Loneliness affects us all at some point or another. Jeff’s testimony reminds us that God can fix even the deepest loneliness.
For years, decades, before I became a born again Christian, loneliness was my best friend. As the old saying goes, “with friends like this, you don’t need enemies.” Even when I was a sophomore in college, I had to admit that I was isolated from my fellow human beings. I took a course in adolescent psychology with Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock, who, in one lecture, described “the star isolate.”
This type of personality might be someone who is popular, who excels, who has friends, and is generally gregarious; yet, he or she at a deep psychological level is isolated from other human beings. A similar problem was noted in Sylvia Plath’s book The Bell Jar. Sylvia was herself a poet who experienced a sense of isolation and intense torments of loneliness even though she was married. Eventually, she committed suicide.
And sometimes this loneliness is described as fear of intimacy or closeness with others. However, it is worth noting that loneliness is not necessarily a condition experienced by “loners” only, but can be experienced by anyone. In fact, one of the classic books in sociology, The Lonely Crowd, written by Leonard Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny in the 1960’s described the remarkable loneliness found within the American social order despite a superficial gregariousness and friendliness in the population. For Glazer, Riesman, and Denny, this was associated with the “other-directed” personality, people who were trying to please others, to somehow fit in with the expectations of others, but who lacked a solid core of inner motivation and purpose. Another personality type addressed in The Lonely Crowd is called anomie. The person with anomie actually has a deficient self concept, neither able to achieve purposeful behavior from within, nor to pick up sufficient cues from others to become “other-directed.” Rather, they lack not only character, but lack identity. It is defined by the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; also: personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.”
If one grows up as an only child as I did, that in itself is not the basis of one’s loneliness.
All only children do not find themselves as experiencing extreme loneliness. As we see above, loneliness is not mainly defined by behavior, but by inward conditions based on one’s values, identity, purposes, norms of behavior, ideas about who other people are, what they expect of one, the extent of competitiveness in one’s personality, the sensitivity of as well as the capacity for empathy of the individual, and the degree to which one’s personality is self-absorbed.
Further, as I learned from the pain of bitter experience, the books on sociology and psychology consistently omit one’s relationship with Almighty God when depicting the sources of one’s loneliness and alienation. Thus, the spiritual dimension of experience, which is the linchpin of all other variables is neglected.
When I had the privilege of teaching Expository Writing at Pennsylvania State University, the course was developed around the concept of alienation. All our studies in reading essays, poetry, and short stories as well as the writing assignments were built around alienation of self from self, alienation of man from woman, alienation of humankind from nature, and alienation of self from God. Despite my lack of faith in Christ, I had been influenced to some small degree by the writings of Soren Kirkegaard, and saw that my own experienced belief in God was accompanied by an even stronger alienation from God, and I was interested in examining that sense of alienation. In fact, looking back on my mindset at that time, it is clear to me that my greater interest in my alienation than in seeking God was itself indicative of my fallen and sinful condition. In today’s theology, we could say that that other alienations between self and self, between self and others, and between self and nature were horizontal alienations. And alienation from God is a vertical alienation.
I had friends. I went to parties. I was elected to various leadership positions as an undergraduate student. I was hired into various prestigious teaching positions as a graduate student. I went out on dates. Some girls liked me, but one described me as “conceited,” another said that I always had to be right and was too argumentative, and there were others whom I wished to impress but who were never impressed by me. I helped one young woman to find a doctor so she could get an abortion in Washington DC. My mother had not described me as good looking, but would always say that I was “interesting looking.” I took that to be a euphemism meaning I was not good looking. This was augmented by my hair beginning to come out little by little beginning in my twenties. Would I be able to marry before I lost “the bloom of youth?”
I had told my father about my fear of not being able to find a wife, and about losing my hair. He chuckled in a friendly way and told me not to worry as he would help me find someone. I didn’t know what he meant by that, but felt that somehow, some way, he would come through for me. Nonetheless, although I looked like a scholarly and decent young man, I continued to have an inordinate and adolescent concern about whether or not my appearance was acceptable and attractive. However, my father died when I was twenty-one, and I felt I no longer had someone to support me with my wife-search problem.
Fast forward now through almost two decades of heavy drinking, failed relationships, setbacks in my academic career aspirations, more than ten years of writing and editing employment in marketing and consulting publications in commercial banking and export/import , various temporary college and high school teaching positions, writing of hundreds of poems, short stories, and essays, odd jobs including school bus driver, security guard, retail small appliance clerk, teacher of physically handicapped and delinquent teens, attendant to the developmentally disabled, lathe operator, livery car driver, high school English and social studies teacher, and global wanderer (I took a job teaching in an international school in Teheran, Iran where I contracted amoebic dysentery among other horrible experiences).
Thus, I had gone from the heights of Ivy League education and contacts with some of the country’s highest political figures and executives to some of the grittiest jobs on the planet. I had had lunch with and attended meetings with the likes of Sen. Gary Hart and Sen. Alphonse D’Amato and with various dignitaries of U.S. Customs, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, and leaders of business in exports, imports, and banking. Yet, during my years of wandering, I was assigned to guard the Harvard Club in New York City, but didn’t tell anyone that I held a degree from that institution. Another time, I was guarding a store in Midtown Manhattan, and in walked my former boss, a VP from the large commercial bank that was my former employer – she was a graduate of Princeton – and there I was guarding the merchandise. We exchanged embarrassed hellos.
During that time of wandering, I was a security guard at a construction site. I occupied a portable toilet that had been converted into a guard shack with a small space heater, and I sat in there during the dark night hours with sub-freezing temperatures outside. On one of my shifts, local ten year old boys climbed the scaffolding at the site and began pelting me with rocks, as I hid in my “shack” while the stones came raining down.
My uprooted wandering meant I had fewer and fewer stable relationships. I would move from place to place, getting along with people; yet close to no one. The loneliness I had known when I was an undergraduate “star isolate” grew deeper and more intractable. Living in the midst of the most populated city in the USA, I became increasingly lonely. Who was I? Why was I on this planet? What hope was there for me?
In an attempt to connect, I went to a meeting held by an old woman in a Catholic Church. She represented a teacher in New Mexico known only as The Professor. She seemed lonely too, as lonely and an outsider as much as I, but she had stability in the philosophy of The Professor, a strange blend of yoga meditation and exercises, Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, and a written collection of “The Teachings of The Professor.” The Professor, an individual whose name I learned was Cyril F. Kilb, lived in New Mexico and was in charge of an entity called The Motivational Research Institute. I became more and more involved with The Program.
At first, there were only two of us who were regular attendees at the meetings in the church, but eventually the other lady dropped out, and CVD continued to meet with me alone for a number of years. At first I felt some relief from the loneliness I had been experiencing. In CVD I had made a connection. She was someone I could talk with about what was happening in my life everyday. We would meditate at each meeting, and that made me feel so-so “spiritual.”
In fact, I was so grateful that I began making larger and larger weekly contributions to The Program. I took a second job so I could give more money to The Professor (she would turn the money over to him), and also to keep busy, with the assumption being that keeping busy would help take my mind off myself and thus, to some degree, ameliorate my loneliness. It worked up to a point: someone to talk to, keeping busy, having someone to have dinner with, being accountable to another, and activities at the local Catholic churches like attending masses, saying the rosary, praying through the stations of the cross, and feeding the homeless all gave me a sense of connection and purpose. CVD had become my closest friend as well as my teacher and my spiritual [sic] director. I remained in that relationship for more than ten years. She was the only person I spoke to at any length except for a few brief polite conversations with my neighbors.
When I broke free of The Program, I found myself alone again. After ten years, I had no one to talk with. Someone I knew said she saw me talking to myself in the street. She said I looked deeply disturbed. I had experienced a life of desperate loneliness from my teens until I encountered The Program. In The Program, I felt exploited, but I still, for the first time as an adult, had someone with whom I could talk and confide on a regular basis. Then, after leaving, I was more lonely than ever – more than in my days of being a star isolate, more than when I was oppressed by the competitive demands of graduate school, lack of intimacy, and lack of love in my life. More than in my days of wandering.
Wait….! Did I not just mention “love” in a previous sentence? Finally, in The Program I had made a connection. I had stabilized. I had stopped wandering. I had someone to talk to. I had someone to discuss my problems, successes, and personal failings with. Yet, it was an exploitive relationship. Was there love? When I stopped participating, when it was over, I was talking to myself. I was experiencing loneliness even more intensely than in my days of wandering, than in my student days, than at any point in my life. Now I was plunged into even deeper despair. I no longer had a loneliness based on being other-directed or from the psychic dysfunction of anomie.
I really knew the agonies of Hamlet’s deep query, “To be or not to be, that is the question….” I understood MacBeth’s agony which I had recited in high school when he says, “Life is a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing….” I experienced the loneliness that comes from a sense of utter meaninglessness, utter absurdity, and utter hopelessness. My soul was bound by pains of experiencing the profoundest sense of rejection, dislocation, isolation, and above all, lovelessness. These terms defined my loneliness. My very being was experienced as a dirty, used mop that had been cast into the waste bin of time and space.
Yet, I had considered myself a “seeker” throughout my 20 years of wandering. I was looking for truth, for God, for ultimate meaning, for a point of perfection, even for absolute perfection. As early as 1975, I had an argument with a couple of folks in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania about the relativism of the many competing philosophies, beliefs, opinions, points of view, etc. that I observed. Everybody certainly had a right to his or her opinion, but all I saw were all those competing “right views” emanating from millions of egos. How could it not be that some might be more right than others? And if another point of view was more “right,” then there would have to be a standard for assessing that rightness? Or, perhaps the truth lay in a point of view that wasn’t expressed by anyone? These were some of the questions that assailed me. Wasn’t there a more credible approach to living and to thought than the one I observed? The Program had seemed to be the answer; yet my outrage at turning over so much money to The Professor, and the cul de sac it seemed to be when I left in a state of terror, dislocation, and despair showed me that what I had thought was true and absolute was bogus and illusory.
I kept writing, kept seeking, kept reading books, kept teaching, kept talking, kept searching for love. Only later would I understand that actually I was not seeking at all, but running away from “the Hound of Heaven,” who was calling me to His kingdom and His love, truth, and eternal life.
Then, during one lonely Christmas season in 1987, I was busy cheering myself up singing Christmas carols in my furnished room in Midwood, Brooklyn. As I was singing and rejoicing in Christ’s birth, comforted by the singular peace of “Silent Night,” gentle but powerful words invaded my stressed out brain, “You must be born again….” I had seen many televangelists, and listened to them on the radio. At the suggestion of one radio preacher, I had laid my hand on the radio and prayed that I would forgive a previous boss for having fired me. (I was still under the illusion that religion was a form of magic, and that it includes different magical rituals.) I really had no understanding of salvation by grace through faith. It was just say the “right words” [sic], practice the “right rituals” [sic], and do the “right deeds” [sic] in the name of Christ, and then, well, then you were going to escape hell, and could walk with dignity and hope on this earth. However, I was soon to learn what Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Puritan fathers, Jonathan Edwards, and millions of others found in the testimony of their walk with Christ.
“You must be born again….” I heard these words, and balked. They came as thoughts, but I sensed deeply they were thoughts from God. “But I am born again, aren’t I?” I protested. . Again, the words penetrated to the deepest center of my being, “You must be born again…there’s a church for you on Flatbush Avenue.”
The next day, I walked the four blocks up to Flatbush & Foster Avenues. Looking left and then right, my gaze fastened upon a large cross hanging in front of a storefront church. It was a classic sign. The words on the cross read, “JESUS SAVES.” I approached the front of the church, and there was a telephone number to call. Later that day, I called, and a woman with a heavy Jamaican accent answered the phone. I asked when the next service was, and she said that in two days there would be a children’s play – not a real service mind you – but a family night when Christ’s birth would be celebrated.
Two nights later, I arrived and the lights were dim as the play had already begun. As I sat down, one of the old women of the church nodded hello to me, and patted my arm. “Jesus is love,” she said, repeating the words two or three times to me as the play proceeded. Her name was Sister Duncan, and her words were so reassuring, so kind, and so comforting. After the play, the congregation sang a few praise songs and hymns, and, at the pastor’s suggestion, the evangelist who was leading the singing had an altar call. Because I was partially obscured by a pillar, neither the pastor nor the song leader even knew I was in the room.
When the call was made, I left my seat behind the pillar and walked down the aisle to the pulpit. I had gone there hoping to be born again, hoping that there would be an altar call as I had seen many on TV, and it seemed that the desires of my heart were answered. At that point in time, I did not know that I was being led by the Holy Spirit. I did not understand that I was being led by Christ himself to a new life in Him, but I was still filled with expectancy and excitement at the prospect, however vaguely defined, of being born again. My deep longing for a deeper walk with Him was being answered by the God of all creation. Had he not put that longing in my heart? Had he not pointed the way during my long, lonely, labyrinthine walk out of my atheism and overly-intellectual approach to life (my pride and false sense of self-sufficiency)? On that night, I was led to take a great turn in the road of life, and to begin to walk 24/7 with my Lord and Savior.
Then, following my answer to the call, I learned that the church was having a baptismal service in two weeks. Normally, they have instruction sessions for those who would be baptized, but recalling Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, the pastor agreed with Philip’s rhetorical reply, namely “what shall hinder you?” and admitted me to be baptized in two weeks.
Since that wonderful time 25 years ago, I have never looked back, never regretted nor questioned for one second becoming a Christian. After two years in the church, many of the old Jamaican ladies who had grown up in the church, and saw me almost six days a week (I was always in church or visiting other churches) assured me that I was truly born again, and I found a rest, hope, peace, love, and joy that I had never experienced in my entire life. Yet, I still had a lot of growing and maturing to do, and believe that I am still growing in Christ as he sanctifies my life, and leads me on the path of being made “conformable to Jesus Christ” as he readies me for my heavenly home.
So many times I have acted in many strikingly un-Christlike ways; yet, He never failed to show me His mercy and forgiveness as I have struggled to conform myself to the Word of God. He has given me wisdom where I have been ignorant and inept. He has shown me how to be more kind and compassionate when I felt disgust, and wanted to walk away from problems or people. He has given me more patience and peace when I wanted to blow my top.
He has replaced my lonely book-centered life, with family love and a Christ-centered life. He replaced my discouragement with teaching, and restored me to my career as a teacher even when I was past 50 years old. Now he has given me a healthier body to help me better enjoy my old age, and to better serve him. He has opened my mind to be able to understand theology, which I had been unable to fathom or penetrate until about eight years ago. My search for truth, begun decades ago in the Ivy League, through many trials, temptations, and snares, through sidetracks of all kinds – high status sidetracks, dangerous sidetracks and sidetracks into extreme poverty – and through the wrongheaded attempt to blend Eastern philosophy and practice with the Truth of the Christ, I came to know He Who Is The Creator of the Universe, and Who Saves Through the Power of His Life, Death, and Resurrection.