Sermon #40 (8th December 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
A couple of months ago, the members of the London Assembly – that is, the elected body based at City Hall whose job it is to scrutinise the work of the Mayor of London, conduct investigations, and make recommendations in relation to the way our city is run, agreed a motion on what they called ‘London’s Loneliness Epidemic’. They put out a press release as a follow-up which said:
‘More than half of Londoners find that the capital is a lonely place to live, according to new findings …we surveyed Londoners by age, gender and social grade on how loneliness impacts them… This follows the Government’s analysis of the UK [as a whole], which found that people living in cities are more likely to feel lonely than those living in other [regions]. In cities like London, changes in social structures, such as the decline of the number of pubs, as well as the frequency of lifestyle changes (such as moving house) mean loneliness is an issue that’s not specific to older people [as is sometimes assumed]. In fact, our survey found those over 65 are the least likely to say London is a lonely place to live or work. Loneliness is linked to a higher risk of early death, cardiovascular issues, poor mental health, inactivity, smoking, risk-taking behaviour, as well as cognitive decline…
What’s worse: there is an undeniable stigma surrounding loneliness. Research shows that 30% of British people said they would be embarrassed to say they felt lonely, which can be a leading factor in preventing people coming forward and seeking help.’
[Excerpts there from a statement put out by the London Assembly last month].
So today – in the second Sunday of our month themed on ‘Scarcity and Abundance’ – we’re pondering loneliness. Those of us who were here on Thursday for ‘Heart & Soul’ spent some time looking at ‘What We Need’ and we heard about how the need for connection with others is now considered a fundamental human need (alongside food, water, shelter, sleep, and novelty). So, in this view, loneliness might be thought of as a form of scarcity, really, in the sense that it is a lack or deprivation of something essential to our well-being, a shortage of something we might characterise as connection, relationship, attachment, intimacy, or belonging.
Even in a city of (near enough) 9 million people we can feel lonely. If anything the sheer weight of humanity can make it even more sharp: ‘water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink’.
In my reading on this subject I repeatedly came across a certain spiritual attitude which, in truth, got right up my nose! The gist of it is that we are all One, interconnected, and mutually dependent (I agree with that bit!) and so it’s all a question of reframing our perception (so, almost implying that if we were properly spiritual we wouldn’t feel lonely, cos we’d know nothing is really separate). I’m not saying there’s no truth in it – the underlying nature of things – our essential unity in Love. But it feels a bit insulting, verging on victim-blamey, towards lonely people who are really suffering.
As Elizabeth Tarbox put it, in the beautiful reading we heard from Jennifer, earlier: ‘There is no limit to my longing for love. Love is so elusive, and so precious, and doesn’t follow any rules… Knowing that love is not a limited resource, not an endangered species, doesn’t help at all. What does it matter if there is a vast ocean of love out there, if I’m not able to immerse myself in it; if I’m locked up in here, without a drop of that ocean’s moisture to bless me?’ I couldn’t agree more. So before we do anything else I think we need to simply acknowledge how awful loneliness is for anyone who is suffering it – and really witness the lonely wail of lament which so often gets suppressed through shame – that’s why I picked the strongly-worded quotation from Mother Teresa that’s printed on the front of your order of service this morning.
She said: ‘As far as I am concerned, the greatest suffering is to feel alone, unwanted, unloved. The greatest suffering is also having no one, forgetting what an intimate, truly human relationship is, not knowing what it means to be loved, not having a family or friends.’
Similarly, in this book on ‘The Philosophy of Loneliness’ by Lars Svendsen there’s a quote from William James reflecting on how intolerable it would be to live in a world where your existence, your being or non-being, seemed completely irrelevant to everyone else. He said: ‘No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met “cut us dead”, and acted as if we were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily tortures would be a relief.’ [end quote]
In my reading I often saw references to ‘The Lonely’ – as if there is a group of people over there [*gesture vaguely*] who carry ‘the mark of the lonely’ and the rest of us are alright thank you – but of course loneliness is an emotion, or a state of being, that comes to most of us, at least occasionally, though for some it is a more persistent and demoralising thread through life. At any given moment there might seem to be ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’, when it comes to meaningful connection, and perhaps we become more aware of that disparity at times like this – in the run-up to Christmas – when our culture is awash with images of Happy Families and Domestic Bliss which draw attention to what we might lack in comparison to these ideals.
Less dramatically though, think of how it is – what a lack it is – not to have significant connections in your life. To be without friends or companions with whom you can share mundane moments, talk about nothing in particular, tell of what’s happened in your day, all the joys and frustrations, and have them know and care about your story as it is still unfolding. To feel it matters to someone.
Philosophers talk about different sorts of loneliness: transient, situational, and chronic. Transient loneliness is the sort which might come upon any one of us at any time, a passing feeling, a lonely moment, maybe when we’re alone in a big crowd, or temporarily stuck at home alone. Situational loneliness has some identifiable external cause, like a bereavement or a break-up, and it tends to last for a longer period, maybe months or years, after the triggering event. Chronic loneliness is a long-term situation which is often related to having insufficient ties. The reasons for this may be ‘rooted in the self’ in some sense, in a person’s personality traits, or ability to reach out to others and make personal connections, but there’s more to it than that.
There are numerous contextual, political and economic factors which increasingly play a role in creating a climate where many are socially excluded. George Monbiot has written powerfully and movingly on how decades of neoliberalism have ushered in what he calls ‘The Age of Loneliness’ – just think back to those infamous words ‘there is no such thing as society’ – but Monbiot says: ‘Structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism… having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. We have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.’
In a world of job insecurity, short-term or zero-hours contracts, where relatively few people can expect to stay put in one place for long and put down roots, where working hours are often long and antisocial, and shift patterns are such that it’s hard to sustain regular social commitments – and where those out of work are hit by the lack of affordable places to meet & make connections, and all those other life-constraints that come along with being under financial pressure in austerity, (thinking, for example, of those whose disability allowances have been cut, limiting their mobility) – well, the findings of the London Assembly are unsurprising – loneliness and alienation will result.
Catholic theologian Gerald Arbuckle has written at length about this political aspect of loneliness and argues that, whether or not we are personally lonely at this instant, we have a responsibility to help alleviate the conditions which bring about loneliness – by working for the common good, seeking truth, fighting prejudice, welcoming the stranger, resisting the culture of individualism – and more generally doing what’s right for the most marginalised people in our society.
Whatever the root cause of loneliness for a person – situational, structural, or ‘rooted in the self’ – it can lead to a vicious cycle that’s hard to break out of. The more pressing and desperate our need for connection, the more it can cause others to back away from us, and the more we experience such rejection the more likely we are to misread social cues out of learned pessimism.
Someone who’s trying to offer people some practical tools to overcome loneliness is Kira Asatryan. She’s written this book – the book is better than the title, honest – it’s called ‘Stop Being Lonely’ (which to me sounds like she’s telling you off – kicking someone when they’re already down!). She makes the simple but astute point that loneliness is not a lack of people but a lack of closeness. This is why you can feel lonely in the middle of a crowd, or in a city of 9 million people, as we know. So the book gives you – sort of – a recipe for closeness. The author says that closeness consists of two things: ‘knowing’ and ‘caring’ (and being known, and being cared for, it has to go both ways). Both knowing and caring are verbs – things you do – they’re not states you fall into accidentally – they require intentional action. And the good news is that you can consciously work to build closeness with anybody who is at hand (and who responds positively to your overtures). By ‘knowing’ she means ‘understanding another person from that person’s perspective’ and she offers suggestions on how to have the deep conversations which make such knowing possible. By ‘caring’ she means ‘being able to feel and show that the other person’s well-being matters to you’ – not by trying to fix their problems – but paying attention, noticing how they’re doing, checking in.
It might sound obvious but if you’re stuck in a lonely place – as I know I have been at certain points in my life – the practical hints and encouragement this book contains might help nudge you out. Even if you’re not in a particularly lonely place you might find the advice on how to cultivate greater closeness is useful to deepen the connections and relationships you already have. There’s much more in there than I can pass on today – and I only have one quibble with it, which I’ll mention in passing – the author is a bit down on technology and suggests it causes loneliness. But I’d argue that prior to being able to engage in ‘knowing’ and ‘caring’, as she suggests you do, need to be able to have contact, be present in some sense, with another person. It strikes me that there are plenty of people who through no fault of their own are physically isolated (through reasons to do with illness, disability, neurodiversity, economic factors, and so forth) and as far as I’m concerned technology can provide a valuable alternative channel through which to connect.
In a sense, as Victoria Safford said in the reading we heard from Brian, we are all ultimately alone. But making meaningful connections – with ourselves in solitude, with others in community, and with God (or something beyond, however we may conceive of it) – is truly a religious act. As Safford said, ‘When I say God I mean that place of meeting, that place where solitudes join… God is the space in between, the bridge between solitudes, the ground where we meet, you and I, or any two, by grace… all of us, together, are alone, and the emptiness between us is waiting to be filled.’
So, if you are already blessed with connection and closeness… treasure it. And maintain it. Consider what you might do to nurture and deepen the web of relationships you already have. And if you’re not so blessed in this regard… then lament, if you need to, let yourself be sad about it. But think about reaching out too. Think about trying something new to connect and find closeness. Ask for what you need. And perhaps, as we return to our daily lives, each one of us can reflect on the part we might play to help create a less lonely society, through the choices we make – both personal and political – in the week to come. May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: