Nov 02 - Loneliness And Isolation

Loneliness And Isolation

November 2, 2014

2 Timothy 4:9-16

November 2nd, 2014

Today I am looking at the cheery subject of loneliness and isolation.  Aren’t you excited already?  

Maybe I can cheer you up if I remind you of a Beattle’s song.  Do you remember Eleanor Rigby?  If you read the lyrics closely you will figure out that she lived and died at the church.  She is the lonely church custodian who picked up rice from the floor after weddings took place.  She used beauty aids in the hopes of having someone walk into her life who never came, living in a dream world.
And in that same place lived lonely Father MacKenzie, who writes sermons for a church that is empty on Sundays and who darns his socks late in the night when no one’s there.  
These two lost souls have gone their lives almost elbow to elbow, inhabiting the same world without connecting-until one buries the other.  And you can almost see the hopelessness in Father MacKenzie as he wipes off the dirt off his hands after he has filled the grave.  No one to comfort, no one to save.  

Feeling any better?  Not really.  Because loneliness and isolation are real … and they are painful.
To begin with, I think we need to distinguish between being lonely and solitude.  Being lonely is a state of mind.

So loneliness is not quite the same as being alone.  Some of us crave solitude, even if we wouldn’t want to have it all the time. 

Because loneliness is a state of mind, we can be lonely or isolated in the middle of a crowd.  Or we can be filled with God’s presence in a lonely or isolated place.  

However, the feeling of loneliness is most often prevalent when there is, in fact, a lack of consistent human contact or of meaningful extended relationships.

When in his mid-60’s, imprisoned and facing his execution, the apostle Paul dealt with loneliness and abandonment as well.  He writes to Timothy:

Do your best to come to me soon.  For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.  Crescens has gone to Galatia; Titus to Dalmatia.  … Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus.  … At my first defense no one came to stand by me.  May it not be charged against them.        2 Titus 4:9,10,12,16

So what I really want us to consider today is the feeling of being alone, or the state of being truly isolated from others.  

There are so many reasons for feeling lonely or isolated.  
I just want to acknowledge first that a variety of personal issues can be both the cause and the result of loneliness and isolation:

•    Mood related disorders such as clinical depression, 
•    Psychological disorders like schizophrenia, OCD, agoraphobia, social anxiety, or bipolar disorder,
•    Learning disabilities, 
•    Personality disorders, 
•    Embarrassment because of incontinence, obesity, frequent trips to the bathroom (grandpa – TB – tiny bladder), 
•    Substance abuse.
•    Economic struggles.

All of these issues can result in a lack of human contact, in part because of personal withdrawal and self-isolation, in part because they make interactions more difficult and can cause others to withdraw.  

Another reason for isolation and loneliness is old age.
As we grow older the frequency of isolation increases.  For example, retirement is often difficult because of the abrupt end of daily work relationships.  I think this is especially the case with men, who found their identity as well as their social circle at work.  

Even though these statistics are from the UK, they likely reflect what is going on in the Western world.  ½ of those 75 or older live by themselves.  Many are chronically lonely, rely on TV for company, spend Christmas alone, or haven’t spoken to anyone for a month.  

And while there are things that seniors can do themselves to become less isolated, many do not or cannot.  They may have transportation issues.  They no longer drive or have anyone to drive them to events.  Handy-dart usage has to be planned well ahead of time.  

Their children or other relatives may simply be absent, possibly because they were childless or their child died, or their child does not visit or phone.  

And once they deal with cognitive impairments or physical disabilities, they simply are unable to go out and be social.

On the other hand, kids and young adults may feel isolated and lonely because they get bullied in school.  

Or they simply find themselves outside of already established cliques, making it hard to fit in and connect.

Some people are lonely because they are single – and they don’t like it.

For some, being on the computer helps to lessen loneliness, since social networking is so much easier.  But for others the computer can also increase isolation, in part because online friends are not exactly the same as real real-world friends.  A study in Holland found out that online contacts do not translate into feelings of closeness.  Quite the opposite is true

Top Three Reasons People Are Sad and Lonely Online 

1. Chat-room sweetheart Crystal from Vancouver is really Fred from Toronto
3. Contacting your old classmates just gave them another opportunity to reject you. 
5. You don’t have a live girlfriend because who can compete with Lara Croft? 

But also, gaming addictions will cut people off from live interactions.  Imagine you are playing an online game.  Your cell phone starts to ring and you look over to see who's calling.  It's your best friend.  He probably wants to hang out.  After all, it is Friday night.  You think about picking up the phone, but you don't. Instead, you tell yourself, "I'll call him as soon as I finish this fight.” But you don’t.

People who are addicted to gaming encounter situations like this all the time; situations in which they have to choose whether to interact with the real world or continue living in their virtual one. Sadly, the real world rarely wins. 

Addicted gamers stop being a source of support or encouragement to friends and family.  They often are sleep deprived and lack the energy to invest in relationships.  Among addicted gamers who are married, up to 50 percent report a strain in their marriage as a result of their addiction. 

Some gamers don’t have much else to talk about than their game of choice – with the result that others simply don’t want to be around them.  The ability to interact atrophies so a 25 year old can have the social skills of a 15 year old.  

I was part of the first generation that grew up with TV – at first black and white with three programs, then colour.  I remember watching MASH every Friday during supper time.  While TV is losing some of its clout, in conjunction with a PVR or CD player, in some instances it has become the baby sitter, the main attraction at home, and the companion of the elderly.  It may entertain, but it does nothing to foster real live interaction.

The loss of a spouse or close friend can lead to loneliness and depression.  

If you remember the story of Ruth in the OT, when Naomi lost her husband and two sons, she knew that this would mean that the rest of her life would not only be lonely, but it would mean a loss of social standing in the community, and financial ruin – that is being destitute and dependent on picking up whatever grain was accidentally left behind by those tying up the bundles of wheat or barley.  That is the reason why she said to the women of Bethlehem: 

Do not call me Naomi.  Call me Mara (bitter) for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.  I went away full and YHWH has brought me back empty.
                        Ruth 1:20
The fact that her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth refused to leave her basically saved her from that fate.  And while social isolation is detrimental to someone who has experienced loss, if there is not a support network of family and friends, unfortunately that is exactly what happens.  

By the way, if your spouse is the only confident that you have, which is true of about 10% of those who are married, then you are only one person away from having no one at all.   And then the only thing left is living in the past.

The reality is that humans were created as social beings and therefore need others in their lives for them to feel fulfilled and happy.  By the way, that can be achieved even in singleness, even if it may be a bit more difficult.  

YHWH God said, “It is not good that man should be alone.  I will make him a helpmate who is suitable for him.”                        Genesis 2:18

This may be the reason why those surrounded by a tight-knit groups of friends and family who regularly get together to eat and talk, on average live 15 years longer than loners.  Why?  Because they have a better immune system, calibrated hormones, the lowest prevalence of dementia, and the best chance of surviving heart attacks, strokes and cancer.  

This was reported in this year’s August edition of Maclean’s Magazine, one article bemoans the fact that people are getting isolated in the neighbourhoods they live in, for the following reasons.

Long work days, lengthy commutes, fathers and mothers in the workforce, exhaustion, business

These are also the reasons why we are less likely to vote, play bridge, volunteer or have people over for a meal.  

Studies have found that over 30% of Canadians feel disconnected from their neighbours.
Over 30% of Britons admit that they would not be able to pick out their neighbours in a police line-up.
50% of Americans don’t know the names of their neighbours.

A good neighbour is no longer someone you can chat with over the fence … who has time for that? … but someone who doesn’t bother you.  The added bonus is that we no longer have to find a common denominator despite all the differences.  We lose the capacity to be patient with others foibles, because or modus operandi is avoidance.

And so, as a society we have become much more insular and there is a much greater mutual ignorance even between people who live in close proximity.

What that means is that we have to make a greater attempt to live in community with others.  In the church of Jerusalem in the first century, believers met daily in the temple and in homes to experience that community.  I think this was such a vital thing because some of them were been ostracized by their friends and family for being Christian.

I think every church that is trying to think in terms of living out the Christian life, recognize that we grow spiritually much more significant sitting in a circle than in a row.  We grow and flourish when are in a small group.  

In the circle I am missed if I don’t show up.  This is where we pray for each other, listen to each other, speak about spiritual things to each other and hopefully where we care for each other.

All those things cannot happen on a Sunday morning.  So small groups are absolutely necessary for anyone to flourish spiritually.  Unfortunately, for the same reasons that we are becoming isolated in our neighbourhoods, many of us do not find the energy or the time to build community into our own lives.  

By the way, this is particularly true of men.  Men will get together with work associates or those they play sports with … but everything else may appear to be a waste of time.  And then having to talk about something spiritual or being open and vulnerable about personal struggles can also be stressful.  It is uncomfortable to share or to pray out loud.  Men want to be self-sufficient and independent.

Women want to connect. They want to hear the stories of others and to tell their own stories - what they are going through and what others are going through.  Men feel more comfortable in an activity based group.  

The men in our church have a breakfast group, a coffee group and a floor hockey group, and one study group with spiritual content.

Those are all good things, but in contrast, the women of our church have 5 study groups, as well as a woman’s exercise group, an additional group for young moms, a food ministry, the ability to connect on facebook, and a knitting group, aside from large group events.  They seem to have a much greater ability to get together and connect with each other than the men.  And I’m sure that is true of all churches in Victoria.

And I don’t think that men are necessarily busier than woman or more stressed out.  Maybe there are other factors at work in their lack of desire to get together.  

For example, who do men look up to?  Often it is those who made a killing on the market or with their company at a relatively young age, who are financially set in their 40’s, and who can do whatever they want.  They can take off somewhere in the world whenever they want.  They drive our dream cars – which are perpetually cleaned and detailed.  

And so many men in their 40’s or 50’s deal with underlying anger and discontent because they see life passing by real quick and they are not that guy yet, in fact, they have not accomplished what they had dreamed about when they graduated from high school.  

And because they are unhappy with themselves, they are unhappy with their wives, or their kids, or their cars, or their houses, or their lives … even though they picked their spouse, raised their kids, and bought the car and house.  And so they can make others who are around them unhappy.

When men get together in a group, the first question has to do with their job, so what do you do?  It revolves around other men seeing oneself as successful, self-sufficient, competent, and confident.  

And if a man doesn’t feel at least somewhat successful in a group setting, it is hard.  And on top of that, if he is emotionally or physically exhausted, he may not want to share or hear someone else’s sob story.  

Men can have a thousand acquaintances and not one friend.  And they don’t care.  Yet like everyone else, they too need to get into community – if nothing else but to avoid getting into a dark, unhealthy place.  

Because men, if we are not accessible, if we don’t have anyone other than our spouse to speak into our lives, we can make bad decisions.  

[Many, many non-terrorist shooters have been described as quiet loners,  which really meant that they joiners whose attempts at integration failed.]

Most of you know the biblical story of king David and Bathsheba.  At the height of David’s power … when he was solidly in power of all Israel and securely in Jerusalem, he was likely in his 50’s, he decided to stay home from a battle:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings to out to battle, David (stayed home and) sent out Joab with his men and the men of all Israel (into battle) …                                    2 Samuel 11:1

Generally a king was to lead his army in battle, something that David had previously done (2 Sam 10:17) and would do again (2 Sam 12:29; 21:15).  However, this time, David had decided to stay home.   

And in Jerusalem his word was law.  He was judge and jury.  Anyone who slighted him he could have killed.  And he had distanced himself from the only group of men, his former battle companions, who had access to him and could speak into his life.

[So, from the flat roof of the palace he saw Bathsheba bathing below in her house, and she was very beautiful.   He called his slaves and asked them who she is, and he found out she was the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah, someone whom he knew well since he had fought with him.  

Even knowing this, he sent some of his slaves to fetch her so that he could sleep with her.  We should know two things about this event.  First, Bathsheba likely had no choice in the matter.  And second, slaves talk.  What had happened would have quickly spread within the palace and then into Jerusalem what David had done.

Unfortunately for David, that one-night stand resulted in her becoming pregnant, which was conveyed to David by slaves.  

So David devised this plot to bring Uriah, the husband, back from the battle field.  He spoke to Uriah and told him in no uncertain words to sleep with his wife, even though he used a euphemism to do so.  But instead Uriah decided to sleep outside with David’s guards, based on the premise that the men on the battle field were also sleeping outside.

What now?  David thought about it and then decided to get Uriah drunk so that he would forget about his close identification with the soldiers in battle.  But Uriah did not.

What now?  David devised a terrible plan.  He gave Uriah a message to take to Joab, the commander of the army.  He made Uriah carry his own execution letter to Joab, which told the commander to place Uriah where the fighting was the fiercest and then have the other soldiers fall back without letting Uriah know, so that he would be overrun and killed.  So Joab sent Uriah into an untenable position where he knew that he would be killed.

David let Bathsheba mourn her husband for a short time and then he married her.

Joab knew what happened.  The soldiers knew what happened.  Those who reported Uriah’s death back to David knew.  And they talked, because even the prophet Nathan heard about the whole sordid story and confronted David, but only under the ruse of wanting his advice on how to deal with a rich person who took and killed the only lamb of someone very poor.

David ended up acknowledged his guilt in front of Nathan and pleaded for God’s mercy and forgiveness.  And while indeed God did forgive him, he did not take away the consequences of his actions.  The child died.  He never recovered the respect of his grown sons.  One son ended up raping his half-sister, knowing that he would get away with it.  He was killed by David’s favourite son, who eventually was able to reenter Jerusalem.  This same son tried to kill David to take his thrown, David had to flee, and the man ended up setting up a tent on the very roof from where David had spotted Bathsheba so that the city could see David’s concubines enter the tent in order to sleep with him, in order to disgrace his father.  David’s whole family life turned into a nightmare.  Solomon made the same mistakes as David had.  And it was Solomon’s son that ended up splitting the kingdom because of his poor decisions.]

David purposefully isolated himself from those who had access to his life.  And in that isolation he made terrible decisions.  Even though it was not clearly spelled out, it was obvious that during this time, he was inaccessible to God as well.    

So what about us?  We need friendship and connection … someone we can relate to.  What can help us in our loneliness?

Some of us will need to work on improving their social skills

Others again pay for increased social support

Others look for increased opportunities for social interaction – class, interest group, getting out more, 

Others will need to work on addressing faulty thoughts and thought patterns.

Others can be helped through pet therapy – there is something about a dog or cat that takes the bite out of loneliness.

Others will volunteer, even spending a couple of hours with someone who is lonely or in need.  Becoming the presence of God to someone else can overcome our own loneliness.

Most of us can lessen our loneliness by recognizing God’s presence and being thankful for it on an ongoing basis.  There is also the ability practicing the presence of God on a daily basis, particularly as we speak to him.  

Up to this point I’ve spoken primarily about the need for community and our ability to take initiative to lessen loneliness and isolation in our own lives.  

But I also believe strongly that God is calling all believers to help mitigate loneliness in others.  That should include our aging family members, but also those outside of our immediate family.  Phone on a consistent basis, reach out through email, facebook, texts, or better yet, with visits.

And then there is the possibility of meeting in small groups, regardless of how small they may be.  

So do we give people who do not work for us and who don’t need anything from us access into our lives?  Could we participate in a small group, a place that at first can be uncomfortable?  Or are we too busy to carve out time for others?  Do we have an overwhelming schedule but an underwhelmed soul?

Unfortunately a small group doesn’t work for everyone.  I have seen some very self-absorbed, self-centered, needy or negative people destroy whatever positive is to take place in a group setting.  They like to hear themselves talk, they only talk about themselves, they only want the attention to be on themselves and their problems, they are overly critical of others in the group, they love to argue and create arguments.  

There are only a few settings where those kind of individuals will fit into a group.  I do believe, however, that even when a small group doesn’t work, then there will be individuals who will be able to connect with them.

What are we doing to stop loneliness?

We can reach in. 
We can reach out. 
We can reach up.