you belong to. How did that sense of belonging develop? Is it because they are your family or your chosen family? Is it because the people in that community treat you with respect, dignity, compassion? Is it because you feel safe with the people in that community? That they don’t reject you? Think about our story of Nerdy Birdy for a moment. This is a children’s book that I was really drawn to.
Nerdy Birdy felt anxious, and wanted to belong, but was rejected by the popular birds.
Nerdy Birdy found a group of other Nerdy Birdies that accepted them as a Nerd—with glasses and an allergy to bird seed, at least until Nerdy Birdy wanted to bring a stranger, a vulture into their community.
The Vulture didn’t fit the profile of a Nerd—she wore contact lens and ate meat and bones. And thus, was rejected by the community of Nerdy Birdies. But here’s the thing that was a little unusual in the story, Nerdy Birdy decided to be in community with vulture instead of the other Nerdy Birds. “Nerdy Birdy and Vulture don’t like the same things, but they really like each other. If you ever need a friend, you can hang around with them. After all there is always room for another.” What do you take away from this story? Did you wonder why Nerdy Birdy didn’t stay with the other Nerdy Birdies? I offer this for your consideration: just because you find a community that looks like you, has the same interests as you, maybe even thinks the same way you do, doesn’t necessarily mean you have found a community in which you will feel you belong.
Belonging, like loneliness, is a concept that is vague and complex. It can mean different things to different people. And if we as human beings need to feel a sense of belonging in order to overcome loneliness, then we each will need to decide what belonging feels like, where we can find it, and how we embody our belonging—in other words how will we give to and get what we need from the community we belong to.
As far as UU Miami is concerned, I can say that from the first time I met you all, I started to feel a sense of belonging. That’s not a surprise, really, is it? After all, I was among Unitarian Universalists, who embrace our 8 Principles—the inherent worth and dignity of every person, compassion, equity, justice in human relations, a responsible search for truth and meaning, affirming the interdependent web of all existence, work together against racism and oppression—and the six sources from which we draw in our spiritual journeys—our personal experiences, the world religions, earth-centered traditions, humanistic teachings, and wise and prophetic people. I was with my fellow Nerdy Birdies. Over the past three years, as new and different people have joined us, I have felt an even stronger experience of belonging, as this community welcomed new people, always saying, “After all there is always room for another.” I think that this willingness to make room for others who may not think or believe the same, but who are willing to love the same, is central to what our UU communities can offer. For those of you who are new, online or in person, there is always room for you with us. Here is a place where people will look for what is unique and meaningful in you. Here is a place where you will find genuine friends of the soul.
More often than not, you can choose which communities you belong to. And my hope for you is that you belong to communities that supports you when you feel lonely. We all need a little help to manage loneliness, it is a universal human experience. We don’t have to manage loneliness alone. Reach out and let someone who is in your community know that you are feeling lonely. You don’t have to bear it alone. They can help, if you let them know.
I leave you with this thought: Keep in mind that the true blessing of belonging is not only that you get to come inside the circle; it’s that you get to participate in expanding it. Go in peace.