Several years ago, writer Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker shared the story of his four-year-old daughter’s imaginary friend. A very concerning story, because this was no usual childhood playmate who shares toys and dutifully takes orders. This childhood playmate, with the name of Charlie Ravioli, was always too busy to play. The parents would watch their little girl punch a number into her imaginary cell phone and put it to her ear and they’d hear her say, “Meet me at Starbucks in 25 minutes!” and then, after a few moments, see her crumple. “What happened, sweetie?” “He already had another appointment.”
Other times: “He cancelled lunch. Again.”
Still other times, his imaginary secretary Laurie would answer the imaginary phone, say, “He’s in a meeting.”
Charlie Ravioli was always too busy to play.
And this is how one four-year-old prepared herself for life in what journalist George Monbiot calls “The Age of Loneliness.” Down to the deepest part of her world—her imagination—she reconciled herself to being left out. She prepared herself to miss out on friendship and fun and also being known, being seen, being heard.
Because: people are too busy.
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
For the authors of The Lonely American, Jacqueline Olds, M.D. and Richard Schwartz, M.D., a significant part of the answer is that loneliness emerges, ultimately, out of a push-pull social dynamic. “The push,” they say, “is the frenetic, overscheduled, hypernetworked intensity of modern life. The pull is the American pantheon of self-reliant heroes who stand apart from the crowd. As a culture, we all romanticize standing apart and long to have a destiny in our own hands. But as individuals, each of us hates feeling left out.”
One reason we hate it is because the feeling is literally a matter of physical pain in our bodies. Experiments have shown that there’s a portion of the brain deep in the frontal cortex—part of a complex alarm system—called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Stub your toe and it activates, and that’s the source of the pain you feel. Catch your fingers in a drawer, and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex howls, “MAKE THIS HORRIBLE FEELING STOP.” But what’s truly amazing is that scientists have shown that the howling also happens when one feels excluded. Experiments were set up that involved no physical harm at all, just feelings of being left out. It turns out that our brains have evolved in such a way as to want to preserve a sense of belonging to a larger group, because over millions of years that’s proven to be crucial to our wellbeing. So when the feeling of belonging is threatened, you bet an alarm signal is going to go off, and that pain—the pain of loneliness—is the same as pain from a physical injury or illness.
We hate feeling left out, this much. But the push-pull dynamic has us in its grip. Americans make a virtue out of busyness, for reasons of capitalism and competitiveness and “God helps those who help themselves” Calvinism. Did you know that in 2005, American workers gave back, or didn’t take advantage of, 574 million vacation days? Olds and Schwartz say that “that’s the equivalent of more than twenty thousand lifetimes.” They go on to say, “Surveys done by Gallup and the Conference Board indicate that Americans, who already take fewer vacation days then workers in any other industrial nation in the world, are cutting back even further.
And then there’s that myth of rugged individualism, standing apart from the crowd, doing it yourself, owning all your own appliances and tools and instruments and never having to borrow, self-reliance. “If we begin to forget,” say Olds and Schwartz, “we get a regular reminder at least every four years, when we see politicians desperately reworking their life stories to protect themselves from that most damning of labels—the Washington insider.” Yet another reminder is simply the stigma that’s put upon loneliness. To admit you are lonely is to risk being heard as whiny and needy—even though being honest about our loneliness is absolutely the first step towards healing.
No wonder Charlie Ravioli is everywhere.
We have conflicting wishes. There’s ambivalence in the human heart. Being Charlie Ravioli makes us feel virtuous, and it’s our way of enacting self-reliance. But we end up doing exactly the sort of things that take us into unhappiness and bitterness and potentially addictions of all sorts, impaired health, increased aggression, increased rates of crime, decreased lifespans. That’s what happens to organisms in constant pain.
“Being neighborly used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbors means not bothering them” (Olds and Schwartz).
No wonder it is the Age of Loneliness.
But we can do something about this. Stop giving all our life energy to busyness and lone rangerism. Redirect some of that energy so that life becomes more balanced. “In our advice to the lonely,” say Olds and Schwartz,” we often emphasize a time-honored approach: try to engineer into our life regular contact and shared projects with potentially interesting people. It’s the old ‘join a church choir’ strategy.” That’s the quote, and I assure you I am not making that last part up. The church choir part is literally in there. But I would add, equally, get involved in Religious Exploration. Get involved in this Beloved Community, in some way. Especially join a Covenant Group. These are groups of 6-10 or so folks who meet regularly, for the purpose of people being deeply valued and known, for fun and friendship, for learning and connection. UUCA currently has 13 of them, and we are starting SEVEN more, so now is the time to join. Get in on the ground floor!
I mean, don’t the folks around you look “potentially interesting”?
Let’s pick up the rest of the quote: “Shared commitments, shared obligations, continue to be the most reliable paths to friendship and sometimes more. In earlier times, […] there was no need to engineer social obligations into one’s life. It was there waiting, uninvited. People had to take care of one another, and social connections followed. Whether it was the burial societies of new immigrant groups who wished to avoid paupers’ graves or the quilting bees of women who merged necessary labor with socializing, a reliable social fabric was very hard to avoid.” That’s what Olds and Schwartz say, and it’s an important perspective to keep in mind. We have to be more intentional today, in our Age of Loneliness and push-pull, or else, we become Charlie Raviolis to each other, it just happens, and there’s never any opportunity to play, and it’s heart killing, it’s painful in a literal sense.
We’ve got to turn loneliness around.
But there’s another dimension to this that current events require us to address. Sometimes loneliness is not so much a matter of being left out as being forced out. You are forced out so often, and so completely, that the words of Langston Hughes’ poem about what happens to a dream deferred come true:
You dry up like a raisin in the sun.
You fester like a sore—and then run.
You stink like rotten meat.
You crust and sugar over.
You just sag.
Or you explode.
In this regard, today’s reading comes to mind, about a person of color coping in a space that is white-dominated. Having to put on a mask. “Instead of talking black,” says Camille Jackson, “I speak the Queen’s English. I don’t drop verb endings. I speak slowly, enunciate. I am extra clear. I don’t use the full range of facial expressions black folks rely on for meaning because my white co-workers won’t get it. I surprise myself with how well I wear it. Without it, I would have been fired many times over. I’m resentful. It hides my frustration at fearing that my white bosses think I never work hard or long enough.”
Now we all know the loneliness of feeling like you have to wear a mask. But the degree of loneliness is intensified astronomically when racism is at play. When you know that you are not being seen as an individual but as a representative of an entire race, and all the stereotypes are at play, and it’s a thing if you fit the stereotype, and it’s a thing if you don’t fit the stereotype, and you can never win.
This is not about Charlie Ravioli. This is about drying up like a raisin in the sun, or festering, or sagging, because you get so damn tired.
Or it’s about exploding. The “feeling forced out” kind of loneliness can leads to this, too.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt puts her finger on it precisely. In her book The Life of the Mind, she writes that profound loneliness (which she defines as “the experience of being abandoned by everyone, including one’s own self”) hardens a person, makes them shut down, and they can’t receive any new information, they can’t think rationally, so that finally, they are in the clutches of some tightly-wound ideology, and they are willing to commit acts of terror in its name.
The profound loneliness of African Americans these days, to see video after video of young black men doing nothing gunned down by police. Around three weeks ago: the death of Alton Sterling, who was the 184th black person killed by police just this year; the death of Philando Castile, number 185. And then, on July 7: more deaths. Five police officers killed in Dallas by Micah Johnson, an ex-military African American. The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown, said, “He was upset about Black Lives Matter” and “about the recent police shootings” and “was upset at white people” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
Soon afterwards ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani went on the offensive and said the cause was the whole Black Lives Matter movement. Which is ridiculous. A red herring if I ever saw one. Divisive. We need to talk about what happens to a dream deferred instead—deferred and deferred and deferred, until the resulting anguished loneliness leads to explosions.
Says New York Times writer Charles Blow, Since people have camera phones, we are actually seeing these deaths, live and in living color. Now a terrorist with a racist worldview has taken it upon himself to co-opt a cause and mow down innocent officers.
This is a time when communities, institutions, movements and even nations are tested. Will the people of moral clarity, good character and righteous cause be able to drown out the chorus of voices that seek to use each dead body as a societal wedge?
Will the people who see both the protests over police killings and the killings of police officers as fundamentally about the value of life rise above those who see political opportunity in this arms race of atrocities?
These are very serious questions—soul-of-a nation questions—that we dare not ignore.
Charles Blow is right. We dare not ignore them.
This is the time of testing.
And we are people who aspire to be of moral clarity, good character and righteous cause.
The “feeling forced out” kind of loneliness: we have to turn that around, and how it happens is through intentional and strategic acts of love and justice. It happens by engineering into our lives shared projects that dismantle racism, dismantle poverty, dismantle divisiveness, reject violence.
Don’t let hate motivate.
Don’t feed the fears.
Don’t build a wall. Build the opposite of a wall.
No one left out. That’s what we Unitarian Universalists believe. No one forced out of their fair share, their just due, what they deserve by virtue of simply being human. No one experiencing that profoundest kind of loneliness, which causes a dream to dry up or fester or stink or crust and sugar over or sag—or explode.
No one left out.