Fear of Isolation

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
May 7, 2017

Psalm 139: 1-10 (CEB)
Lord, you have examined me.
You know me.
2You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
3You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
4There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
5You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
6That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
7Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
8If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
9If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
10 even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!

For decades, even centuries, humans spent the majority of their lives living in the same communities or tribes, with the same people. They learned together, they played together, and worked together, and married one another. Then they raised their children together, who continued the same cycle. In the last century, though, and probably really with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we became a much more mobile society. Now the number of folks who spend their entire lives in the same community is significantly lower, I believe the statistic is something like less than 25% of people stay in the same community for the duration of their lives. And, of course, the result of such mobility is that we build connections with others, then we move and those relationships, for the most part, are severed.

Now, that would seem to not be a really significant problem, considering that we are also a much more globally connected society than we once were. Through technology, phone, e-mail, social media, and video chat, we are able to maintain personal relationships even from across the globe. But the problem is, social media isn’t really very social. Somehow, on a bad day, or in the midst of difficult times, a sad-face emoji is just no substitute for a real hug from a person who really cares for you. And in the same way, posting a note about something great that just happened isn’t the same as getting together and celebrating with your friends and family. So the result of all this is that we are confronted with loneliness on a regular basis. And the truth is, loneliness hits a spot of fear in all of us.

Did you know that there are studies now showing that loneliness or isolation can have negative effects on our physical health? In fact, chronic loneliness is as unhealthy to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! We were not made for isolation. Now, that’s not to say we don’t all need some solitude, some alone time every now and then, but that’s different from isolation. Taking some “me time” is a far cry from the experience of loneliness and isolation that weighs heavy on the hearts of many.

You see, the thing is, we are social beings. We were created for relationship, for companionship. This is part of our God-given nature. First and foremost, we were created to be in relationship with God; this is fundamental to who we are. But we were also created for relationship with one another. Going all the way back to creation, you probably remember God creating day after day for six days, and at the end of each day. God looked at all that had been created and said, “It is good.” But then, in the second creation story, after creating the man, God looked at the man and said, “It is not good that the human is alone.” The first thing that God’s eyes saw that was not good was the isolation of the human. So God created a second human, a companion for the first. Companionship is at the core of who we are as humans, and when we are isolated, when we are alone and lonely, it is not good. So it is only natural that this something we fear.

And yet, there are times in our lives when we are isolated and alone. It doesn’t matter if we are surrounded by thousands of people or sitting on the same couch as our spouse, we can still experience such feelings of loneliness. The greater the isolation we feel, the more our thoughts and actions are shaped by those feelings. We begin to assume the worst about things that are happening around us.

Let me offer an illustration because I do this all the time, I know Ken does as well, and I’m sure many of you do, also. We imagine entire futures based on one event. And in our minds, we work out exactly how something is going to happen. A lot of times, when we are feeling lonely, isolated, or afraid, we are interpreting people’s actions in a certain way. So, for example, a co-worker doesn’t greet you one morning as usual. Or, a friend doesn’t answer the phone or respond to a message for some time. Most likely when something like that happens, there is a simple explanation, like our co-worker is having a busy day, or our friend is in a meeting or appointment, then got busy and forgot to return the message. But for some strange reason, such rational thoughts are not usually the first to come to mind. Whatever the impetus, our imagination almost immediately goes to work concocting the worst possible scenario. We wonder what we have done to make the other person mad. Or we think that something about ourselves has changed that has made us unattractive, and suddenly this person doesn’t want to be associated with us anymore. Do you all ever have these thoughts?

Sometimes, this happens, we have our negative thoughts, the person calls us back later, or greets us the next day and we move on. But then, other times, we experience this repeatedly, or our thoughts get the best of us, and the isolation continues, and so our uncertainty grows. And when that happens, we begin to withdraw. We don’t want to experience further rejection. Or, we feel like we are unloveable, or that we will never have friends, and so we avoid relationship altogether. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that such withdrawal only isolates us more, and then we get caught in this perpetual downward spiral. So, when you think about it like that, it’s really no wonder we fear isolation.

As much as I would like to believe otherwise, I think occasional feelings of loneliness are a fact of life. Because we are so mobile, because our family and friends are mobile, because of death, we will have these times in our lives when we feel isolated and disconnected. And because it’s pretty much a fact of life, then it is only natural that we would fear such times. But how do we deal with those fears and feelings of isolation in such a way that we don’t get caught up in a downward spiral of ever-increasing loneliness and isolation?

For starters, we have to recognize that relationships take work. As much as we expect people to greet us and return our messages, we must also do the same for others. If we want to be surrounded by others who can comfort us and celebrate with us, then we have to make ourselves available to do the same for others. Do you know what the number one indicator of happiness in retirement is? Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with the size of your 401K. The primary indicator of happiness in retirement is relationships. And so as much as we work on investing in our 401K, we should also be working on building relationships in our lives. When we move, which for the average American is now 11.7 times in a lifetime, we need to make room to get to know people and build new relationships.

Still, it seems a little flippant to say that if we don’t want to experience isolation and loneliness, we just need to work harder at getting to know people. There’s, of course, a lot more to it than just that. These are real experiences and real feelings that are sometimes beyond the realm of our control. But the good news is that our faith, our God, speaks to our loneliness.

To start with, Christ has given us the church. The church is a community of people who come together and find connections as brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is a community of people who love one another. The church is an assembly of people who gather to grow in their relationships with one another, and especially with God. We fear loneliness because we were made for companionship, but God has also made for us a place to build relationships, to find companions. And this is that place. So it is important for us to be here, but also to be a strong community. It is important for us to gather here, not only for companionship in our own lives, but to be the companion to another who is lonely.

But even more than that, we need to know that in God, we are never really alone. As St. Augustine once said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Remember, God created us for a relationship with God, and Christ Jesus has made a deep, personal relationship with our God possible. God loves us immensely and God never leaves us alone. That’s what Psalm 139 that we heard earlier is all about. God formed us and God shapes us. God knows our thoughts before we think them and our words before we speak them. The psalmist said God hems us in, behind us and before us, and places his hand on us. It’s like a hug. That’s how close God is to us. And there is nowhere we can go to escape God’s presence; not to the farthest reaches of the ocean, not even to death. God is with us, always, and everywhere.

There is a Vietnam vet who tells a powerful story, and knowing the nature of that war, I imagine he’s not the only one with such an experience. This particular soldier was captured by the Viet-Cong. As was the case with nearly all captured soldiers, he became a prisoner of war, and he was imprisoned in solitary confinement. He was beaten and starved and tortured in an attempt to get information out of him. And he remained in solitary confinement for five years, until the war eventually ended. Whenever he is asked about his experience and how he survived five years of solitary confinement, he’s answer is always the same: “I remembered that I was never really alone.”

Friends, as isolated as we may be, as lonely as we may feel, we are never alone. We can use our imagination to withdraw and imagine all the worst scenarios, or we can put our fear aside and imagine that God is with us and we are loved more than we could ever believe. Know this. Have faith in this. You are loved, you are never alone, and with God at your side, everything is going to be okay.

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