The Empty Room

Rev. Fiona Heath  May 3, 2015

 At one time writer Dorothy Parker had a small, dingy cubbyhole of an office in the Metropolitan Opera House building in New York. 

No one ever came to see her, and she became sad and lonely. 

She sat in the tiny office all day long, wishing for conversation.

So when the signwriter came to paint her name on the office door,

she persuaded him to write instead the word “GENTLEMEN.”

That is one way to deal with loneliness.

Everyone is lonely.  Not all the time. 

Some of us are busy enough, contented enough, to rarely feel that overwhelming sense of isolation and separateness. 

But most of us have felt it at one time or another,

and many of us live with it more often than we would care to admit. 

Loneliness is part of the human condition. 

Loneliness is feeling like being hungry in a place where it is taboo to talk about food.  It feels like something embarrassing, even shameful.

 

Many years ago I occasionally attended a women’s ritual group.  

We met infrequently, and I rarely saw them outside these occasions. 

At one session, we were gathered in a circle,

with light coming from a couple of dim lamps. 

We did our usual brief check in.

When it came around to a young, vivacious woman,

one that always wore a big smile,

she began with the usual news about her life. 

Then she paused, and said with great force,

“Lately I have been feeling so lonely.

I have a great husband and I love him dearly, but I feel so alone. 

I’m so isolated.

I live with this horrible sense of loneliness all the time.”  

The women who spoke out was intelligent,

with a good job, active with volunteer work,

lively and interested in all sorts of things. 

From the outside her life appeared full and fulfilling.

And yet she spoke with such heart felt anguish about feeling lonely.  

We all sat in silence for a moment. 

She asked us not to respond but just to move on. 

So we did.  

Perhaps it was enough just to have spoken the words out loud.

To have been brave enough to break the taboo.

To feel she had been heard.

Her anguished words continue to remind me of how much we depend on each other.

And how difficult it can be to acknowledge the state of our being.

Loneliness is painful. 

It is a sense of isolation, of exclusion,

of being cut-off from the liveliness of life.

Like being in an empty room,

hearing the noise of the crowd on the street beyond.

   

Severe on-going loneliness actually changes brain chemistry. 

Studies have shown that it increases our sensitivity to social signals,

while simultaneously disrupting the processing of these signals. 

This means as we experience lasting loneliness we began to misread social cues, and are thus more likely to make social mistakes.

Small problems present as catastrophes. 

Minor mistakes appear to be huge screw-ups. 

We react more intensely to the negatives,

and are less soothed by the positives. 

Loneliness can harden and solidify like a snail’s shell.

It can perpetuate itself, thickening into hyper-sensitivity.

A person begins to experience the world in negative terms.

And to expect and remember negative encounters and so become more suspicious of others.

We can get stuck in loneliness.

Loneliness is not the same as depression. 

Loneliness is not a mental disorder or a disease.

The woman from the group was not in any way depressed about her life, but her sense of loneliness was real and profound. 

And she is not alone in her lonely state.

It is part of the human condition.

And while loneliness can be an awful state of being, it can also be a gift.

It is a loud red alert siren, blaring out our need for connection.

Loneliness pushes us into reaching out for relationships.

The state of loneliness can also be a source of deep vision,

a time of seeing and sensing with great clarity,

a place of creativity.

The relationships we reach for might not be with other people, but with nature, or God, or even ourselves.

Sharon Butala moved to a southern Saskatchewan ranch after marrying her second husband. 

She knew that in this small farming community she would never be anything but an outsider.

And yet, “I was”, she writes, “… revelling in the freedom of my new life despite the inevitable loneliness, … I found solace in the extraordinary beauty of the land itself. 

On a warm spring day riding a horse… across true shortgrass prairie that had never known a plow in all its history since the glaciers,

I thought I had never smelled anything so wonderful in all my life: 

sage and grasses mixed with sunlight, carried on the light fresh air as it swept freely across miles of unbroken grass.” (from The Perfection of the Morning)

It is a true gift, to be able to “To transform the emptiness of loneliness to the fullness of aloneness.  That is the secret of life.” Sunita Khosia

Aloneness is not the same as lonely.

Being alone can be a cherished state.

Having space for the self can be refreshing, a gift,

an opportunity to expand our spirits.

Being present and aware of our loneliness takes strength.

Being able to live into the loneliness allows us to see clearly what we need to be ourselves.

It can help us be more present in the moment,

more attentive to the life surrounding us.

To live into the emptiness helps us see what we need to be full.

The trick is moving out of loneliness before it trips up our sense of social cues.

Sometimes we can’t manage to reach out to friends.

But we can sit on a park bench and lift our faces to blue sky and sunshine.

We can turn to nature, to animals, to life on the internet, to great art.

You can come here on a Sunday morning.

As Kurt Vonnegut said“the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

&

 

A couple of years ago, the Globe and Mail posted an article about the high levels of loneliness and isolation in today’s society.

In our commuter, one bedroom apartment, loneliness is escalating. 

Almost a quarter of Canadians describe themselves as lonely.

In the Globe and Mail story, actor David Sutcliffe talked about his own experiences with loneliness.  He notes

“There are a lot of people walking around who feel that they don’t fit in, they don’t belong. That sense of disconnection is really common.

But when you realize that you’re like everyone else,

not only in your dreams and passions but also in your pain and sadness, there’s incredible comfort in that.”  (November 23, 2013)

Even a spark of connection can provide a powerful sense of blessing. 

This does not mean pouring out your heart to the person sitting beside you on the bus; it can be as simple as a pleasant exchange with the Tim Horton’s cashier.  

Wendell Berry calls this conviviality,

a way to heal the world through positive exchanges. 

Our everyday interactions can be balms for the spirit. 

When we treat those around us with inherent worth and dignity – a smile for the stranger in the elevator – we are opening ourselves to being present in the moment.  It is that openness that grows connections. 

New Yorker Niven Busch didn’t believe in taking taxi cabs.

You get in, you go from here to there, you get out.

It’s not much of a journey.

He preferred the subway. 

On the subway, people bang into you, the train rocks and rolls, it doesn’t smell good, you can’t always get a seat, but life is going on there and it is wonderful.

In the subway car, there are lots of people, all kinds.

Wholesome people, beautiful people, and sick and miserable people too.

The student with the backpack. The mum with the baby in the stroller.

The old man with the ipad.

All are wayfarers in the journey of life.

(from This I Believe, ed. Allison and Gediman)

We are all in this together. 

And while there will be times we need to travel on our own in a taxi cab, to get exactly where we need to go, we also need to take that subway ride.

We need to remind ourselves we are journeying together.

Part of that messy terrible wonderful thing called life.

And if you don’t like the subway, you can come here instead.

We come together this morning to remind ourselves that even when we feel alone – we are also not alone.

This is the paradox we live with as Unitarian Universalists.

We know that loneliness and isolation are a part of the human condition.

We can’t prevent each other from feeling separate.

Look at the all lonely people, sang the Beatles, where do they all belong?

Right here.

That’s where.

That is the power of our spiritual tradition.

We know we all belong right here on this planet.

We all belong to one another, part of the interconnected web of life.

Everyone belongs.

We come together on Sunday mornings to remind ourselves that we all belong.

We turn to each other for those convivial moments which connect us.

It is my deepest hope that each of you leave here on Sunday morning feeling better than when you arrived.

That this subway ride of a worship service reminds you that you matter.

That you know you are missed when you are not here.

You may feel awkward and uncool, but don’t worry.

So do I.

We are the lucky ones, we have found our way here.

To those little positive exchanges that are balms for the spirit.

The conviviality we experience comes from all of us, travelling together.

 

It comes from the generousity of all those who volunteer to make this morning succeed – the greeters, the coffee people, the mentors of awe and wonder – and more –

and all of you who got out of bed and came through traffic to be here.

All of you who come and listen and offer your voices in song and your spirits in joys and sorrows.

This community is intended as a place of connection.

And yet…  people screw-up. People disappoint. 

We can’t always reach out in a positive way.

It can be easy to think that you belong, while that other guy….

We will feel lonely again.

We are not enough, fabulous as we all are.

So we come together to remind ourselves not just of the wonderful human connections we are growing, but that we also belong to a great and magnificent mystery.

We are all part of the cosmos.  

We belong to this earth, this moon, this sun, this solar system, this galaxy, this ever unfolding, ever mysterious universe.  

Our molecules are made of stardust from the big bang. 

We breathe the same air the dinosaurs were breathing 65 million years ago. 

We are all in this strange and beautiful ride of evolution.

We belong to the chalice, to the earth, to the mystery. 

Even in our loneliest times, we belong.

I invite you in the days to come, to consider who among your bright and shiny friends might actually be very lonely.

Invite them for tea.  Take them on a subway ride.

Invite them for a Sunday service.

May we welcome them with open arms.

May we welcome all the lonely people.

May we remind them they belong right here.

Right now.

With us.

So say we all.

 


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