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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

All, All Alone

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, June 7, 2009


            You’ve probably all seen cartoons of Lucy (from Peanuts) sitting in her little booth, with the sign “Psychiatrist, five cents” one the front. One day, Charlie Brown (who else?) walks up to her and asks, “Can you cure loneliness?”

 

            Lucy answers, “I can cure anything.”

 

            Charlie Brown asks, “Can you cure deep-down, bottom-of-the-well, black-forever loneliness?”

 

            To which Lucy explodes: “All for the same nickel?”

 

Maybe there have been times in our lives when we’ve felt the same way as

Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:

 

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea !
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

 

But perhaps there have been other times when we’ve felt like Ralph Waldo

Emerson:

 

"Crossing a bare common, alone, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky,  without having in my thoughts any occurence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. … a decorum and sanctity reign… I am part and parcel of God…”

 

Sometimes, we’re home alone, by ourselves, with the cup of cocoa and the book, and we yearn for the madding crowd. At other times, we’re in the midst of the crowd, and we want nothing more than to get the heck out of there, get back home, and start reading that book—all by ourselves, again, alone.

 

Solitude and loneliness: not the same thing at all, are they? They feel different, and usually (at least if we’re tuned in on what’s going on inside ourselves) we can tell the difference.

 

 

 

“Solitude is employing the richness of self. Loneliness is facing the poverty of self,” the poet May Sarton once said. Objectively, either way—in solitude or on loneliness—we’re “all all alone”; we’re by ourselves. The question, I suppose, becomes one of how we’re going to face it; how we’re going to deal with it,

 

Of course, I suppose we process aloneness differently, according to our internal wiring. Some of us are introverts; some of us are extroverts.

 

Introverts are territorial; they “need space”. They need times and places to go to be alone, to “recharge their batteries,” when too much people contact wears them down.

 

Extroverts, on the other hand, are energized by contact with others; they seem to thrive on having lots of people around.

 

According to most studies, our culture is markedly extroverted in its outlook; extroverts make up something like 75% of the overall population. “Solitude is un-American,” wrote Erica Jong in Fear of Flying. “Indeed,” say the authors of one study, “western culture seems to sanction outgoing, sociable, and gregarious temperament.” We introverts are often a badly misunderstood lot. {sigh.} But enough self pity!

 

The fact of the matter, however, is that while most of “us” [you] may be extroverts, there is an awful lot of the critical stuff of life that we face all by ourselves. As Clark Moustakas writes:

 

“The deepest experiences the soul can know—the birth of a baby, the prolonged illness or death of a loved relative, the tortuous pain or the isolation of disease, the creation of a poem, a painting, a symphony, the grief of a fire, a flood, an accident—each in its own way touches upon the roots of loneliness. In all these experiences we must [eventually] go alone.”

 

Part of the great existential challenge of human life is how we handle this aloneness. Is it to be an oasis, a respite, a place of rejuvenation; or is our aloneness a prison, a harsh and alienating wall between us? How are we going to handle our aloneness? Alice Koller says that being solitary (as opposed to being lonely) is learning to be alone well.  She presents a stunning picture of what solitude can mean:

 

“[Solitude means] being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.”

 

A rare achievement, perhaps, in this busy-busy, extroverted world. (Maybe for introverts, it comes a little easier.)

 

Some people, of course, don’t handle this aloneness very well at all. As one of my colleagues has written:

 

“We humans try to deal with the anxiety we feel when we are lonely in many ways. Drugs [and] alcohol, can free us from loneliness for a time, although when the drugs wear off loneliness can return. Sexual contact, like drugs can free us from loneliness for a time, but just as with drugs, when the sexual activity is over the loneliness returns, often with even more intensity. Gambling, like drugs, can relieve our loneliness for a short time. Shopping can give us temporary relief. Eating can have the same effect for some people. Powerful rituals, such as the rituals of religion, or sports or politics the military, can for a time, overcome the feeling of being separate and different. Working long hours can also be a temporary solution to loneliness. Conformity with a group is still another way that we humans cope with our anxiety about being alone… It is all part of [our] effort to avoid the anxiety of loneliness.”

 

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber believed that a large part of our alienation from one another (and from God, and from life) emerged out of the way we related to each other, to the other beings around us. Too often, Buber believed, we developed “I-It” relationships with others, rather than “I-Thou” relationships. That is, we came to treat others as things, rather than as beings; as merely the means for achieving our own needs and wants, rather than as precious children of God in their own right.

 

We turn that other person into an “It” in a variety of ways:

 

When we put him or her into a category, and snap a label on them (“conservative”, “Republican”, “fat”, “gay”, “troublemaker”, and so on…) 

 

When we don’t care about their well being, and cling for dear life only to our own needs.

 

When we don’t try to understand what that other person is experiencing, or when we deny the worth and validity and truth of that other person’s existence, and cling to our way, our truth, our perspective as the be-all and end-all.

 

When we treat others as “Its”, we become isolated from them; we become alienated from them; then our separateness from one another becomes a prison, conjuring up all those demons of loneliness.

 

But when we treat one another as “Thous”-- as but extensions of our Greater Self, as joined with us in the interdependent web of all existence, as fellow pilgrims on this great spiritual search-- then we scale those seemingly insurmountable walls which separate us. Then, we are joined together as comrades and friends, even when we are apart from one another. We treasure their right to existence as much as our own. There is mutuality. There is respect. There is love.

 

So Martin Buber suggested, there were three healthy ways to transcend our feelings of loneliness:

 

First, we can create. We can overcome loneliness by engaging in some creative activity. We can paint, or sing, or write, or read. We can listen to that special piece of music, and let it words and music penetrate into us, and speak to our souls, and shatter our loneliness.

 

To break out of loneliness, we can create. And thus be joined with the great creative force at the very heart of the universe.

 

Secondly, we can commune with the natural world. We can take a hike in the woods, or go to the beach and watch the sunrise, or we can dig in the garden, or just go pull weeds. Becoming one with natural world casts all of our little human woes in the great circle of life. By joining as one with the Spirit of Life, our personal loneliness can be banished in our sense of deeper connection. 

 

And third, Buber said, we can relate. We overcome loneliness by entering into healthy relationships with others.

 

We create. We relate. We join as one with all Creation. And in so doing, we learn to be alone well.

 

The first step in creating a healthy relationship with others, I suppose, lies in creating a healthy relationship with our individual selves. “It's a sad man, my friend, who's livin' in his own skin and can't stand the company." Face it: we’re never going to be very comfortable being alone (under any circumstances) if we don’t know ourselves, honor ourselves, and (quite frankly) like ourselves. We spend too much time with ourselves not to enjoy the company! (At least most of the time.)

 

No, the self is the gateway to the soul-- the gateway to the spirit-- the gateway to God. Without a sense of personal esteem-- a sense that I matter-- a sense of ego (from the Latin: "I am."), there is no life worth living. Without this life-- with its laughter and tears and joys and defeats and stories to tell one another when we get home from work and letters from the past to reread and cherish over and over again-- without this life and each of our individual places in it-- there are no building blocks with which to build a genuine life of the spirit; no precious threads with which to weave the interdependent web of being.

 

Now, of course, there are those people for whom cultivating adequate self-esteem is not the problem. To the contrary, these are the people for whom I wish the big drug companies could develop a “humility pill” that they could take in the morning with their orange juice.

 

Remember the scene in the movie Titanic, where Leonardo DiCaprio sneaks on board the ship and rushes to the most extreme end of the bow (for which I am sure there is a nautical term I don't know), and stands there in triumph, and feels the wind against his face, and breathes in the salt air as the ship speeds forth, and holds out his arms, and cries, "I'm king of the universe!"

 

It's a wonderful scene. So inspiring and uplifting. The height of youthful self confidence and carefree abandon, it seems.

 

But don't forget what happened to Leo a couple of hours down the road, when he gets a rather icy bath in the North Atlantic .

 

Too much ego-- being too full of ourselves-- sets us up for that kind of icy reception from life.

 

When we put ourselves-- our little selves-- at the center of the universe-- we are creating a very fragile universe.

 

When we worship only at the altar of our own egos, our own self-importance, we are worshipping at a very small altar, indeed.

 

So, it begins with the ego, but it can’t end there. Not if these hours we spend here on this planet are ever truly going to capture the profound mystery and wonder which is this life. Even for the most introverted among us—even for those of us most comfortable in our own skin, and with being alone in our own presence—living this miracle of life requires other people (and cats and dogs, I guess, and other critters and creatures sometimes, too).

 

In my reading recently, I discovered something called the “First UU Church of the Internet”—for people who want to practice their Unitarian Universalism at home, by themselves, I suppose. There were on-line sermons, and readings, complete with links to other applicable web sites, and full bibliographies, and even discussion questions that you could comment on via email. It was all very interesting.

 

But something told me that it could never compare to working with others at the fair, or the spring yard sale. Or teaching Sunday school. Or listening to the choir sing. Or sharing a laugh while washing dishes in the kitchen. Or sharing a tear in a hushed conversation in the hallway. Or a hundred other gifts that being in religious community with others gives us.

 

Because, as Dorothy Parker once said, “People are more fun than anybody.”

 

And more powerful. As Marge Piercy wrote in her poem, “The Low Road”:

 


 

 Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know you who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

            It starts with one—with each of us. Cherish that one who is you. May we each enjoy and deeply love that one, blessed, wondrous soul each of us is. In the full glory of our individuality.

            It starts with one. But it can never end there. And the fuller “Me” always comes to fruition in the filler “We”.

The true self-- the deeper self—will always come to flower in a fuller, richer, ever-evolving, ever-expanding community of all blessed souls.

 

 


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