Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
March 19, 2000
Psalm 102:1-12, 25-28; Galatians 4:8-11
"There is nothing more alone in the universe than man," wrote Loren Eiseley, before we became conscious of the need for gender-inclusive language. "[Man] is alone because he has the intellectual capacity to know that he is separated by a vast gulf of social memory and experiment from the lives of his animal associates. He has entered into the strange world of history, of social and intellectual change, while his brothers of the field and forest remain subject to the invisible laws of biological evolution. Animals are molded by natural forces they do not comprehend. To their minds there is no past and no future. . . . Man, by contrast, is alone with the knowledge of his history until the day of his death" [THE STAR THROWER, 37].
Human loneliness is the loneliness of a species that possesses a history, that
knows it has been born and that it must die. But it is not just as a species that
we are lonely. If our loneliness were only the loneliness of human beings vis-a-vis the rest of creation, it would not be so hard to bear. But our loneliness is a
loneliness also vis-a-vis one another. See if these words of the late Henri
Nouwen, who taught pastoral theology at Yale, do not describe, in part, our
We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds. The growing competition and rivalry which pervade our lives from birth have created in us an acute awareness of our isolation. This awareness has in turn left many with a heightened anxiety and an intense search for the experience of unity and community. It has also led people to ask anew how love, friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood can free from isolation and offer them a sense of intimacy and belonging. All around us we see the many ways by which people of the western world are trying to escape this loneliness. Psychotherapy, the many institutes which offer group experiences with verbal and nonverbal communication techniques, summer courses and conferences supported by scholars, trainers and 'huggers' where people can share common problems, and the many experiments which seek to create intimate liturgies where peace is not only announced but also felt--these increasingly popular phenomena are all signs of a painful attempt to break through the immobilizing wall of loneliness [THE WOUNDED HEALER, 83-84].
Today we might add to Nouwen's list of ways that people try to overcome their loneliness the chat rooms, e-mail correspondence, and other forms of electronic communication that consume increasing portions of our days, portions when we are basically alone even as we struggle to reach out to connect with one another.
Some thirty-five years ago Harvey Cox wrote his book celebrating the coming of the "secular city." It was an up-beat book, in which the anonymity and mobility of modern, technological urban life were seen as positive contributions to human freedom and the sustenance of human life. In the "secular city" people could be liberated from narrow and confining roles and expectations imposed by life in closer quarters. Virtually all of us have experienced something of what Cox was celebrating, especially if we have lived a part of our lives in small towns where everybody seemed to know everybody else's business and the latest gossip was the greatest entertainment to be found. Even in not-so-small town Bloomington, life can be rather oppressive for those who feel the need to express themselves without the scrutiny or disapprobation of their neighbors. Life can be rather suffocating in places where one wonders if the mail deliverer has scrutinized one's mail and the garbage collector has made note of the sort of refuse your cans contain.
But there is a price to be paid for such anonymity and mobility as the secular city and the secular society afford. There are more options, more choices, more paths to take--but there are bound to be fewer travelers on each path. Social roles, though no longer so constricting, may become diffuse. Values, though no longer so narrowly defined, may become confused. Behavior, though no longer so rigidly prescribed, may cease to regard the well-being of others. Allegiances in the secular society, except perhaps in the protection of one's economic interests, are more likely to be based on personal preferences than on place and circumstance. But this means that one's personal associations with others whose lives are different are diminished and depreciated. Your neighbor and your co-worker and your friend are seldom to be found in the same person. You are not likely to be on personal terms with your banker and your doctor and your automobile mechanic and your grocer. You are not likely to be bothered by neighbors wanting to borrow tools or kitchen staples, but neither are you likely to be offered help when you need a hand. Your neighbors are not likely to know when you need a hand.
I am painting only a partial picture, but it is a picture of our social fragmentation and our personal isolation. It is a partial accounting of our loneliness. It certainly would not be right to blame all of our loneliness on modernity and secularity, as if to say that loneliness has never existed before. But in order to understand ourselves--and in particular in order to understand what happens when we gather together as a congregation--we need to have some realization of how our lies are fragmented and isolated by the conditions of the world in which we live.
At home we are known as mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children. At work we are known as teachers, scholars, merchants, secretaries, counselors, musicians, students, administrators, technicians, managers, colleagues. In our neighborhoods we are known by our houses, our dogs or cats, our children, our propensity to rake the leaves and shovel the walks and do battle against the weeds in our yards. At play we are golfers, runners, swimmers, dancers, bikers, hikers, tennis players, movie or theater or concert goers. And yes, we are all of these things. But where are we known for who we really are? Where are we known for what is deepest and truest and most real in us? Where can we be "ourselves"?
Matthew Arnold spoke poignantly in his poem, "The Buried Life":
I know the mass of men concealed
Their thoughts, for fear that if revealed
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Tricked in disguises, alien to the rest
Of man, and alien to themselves--and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
There is something of our desire to be known in our coming together here; something of our desire to overcome the isolation and fragmentation we feel and know; some seeking to transcend our loneliness, to shed the roles our work forces upon us, to bridge the social distance that income and occupation create, to get beneath the superficialities to that which binds us all to one another.
One of the greatest graces of life is to discover that one's experiences are shared by another. You meet a stranger and you fumble for conversation until you discover that you have a mutual friend--or that you have read the same book--or that you have lived in the same town--and then you cannot help remarking "What a small world it is!" Or you labor under the burden of some fear or problem, too personal to talk about, until you read in Ann Landers that someone else has it too--maybe a whole lot of people have this problem--and all of a sudden you feel like you have been reclaimed by the human race. Or you struggle with some doubt, some thought or idea, that just will not fit in with what you feel we must believe, until one day you stumble almost by accident upon the discovery that someone who has thought more deeply and more profoundly than you yourself has been that way before. We all look for similar graces here.
To be known, and to know; to be accepted for who and what we are; to be understood in what we feel; to join hands with others in common cause; to see ourselves, our world, our future, with common vision; these are some of the reasons why we are here.
Theologian Paul Tillich, in THE COURAGE TO BE, distinguished three types of anxiety that characterize our human nature. The first is the anxiety of fate and death; the second the anxiety of guilt and condemnation; the third the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. Though each type is present in every period, Tillich maintained that the third type has come to predominate in our time. Ancient civilization was most anxious about immortality, the Middle Ages worried most about hell, but we in the modern and now post-modern period are preoccupied with the problem of meaning and of that which gives meaning to all meanings. The experience of loneliness in our day, of isolation and "unconnectedness," is a part of the anxiety of meaninglessness. Loneliness is the feeling of separation from the movement of life, the sense of being cut off from community, from meaningful participation in the creative transformation of events. Loneliness is not a peculiarly modern affliction, but it is peculiarly acute in our time.
Loneliness happens to the old when careers end, bodies fail, spouses die. It happens to the young when the values, attitudes, and behavior of peers are set against those of parents and choices have to be made. It happens to the middle-aged when they finally realize that there are some things about themselves that not even their spouses or best friends will ever understand. Yet loneliness is not just a stage to be lived through and finally solved, but an ultimately inescapable condition of human existence. There is only so much of myself that I dare reveal to you, only so much that you can comprehend and accept, only so far that we can travel the same road together. And even if we should travel that same road for all our lives, our experiences and perceptions will not all be the same, and at the end we cannot travel together in death.
The psalmist speaks for me, and for you: "I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places . . . I am like a lonely bird on the housetop." The psalmist speaks to us of our dis-ease, our grief, our pain that can be greater than the pain of physical affliction: the pain of isolation, rejection, abandonment, emptiness, void.
I would not want to depreciate the very real advantages of family life, or of life in community, including this community. In fact, these advantages are often under-represented and under-appreciated these days. But there is no panacea for loneliness. If it cannot be gotten over, then somehow it must be claimed.
Henri Nouwen wrote, "The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must
protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that
can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for [one] who
can tolerate its sweet pain.
When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge--that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune, or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations" [op. cit., 84-85].
We must learn to live with our loneliness, says Nouwen, even to protect and guard it. Poet Carl Sandburg wrote, "A man must get away now and then to experience loneliness. Only those who learn how to live in loneliness can come to know themselves and life. I go out there and walk and look at the trees and sky. I listen to the sounds of loneliness. I sit on a rock or stump and say to myself, 'Who are you, Sandburg? Where have you been, and where are you going?" [IN THE STILLNESS, 21].
What else can we do about our loneliness? Of course we must continue to seek ways in which to share our lives with one another. We can take the risks that openness to one another entails, the risks of being met with indifference, rejection, misunderstanding, and of being exploited in our vulnerability as well. And among the things that we can share is the pain of our loneliness--the pain of our isolation, our unconnectedness, our feelings of being cut off from others or from meaningful participation in the creative transformation of life. And yet there will still be limits, even here, to what we can share, to what others can accept, to what can be mutually understood. There is for each of us the loneliness of our loneliness.
This is the loneliness that only God can know and share. Three times in the letters of the apostle Paul we find what to me are words of great assurance and consolation. In the eighth chapter of I Corinthians, he writes, "if one loves God, one is known by [God]" [vs. 3]. In the thirteenth chapter of that same letter he says, concerning the time to come, "then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." And in the ninth verse of our text from Galatians he writes, "but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God." In all this Paul is saying that there is salvation in being known by God!
How is it that we are made whole? How can our sense of isolation and unconnectedness be overcome? Not by trying to escape God's watchful eye. Not by hiding in our doubt or our uncertainty or our guilt. Rather, by simply and fully being known as only God can know us. With God alone we can be, and may hope to be, fully ourselves. For with God we are not alone. AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert