Monday, February 27, 2012

"Between Solitude And Isolation" by Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela

Between Solitude and Isolation
by Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela
Preachment:  First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo
19 February 2012

This sermon was largely inspired by Emily White's book:  "Lonely;  Learning To Live With Solitude."

Years ago, thanks to the combined circumstance of a family illness, leaving the workplace to telecommute from home, and yet another move to yet another town, I cultivated a habit of isolation.  Though it would be hard for those who know me now to understand, there were a few years when it was not unusual for me to go weeks without having any conversation outside of my tiny family unit of husband and son, except for niceties with the mailman or the grocery store clerk.  Isolation breeds on itself, so the more I was alone, the more I craved aloneness, the more normal it seemed, and the more stressful it felt to ‘deal’ with other people.  I became more morose, more depressed, more withdrawn.  And the more withdrawn I became, the more stressful any interaction with others became, and the less inclined to seek out company.  It is what author Emily White describes as a situation of “emotional anorexia” (White 295)[1].

It is easy, from my current perspective, to look back and see the pattern as it evolved, to understand how, when I started working from home, I lost my social connections at work; I was living in a conservative area, so I had little in common with my neighbours; my family of origin and friends lived far away; the nearest Unitarian congregation presented transportation problems.  Over time, I’d become disconnected.  And the ironic result of disconnection is that to survive it, one becomes accustomed to it, even craving it.  It took, not a wake-up call, but a near wake-up FALL to change my life. 

One day, with my son and husband away from home, I climbed atop a tall ladder to do some household chore.  Perched precariously at its top rung (the step above the one that says, do not climb higher), the ladder suddenly tilted to the right and I lost my footing.  I scrambled to the left, grabbing a curtain rod on the wall and barely righted myself, setting the ladder back on its legs, and my own wobbly legs firmly beneath me, and retreated to the “topmost” rung of safety.  My heart pounded in my chest and I breathed deeply.   I reflected that with my family gone for the week, and in my state of isolation, had I fallen, there would be no one – no one – who would know I was lying in need at the foot of a fallen ladder.  No neighbour would know to look for me, I had no appointments; I expected no callers.  I would not be missed.

It frightened me enough, that I shortly thereafter took the risk of volunteering for our housing community board.  I needed to start belonging somewhere.  I confess . . . I hated it at first.  I hated the drama; I hated the personal politics; I sometimes resented the interruption of the obligations I’d volunteered for.  But I also started coming back to life in a new and curious way.  It was the beginning of a new life, of finding a balance in my life between the tension of the habit of isolation and the choice of solitude. 

I am someone who seeks solitude in larger doses than most.  My tolerance for aloneness is high, a longtime habit of a childhood spent in dark corners and in little self-made caves under desks and in closet corners where I would read books and write my little stories.  Solitude serves me well still as a writer.  I relish the quiet of my empty apartment.  I do not crave constant companionship.  Alone, I can hear the whisper of my soul, singing me into being.  Alone, I can fully feel my breathing, listen to my heartbeat, and learn the yearnings of my potential.  Alone, I can let go of all pretension, role, and expectation.  Alone, I can be truly spontaneous.   Alone, I notice insights that otherwise dissipate amidst the noise of others – not just noisy others, but the noise in my own head, when I am around others, because there is a constant awareness and filter I apply to accommodate people nearby.  Alone, wandering through a park or a museum, I can commune with creativity itself.  I don’t have to censor my reactions, scripted toward someone else’s acceptance or crafted for their approval.  Solitude is the site of spiritual awakening and awareness.  It is a spiritual practice, which I carefully guard  because it is only in solitude can I forge truly original ideas.  So, I welcome time alone.  I am solicitous of solitude. 

But solitude has its limits.  It requires balance.    As humans, we are biologically hardwired to be communal creatures (White 227).  We must balance our alone time by time spent among others. To not do so, or to be bereft of company leads to isolation.  Isolation breeds loneliness.

An article in “Psychology Today”[2] draws a clear distinction between solitude and isolation.   “Solitude [as] the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company. . . . Solitude suggests peacefulness stemming from a state of inner richness. It is a means of enjoying the quiet and whatever it brings that is satisfying and from which we draw sustenance. It is something we cultivate. Solitude is refreshing; an opportunity to renew ourselves. In other words, it replenishes us.  Loneliness is harsh, punishment, a deficiency state, a state of discontent marked by a sense of estrangement, an awareness of excess aloneness.  Solitude is something you choose.  . . . It is the necessary counterpoint to intimacy, what allows us to have a self worthy of sharing. Solitude gives us a chance to regain perspective. It renews us for the challenges of life. . .  [In short, ]  Solitude restores body and mind. Lonelinesss depletes them.”  Or , as theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “Language . . . has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone.”

Writer Emily White chose to engage with her own chronic loneliness with curiosity.  She explores her own journey and learnings in her book Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude where she draws a distinction between social loneliness and emotional loneliness (White 170-1).  Social loneliness may be experienced by people who may have a family at home, but lack a broader social network – friends or colleagues, neighbours or networks.  Emotional loneliness is experienced by many single people.  They may have many friends, but no intimate relationships.  This explains how a person might still feel lonely, even having some connections, but not of both types.  And this is where it gets hard for lonely people to safely name and explore their feelings. 

Loneliness sounds damning, and even accusatory as a diagnosis.  To admit to a family or friend that you are lonely seems insulting to them, and is often misunderstood and negated.   The result is that it gets conflated with depression  (White 259).  There are those who have a harder time accepting or experiencing connection for reasons we do not understand.   There is, of course, situational loneliness -- a break up, a death, a move -- that create a temporal sense of loneliness as an appropriate response to losing one’s accustomed network or intimacies.  But there is also the trait of loneliness,  a loneliness that some are born with, inclined to, or learned from an early instability in childhood relationships.  And this is much harder to cope with, combat, or understand (White 181).  One researcher writes “Loneliness[3] occurs on two conditions. The first, a person must feel rejected or excluded by others, the second is that the rejected or excluded person wants to be accepted or included.  Loneliness is a state of alienation that is “deeply rooted in permanence.”” 

Another aspect of loneliness is its subjective or objective reality (White 186).  A person’s loneliness may be fueled by isolation, either chosen or imposed.  But it is also possible to feel lonely in a roomful of people, or with one’s own family.   Both are intensified by circumstances of our modern life. 

Today we live more disjointed lives, even as technology has created more ways to virtually connect, the actual physical connective tissue of person-to-person has disintegrated.  “Between 1960 and 1980, the number of people living alone soared (White 186).  The isolation has fueled loneliness to a near-epidemic. 

Consider the statistics, since the 1970’s the average time spent at work in the course of a year has increased by a full month’s worth of work hours – in other words, we are working 13 month’s of work hours in a 12 month year now (W 213); today one quarter of Canadian household are composed of a single individual, similar to the United States, and in the UK, 32% of households are people living alone.  It’s a huge jump from prior generations (W 216). 

Those of us living alone have sometimes called ourselves a ‘family of one’ . . . but it’s ingenuous, isn’t it, when the word ‘family’ means ‘more than one.’ I may be enough, but I alone do not constitute a family.  What reality are we hiding from?   Living alone does indicate a degree of isolation, but is not necessarily equated to loneliness.  However, a social survey from the US which I’ve cited before indicates that isolation is on the rise, too.  When asked how many people a person might talk to about important matters – a way of measuring intimacy – in 1985, most people could name 3 confidantes in their lives.  But by 2004, the same survey revealed the average number of confidantes was close to zero.  In fact, 25%  had no one with whom they could confide.  No one.  And nearly 20% could count only one confidante.  As a culture, we are becoming lonelier (White 232), and ironically, at a time communications technology has exploded and expounded the number of virtual ‘friends’ you might find on the internet or via email, Facebook, or the Twitterverse.  While these connections can serve as a lifebuoy to the lonely, they are no substitute for physical connection.  Author Emily White explains these internet relationships as “absent presences.”  She writes:  “Someone might say that they’re a part of your life if they email you, or if you can read about them on MySpace, but this is a long way from having someone literally on hand.  To state the obvious:  you can’t cry on a digital shoulder, you can’t hold a digital hand, you can’t take comfort in a presence that isn’t actually there.  As humans, we’re hardwired to seek a sense of togetherness and community . . . . If you’re staring down a lion, what you need are other people on hand with tranquilizer guns.  The fact that someone might be sending encouragements on their BlackBerry doesn’t really cut it.”  (White 233). 

In the few studies of loneliness conducted by researchers, it is identified as a serious public health issue.  Loneliness is bad for your health.  Two different studies of mortality rates and loneliness have shown that, in these limited test cases, that ‘the lonely were more likely to have died than the nonlonely.  The ratio was 2 to 1!  (White 96-98).  So, right along with other efforts to recommend to the public that we stop smoking, exercise more, and eat a balanced diet --  these researchers also strongly urge that we find ways to get connected to others (White 98) in order to lead a long and healthy life.  Despite the studies, loneliness is usually relegated to a self-proscribed circumstance rather than recognized as an actual problem or propensity. 

Standing against the social trend of disconnection and virtual relationships, is the time-honoured tradition of gathering as a congregation.  Consenting to be together, here on a Sunday morning, in the fellowship hall sharing a cup of coffee, and in our classes and events, in our playgroups and pub nights.   Gathering as a congregation is one way we combat the very real issue of this disjointed and disconnected society at large.  You heard me, I just named the congregation as a cure for isolation.   Church is good for your health!  Understand, and some of you know, there is no lonelier place than a crowded fellowship hall during coffee hour where you know no one.  But in this community of people, there are also opportunities to connect in classes and volunteer spaces to get to know people.  And it is especially important for those of us who are a ‘family of one’ to seek out connections actively, to put ourselves in the flow of activity so that we have a balance of time with others.  Time with others helps balance other stress in our lives; it serves as a reality check; it helps to mirror our own behaviour, and it helps give us fuel on which to reflect on a wider aspect of the world than our own single brains can conceive.  Every experience expands our own understanding.  Others help us grow.   

And the work of a congregation is a two-way street of belongingness and welcoming.  New studies about why the next generation of congregants are arriving at our door is that they are looking for connection – the hope for friendships.  People do not join a church because of its theology.  They do not join us because of our history.  They join because there are other people here with whom  they hope to forge connections, share their values, and live their faith.  People come to church for conversation not conversion.

And connection need not mean busy-ness.  There are also opportunities here to encourage a soulful solitude – at meditation and other spiritual practice classes, and even in the anonymity of a crowded Sunday morning, where you might sit in a pew and pause in your busy lives to simply BE as one, in company of others, for reflection.  A congregation is one of the few places left in our communities where multiple generations gather and work and process together.  Here you will meet a mix of people from different perspectives, from different backgrounds, and from different beliefs.  For those wanting to find connections, I urge you to sign up for a class or attend one of our other, smaller events.  The best way to meet people is still to volunteer to work downstairs in the classrooms, the kitchen, the AV equipment, or as a worship associate.  It is a way to be known, to practice a voice.  Take the risk of relationship, and put yourself in the flow of things.  And for those more comfortable with being outgoing, take a chance to greet a stranger, and for goodness sakes, get out and go have lunch with someone new.  Start a conversation, and connect.  Really connect. 

In closing, I cite a historical precedent.  Remember, that one of our most famous Unitarians, Henry David Thoreau, who waxed philosophical about his blessed solitude ‘on Walden Pond,’ still often walked to town in that otherwise lonely year to have dinner with his friend and Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife to converse about the value of selective solitude.  May it be so for all of us, that we find balance in the company of self and others.

[1] This sermon was largely inspired and informed by Emily White’s book Lonely:  Learning to Live with Solitude.  Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart Ltd.  2010. 

[3] Rubin Gotesky: ‘Aloneness, Loneliness, Isolation, Solitude’ November 30, 2007 by vconlon accessed at