I cannot imagine an experience more unsettling or upsetting than being genuinely lonely or lost. Either experience can be terrifying, or at least quite overwhelming. Each is a state of being out of control. In some ways it might be akin to being thrown out of a plane without a parachute. While hurtling toward the earth, flapping our arms and legs wildly, we are simply shocked by our total inability to help ourselves, or so it seems.
Over the past forty years of being a pastor, I would characterize my counseling or pastoral care as being dominated by these twin issues. In recent years they have become even more prevalent. I have met with countless people of all ages who express a deep despair fueled by their loneliness, or a sense of being lost on Life’s already difficult journey.
Surprisingly, many of those who complain of being quite lonely, were also individuals surrounded by people, often popular and well liked, and who would describe themselves as extroverts. Nevertheless, their loneliness blanketed their days, and stemmed in large part from the absence of genuine intimacy, a perceived lack of being understood or respected, and the suspicion of being either used or assumed. Loneliness seldom has much to do with being alone, but rather is a spiritual state of feeling invisible either in a crowd or at home.
Women have a much easier time saying they are lonely. Many women feel their role as caregivers and a nurturing presence has devoured their identity and destroyed their individuality. For men, the loneliness often appears to be a detachment from their real selves, as if their need to prove themselves to be real men has kept them from sharing that which might create the very intimacy for which they yearn.
To a great degree, I believe loneliness is not the result of a lack of being loved, but rather, a failure to find a love which is committed and deep and willing to explore the many questions and worries of our lives. People may know they are loved, but express not feeling known or understood, or questioning if what folks respect is truly who and what they are. In a culture where image is everything, people long for something deeper and fuller and more authentic. Love is not enough. Love which is a discipline, or an art, is what most folks truly desire. They want someone to keep working at getting to know them. They want to know their tears might roll down someone else’s cheeks.
I was six and I clearly remember running toward my favorite amusement ride, “The Scrambler”, at the Labor Day Festival at Douglas Park, never even noticing that I had lost track of my Mom, Aunt Karen and my cousin Gary. When I turned and realized they were no longer with me, I still can feel that panic. I froze, and within seconds erupted in sobs. Within a couple of minutes and having endured the empathetic stares of many adult eyes, I saw my Mom come sprinting toward me. The relief was just plain staggering. Knowing you are truly lost, even for just a few minutes, is the experience of a vast and powerful sense of being in danger or without moorings.
I don’t feel I am exaggerating when I say our entire American culture is lost. I do not believe we have any idea who we are anymore, where we are going, or what motivates us. Ours is a culture weighted down with too much phoniness, too much deceit, and way too much lying of all kinds and sizes. We call ourselves a nation of progress, and yet seemingly have no idea as to where it is we are headed, or why we wish to go there. We claim to be the nation of the good life, when the good life has absolutely nothing to do with goodness. We speak of old fashioned values with great fervor, but we only talk the talk, and clearly fail to walk the walk.
We are a culture and a people without roots, grounded knee deep in the muck and mire of a society addicted to stuff, and wondering hopelessly where all the meaning and value has gone. I endlessly hear and see folks claiming to be quite happy and successful and enjoying their lives, but there is something off, way off, as if down deep we don’t even care about what we create, or who we truly are. There does not seem to be a real belief in just who we’re meant to be, nor a hope in hell of bringing heaven to earth. We are seemingly adrift in a sea of anxiety, being pecked away by the rabid beaks of terrorism, and running in circles on our way to nowhere.
Being lonely and being lost both emit a deep and moaning sigh. Both express our need to slow down and dig deeper. We are weary of shallow, and sick to death of fake. We want relationships strong enough to endure conflict, tension, or the passage of time. We want to feel at home again, with sturdy roots, and a sense of being called to a particular purpose. We need depth in all facets of our lives. We presently move too quickly, ripping through our days and losing track of where we wish and want and need to go. We just yearn to know our calling in Life, how to find eternal friendships, and finally laying down roots in a place and with a people where we know we belong.
Lily Tomlin once said that even if we win the rat race we are still rats. Beings a rat is a lonely existence, and one which is headed nowhere other than getting lost in a maze of sewers. We need to be humans who can love and be loved deeply, intimate, creative, courageous, and willing to go deep, creating lives of substance and significance, and choosing to make a difference. When we can make a difference, we solve both issues of being lonely or lost, as at last we are doing and being someone who truly does matter.