“Loneliness is a taste of death.”
A drastic description for a desperate state as offered by Jean Vanier. The founder of the L’Arche Communities which serve those with developmental disabilities throughout the world, Vanier is, and has been, an investigative, heart-engaged, life-on-the-line student of communal connection for a lifetime.
No mere lover of love, he has pondered deeply what it means to love actual people, and has made a devoted practice to this concrete affair ---something infinitely more complicated than loving our ideas about them.
Of course, Christians of all folks know that love is like oxygen for the soul, more necessary to human hearts than air to biological lungs.
And that is why Vanier, as a Christian, riffs on loneliness with such stark notes in his work Becoming Human:
“To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unloveable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.”
The Skeleton Key for Perplexing People
This insight is a skeleton key to unbolt a number of perplexing situations. What if the angriest, most injurious, or most critical voices we meet might be unwittingly and sophisticatedly masking a suffocating loneliness?
Could it be that solitariness of soul can fester to the point that its infection can lead to uncharacteristic rebellions or perhaps, to diseased impressions of others or oneself?
If Vanier is right, loneliness is one unconsidered malady of heart that might surprisingly factor in to an explanation for the disconcerting rancor, ugliness, and lack of charity in nearly all public interactions these days.
Of course, another saintly practitioner of suffering love, Mother Teresa, in her reflections, A Simple Path, came to a similar conclusion as Vanier:
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty -- it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
And Dave Hansen has connected important dots in suggesting that our hankering for and perception of God is invariably bound up in our experience of others.
“It is,” he sagely insists, “often difficult for the lonely to believe that God loves them if not one person who bears the name of Christ will even come to visit them.”
Those who have entrusted themselves to Jesus are, as CS Lewis famously described, “carriers of Christ”...and we carry him indeed.
We are assured Scripturally that “his love is made complete in us AS we love others.” And the converse is sadly proven daily as well. We’ve all bristled at times from the way some purported “carrier of Christ” dealt with us and then perhaps found the aftermath rough to shake as an interpretive grid for how God felt about us as well.
Just ask someone who has been jilted by a Christian contractor or Christian car salesman how being swindled, mislead, or badly cared for bolstered their faith!
“Look at All The Lonely People”
The lonely are all around us...and rarely are they clamoring for us to tend to their loneliness. Some may seem resistant to us. Others are allergic to the relational connection that would bring healing and repose to their inward lives.
There are also those may seem so unapproachable that we are intimidated to reach out to them. And of course, there are those who are housebound, stuck alone for more hours a day than you can fathom or they care to admit.
During this Lenten season, while we humble ourselves in repentance, perhaps we ought to ask forgiveness for failing to notice the forgotten. And then perhaps pray for Christ to open our eyes to the lonely around us. But not only that. That he’d also move us to visit them. To sit with them. To love them. To listen to them.
Invite them church. Visit them at their home. Ask them to lunch. Give them a call. See if they want to go on a walk.
And when you are with them, you don’t have to know what to do...because if they are not your dear friend, I can assure you, it may be awkward. Especially if you have been developing muscles on Facebook while your actual connecting skills have badly atrophied. But even when we don’t know what to do, we can ask Christ to help us listen to others so they know they matter.
Avoiding the “Dialogue of the Deaf”
In The Moviegoer,
Binx Bolling says, “I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.”
Of course, this should be no surprise to us who often learn that God loves us through his listening ear. As Bonhoeffer once noticed:
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear...
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.”
No one can single-handedly tend to all the lonely. I feel this weight acutely and shake my head in shame at all the lonely, isolated folks I know whom I never can seem to get to...but there are a lot of us in this city.
And our Savior lives to trample death in all its forms. He’s tasted the actual cosmic loneliness of isolation from God so we might know a reassuring, permanent togetherness with the One for whom we were made.
Since he’s welcomed us into that healing togetherness, perhaps we can actively set about to re-gift this prize that grants all the lonely a taste, not of the death to which they are accustomed, but of life more savory than they previously dreamed.
Eric Youngblood is the senior pastor at Rock Creek Fellowship (PCA) on Lookout Mountain. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GEricYoungblood.