(From my latest podcast episode. Click here to listen: https://apple.co/2BmmB6o)
One listener wrote the following:
“In short, loneliness encompasses my life from the past 3-6 months, but really even throughout this past year. The changes happened abruptly. Friends and family moved away. Friends hit life milestones, while I was over here wishing I could be in law school and working a job I didn’t want.
I went through avenues I would have never entertained had I found my life to be full, productive and purposeful. I’m ‘dating’ God. It heals; it fills the emptiness that still sometimes pervades. I look forward to the days to come with Him.”
Shekaina, thank you for expressing your loneliness so succinctly.
Being able to clearly express where you are can help others understand where they are—it’s a gift.
I thought clarity would continue on through me, but my words have come together haphazardly and still feels very incomplete. What I’m about to share is maybe my third attempt.
It’s 2020. A pandemic has erupted. One of its worst outcomes…loneliness. That’s our word for today.
I keep on living as if there will be a perfect time for me to explore and write about loneliness, but that time is not making itself available to me or at least not in a way that I can readily recognize. I really want to record this podcast. I really want to get some words out there about loneliness because so many people are wrestling with this very thing right now, even as businesses slowly reopen and we appear to be returning to the comfort that we once knew—although we’ll never actually return.
So if loneliness is such a pertinent topic why can’t I write about it?
Maybe it’s because I’m not lonely…and I don’t say that without being fully aware that many people are not in my shoes.
When I first read Shekaina’s words, I began writing about a period in my life where I felt very lonely. Then…it sat for days, a solid month, at least. So, instead of trying to unearth memories, instead of trying to make sense of the loneliness that didn’t make sense to me 20 years ago, I want to wrestle with where I am today.
I’m in a space of privilege. My days are full and are full of people—primarily my husband and our two children. I’m constantly thinking about others and I’m often touching base with them in some real way. It’s not just because I’m a pastor—this is who I was before stepping into this role. I was raised to embrace this sort of thinking.
Does that sound arrogant? It’s tricky to navigate this gently.
Perhaps it’ll take me another month to actually birth this podcast but I’m refusing to allow myself to spend time on any other topic until I finish this one—this is how tough it is for me and this is how necessary it is to me.
It’s necessary that I wrestle with the loneliness of others and how in the world I can, perhaps, step into that loneliness in a meaningful way—not as a pseudo-therapist, no not at all, and not even necessarily as that person’s pastor. No. Just how can I step into the shoes of human being who right now hasn’t made physical contact with another human being for two months? Perhaps they’ve waived as they’ve walked through their neighborhood’s side streets because so many more people are walking these days or biking these days or hiking trails they’ve always wanted to hike but never had time to hike.
So, yes, maybe there has been a wave to that neighbor. But they haven’t been able to hold a hand or…to hug as I just held my eldest child?
I hugged her because piano lessons have been rough the last couple of weeks. This new way of learning how to place your fingers correctly and how to bang out particular notes over FaceTime just isn’t working well and she’s becoming sadder by the day, it seems, and certainly on the day of her lesson.
I’d been outside pulling weeds with my youngest. I came back inside and saw my eldest on the couch looking like a mixture of mad and sad. When intertwined they create a distressing space for me as a parent because I want to be able to get into that space and change things for her, at least when it’s not me that has created the mix. No. When it’s me then I’m like, “Chick, you gotta step it up,” but when it’s somebody else I have this thing called Grace that appears within and extends beyond.
I saw my daughter there on the couch today and said, “Do you want a hug?” She shook her head “no”. Then I said, “Can I give you a hug?” and she nodded. I went over to her. She stood up on the couch and I held her for several seconds. In that holding, I wanted to say, “Hey baby you are going to be OK. This is not as crazy as it feels right now.” But I just hugged her and hugged her then I kissed her forehead and released her.
There are many of you who haven’t been able to do anything remotely close to that and you’ve needed to because someone’s been sick, because someone has died. There’s been some kind of deep grief that you’ve experienced and the only way you know to work your way through it is to be physically close. You haven’t been given that permission. You haven’t been allowed to step into that necessary space and you’ve wanted to so desperately.
I’m trying to step into your skin. I’m trying to understand how this sort of distance must feel for you. I’m trying to not take for granted the three other humans in my home. I’m trying and I don’t know how successful I’m being but I’ll try a little harder for you. I’ll try little harder and a lot harder.
I think another piece of my delay in getting all of this out, in unpacking loneliness based on how I’m currently experiencing life, is that I want to be able to fix it for you. I want to be able to provide a podcast “episode number three” that actually gives you tips. I didn’t realize it literally until this moment as I’m driving and recording onto an app that transcribes what I say, because hey this is the reality of my life. I cannot afford to sit at my laptop and type or use pen and paper which is what I would really love to do—there’s something very connected about that—kind of almost earthy.
But here I am having this epiphany. Ahh…I’ve wanted to fix it for you. I’ve wanted to offer something. Even though I don’t at all think in terms of “five easy steps” or whatever, even though nothing like that has crossed my mind in a concrete manner until this moment, I’ve wanted to change what you’re going through. I’ve wanted to somehow say something about my own loneliness that sparks something in you that says, “Not only am I not alone in my experience, but there is something that I can do to shift my reality.”
But I can’t give that to you so I’ve stalled, I’ve stalled on presenting you with this imperfect piece in which I feel like a pseudo-victor, like I’ve gotten the good end of the deal? Not the short stick? Whatever the metaphor may be.
Empathy is a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I realized that while I am in a good space, my sermon content needed to reflect the reality that others are in a terrible space or at least a really challenging one. As much as I will be the first or at least the third to whine about how juggling work and children is so tough, I realize this is nothing in comparison to what you are experiencing—job loss, cut hours, not being able to provide for families, not knowing how next year’s school bills will be paid because you were banking on this semester’s work hours to kind of boost your reserves and your landlord didn’t offered any COVID-19 relief. I realized I had to shift my perspective by thinking about people in my life whose current existence is causing them to spiral. Their anxiety has hit new levels. They are with their family but being with is not great.
I’ve also had to think about people I know who desperately want the government to say everything must open now because…because there’s peace there. Their business is tanking and if we could all just go back to what we used to be on February something, they would feel at ease. I’ve had to try to to shift my gaze and spend a while staring into a very unfamiliar space.
I’ve prayed: God, help me. Help me to be able to empathize and where I cannot somehow muster the courage (because I really think it takes courage to empathize) may I just shut up. May I leave my critique in my mouth. May it not travel into my phone, may it not enter the transcription that I then read from or preach from. Shut me up however I must be shut up so that another person isn’t hurt unnecessarily by one more callous perspective.
But empathy doesn’t do anything right now, it seems, and I am a doer. I want this to change your life and believing it won’t has kept me quiet.
Now that I’m speaking up, it would be really great if you could send me your top three needs. Toilet paper? I’ve got you. Cleaning products? absolutely. And if I don’t have you somebody else I know does and certainly lives close by. I’ve got a network, people!
Just let me know what you need and we will work through this together, right? Can we commit to that?
More than likely you won’t tell me and it’s possible that you won’t tell anybody. Your loneliness has shut you up from overall communication. A level of depression has set in and withdrawal is one of its side effects. I’ve been there, thinking no one else can possibly to anything to help me. I wish I could pull you back.
I checked the date. Shekaina wrote to me on March 31. It’s been 10 weeks. And as of four weeks ago, when I checked back in, she’s actually doing much better.
Perhaps a lesson is that it takes time to get to the other side. And that’s ok.