Friendless and Alone

In the series “Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope”

Psalm 139:1-12; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

In North Hanover, New Jersey, on December 9, the lifeless body of a 77-year-old veteran was found by a neighbor who sometimes stopped by to check on him.  Peter Turnpu was a Vietnam veteran who died alone, a divorced man with no remaining family.[1]

We are exploring the common experience of fear, and one of the most pervasive fears is the fear of being alone and unloved.  Last May, the insurance company Cigna surveyed 20,000 American adults and found that nearly half of the respondents said they feel alone or left out all the time or sometimes.[2]  A survey done by the University of California, San Diego, at the end of last year showed that 76% of respondents showed signs of serious loneliness.[3]

Loneliness has been a recent focus of major research in the U.S. and the U.K.  Said Sue Bourne, producer of “The Age of Loneliness,” a British documentary, “A lot of people are scared of loneliness and being alone.”[4]

I want to distinguish between loneliness and solitude.  When we feel lonely, we feel isolated, disconnected from others.  It’s possible to be surrounded by a crowd of people and yet feel we have no connection with anyone around us, lonely.  Solitude, which involves being by ourselves, is something all of us need to recharge.  In solitude, it is possible to feel connected to our own selves and to God beyond us.  As someone who is an introvert, I value solitude as time to recharge my batteries so that I can function well in other settings.  Even extroverts need the downtime of solitude to reenergize.  All of us – extroverts and introverts – need community and companionship.

In the beginning of the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, there are two creation stories.  The first, which is all of chapter 1 and the first few verses of chapter 2, poetically describes an orderly creation day-by-day.  God spoke, something happened or was created, and at the end of each day, God pronounced it good.  On the sixth day, humans were created in God’s image and likeness, and when God looked at all of creation, God said it was very good.

The creation story in the rest of Genesis 2 details the creation of human beings.  After God made the first human, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him” (Gen 2:18 CEB).  This story is not just about marriage; it is also about our human need for companionship, the way we have been created to be in relationship with others.  Poet John Milton wrote, “Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”[5]

All people know loneliness at one time or another; all have felt unloved for moments or seasons of life.  As we noted in an earlier sermon in this series, our fear can lead us to catastrophize – that is, to believe the worst about the situation.  So we feel lonely, but our fear leads us to think something like, “I’ll never have a friend again because I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not good looking enough, etc.”  We tell ourselves, “No one will want to be around me. I will always be lonely and alone.”  We sometimes go even further, thinking, “I will die all alone and no one will notice or care.”

Our loneliness and fear can become chronic, persistent, ongoing.  And when it does, we withdraw from others to protect ourselves from being rejected and hurt.  This only serves to make ourselves lonelier and more solitary.  It’s a downward spiral.

Researchers have called this a “crisis of loneliness.”  One British study measured the physiological effects of loneliness and concluded that the effects of chronic loneliness on the body are the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is more dangerous than obesity.  It said that lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.  Authors suspect that loneliness decreases your immunity and increases your risk of disease and inflammation in the body.  In addition, the daily stress of life takes a larger toll when we lack social and emotional support.[6]

Why are we so lonely today?  Think about this.  A century ago most people were born, grew up, lived, worked and died in the same community.  They had lifelong connections.  Today only 24% of Americans live their entire life in the same town.  The average American will move 11.7 times in their life, and each move involves severing the social root system.  Futurists estimate that Millennials will need to change their job every three years to get ahead in life – how does one maintain friendships with coworkers when you keep changing jobs?  About 40% of all first-time marriages today end in divorce, which severs relationships within families and social networks.  Many people retire and move out of the communities where they have lived for warmer or less expensive locales, but that means retirees are no longer as connected with the people they used to be around.  Another study says that the surprising top reason for happiness in retirement is having solid relationships, not having a lot of money in a 401(k) or investment portfolio.[7]

Technology and social media contribute to our sense of loneliness.  It seems counterintuitive, because sometimes we have hundreds of Facebook friends.  But the research shows that if all we do is scroll through the newsfeed and read other peoples’ posts, we tend to feel lonelier and worse about ourselves.  However, if we positively interact with others, we feel less lonely.  One user said they were done with social media, because their friends posted about all the wonderful, happy things happening in their lives, and when she compared that to her life, she felt sad and isolated.  The truth is probably not as rosy as everyone posts online.  When we try to substitute technology for relationship, we might receive the message of an emoji – but it’s just not the same as a physical hug.

So what do we do about our fear of loneliness?  As we have before, let’s consider some practical ideas from the therapeutic community and look at some spiritual resources.

One of the ways a therapist might help us deal with our thoughts is to invite us to examine the root causes of our feelings.  So if we are feeling lonely, they might help us ask, “What’s behind that loneliness?”  For instance, let’s say we call someone and leave a voicemail.  But they don’t call us back after a short time or even the next day.  Our fear gets our imaginations working and before long we’ve decided that the person we called doesn’t care about us, doesn’t want to talk to us, isn’t our friend.  Thinking about why we have these thoughts helps us examine the “memory tapes” playing in our minds which become the filters through which we interpret events.  We discover that we can tend to make assumptions about things that happen which can lead to conclusions that are not helpful.  When we work through these unhelpful thoughts, we can take steps that might reveal, for instance, that the person we called mistakenly deleted our message before they heard it or they were dealing with another situation and couldn’t get back to us.

Often when we struggle with loneliness, we further isolate ourselves from others, which is the exact opposite of what we need to do.  If we don’t want to be lonely, we have to take the risk to put ourselves out there in order to get connected with others.  So we might look for an opportunity to volunteer, to serve others or to engage others through work.  In addition to planning for our finances and living arrangements in retirement, we also need to plan how we will have meaningful relationships with others.

God offers at least two answers for our loneliness.  St. Augustine, a leader in the 4-5th century Christian church, wrote, “[God,] You have made us for yourself; our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”  God has created for relationship with other people, but also for relationship with God.  We are made to be friends with God.  Jesus said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants; now I call you friends.”  So we are never really alone, as the psalmist in Psalm 139 reflects.  “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? … If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7, 9-10).  Spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible reading, worship and others, are intended to help us connect with God.  They create space in our lives for the Holy Spirit to work within and through us.  We are never really alone from our God and Savior.

God provides us with a second resource to address loneliness.  God has formed a community known as the Church, which does not refer to the building, but the people.  Disciples of Jesus Christ are tasked with loving one another.  On the night Jesus gave up his life for us all, he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).  The Church provides a way for us to find connection.  Each Sunday we ask you to sign and pass attendance registers – this is a way to help us learn the names of the people sitting near us.  We offer small groups in the form of Sunday school classes, ministry teams, UM Women’s circles, the Men’s group, the Youth Group, Kids Praise and other small groups, all offering us opportunities to connect with others. If we feel lonely, Church is a safe place for us to reach out and find connection with others. But that also means that all of us must be paying attention and reaching out to people around us all the time.

I mentioned Peter Turnpu, the 77-year-old veteran who died alone last month.  The rest of the story involves the funeral director who agreed to handle his burial who didn’t want this veteran to die forgotten.  He sent out the word and hundreds of strangers, including other veterans, came to his funeral service.  A community gathered around him in his death; what would it have meant for a community to have gathered around him in his life?

People walk through our doors every week feeling lonely. We pass by people at the store, at the gym, at work, at school who feel forgotten, lonely and unloved.  Let’s be the Church in our community so that everyone we meet might feel a sense of connection with at least one other person and with God.

[1] Carol Comegno, “Forgotten no more: Hundreds of strangers gather to honor veteran who died alone,” Cherry Hill Courier-Post.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/01/18/hundreds-strangers-honor-veteran-who-died-alone-new-jersey/2620502002/. Accessed 01/18/2019.

[2] Rhitu Chatterjee, “Americans Are a Lonely Lot, and Young People Bear the Heaviest Burden,” 05/01/2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden. Accessed 01/17/2019.

[3] Dennis Thompson, “3 in 4 Americans Struggle with Loneliness,” https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2018-12-18/3-in-4-americans-struggle-with-loneliness. Accessed 01/17/2019.

[4] Alyson Walsh, “The Age of Loneliness by Sue Bourne,” That’s Not My Age, 01/16/2016, https://thatsnotmyage.com/lifestyle/the-age-of-loneliness-by-sue-bourne/. Accessed 01/19/2019.

[5] The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (2009), Modern Library, p. 997, cited on https://www.azquotes.com/quote/383979. Accessed 01/19/2019.

[6] Amy Morin, “Loneliness is as Lethal as Smoking 15 Cigarettes per Day. Here’s What You Can Do about It,” Inc., https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html. Accessed 01/19/2019.

[7] John Masik, “The Most Surprising Top Reason for Retirement Happinesss,” 08/06/2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnwasik/2018/08/06/the-most-surprising-top-reason-for-retirement-happiness/#61dd71addbed.  Accessed 01/19/2019.

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