When The Loneliness Keeps You Up at Night

Person in hoodie at night

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I couldn’t sleep last night. Anxiety pulsed through my body, and for hours I couldn’t determine the cause. I stayed up past midnight reading P. D. James’ take on Jane Austen and binge watching Empire while wondering what was bothering me and keeping me up way past my bedtime. By 2 a.m. I was exhausted but refused to call it a night. A strange question popped in mind. Are you afraid of dying, Seth? No, I didn’t think so. A simple statement followed: You are afraid of aging alone. BAM. My eyes welled up with tears.

 

Celibacy never felt all that costly for me. I moved back in with my family after college and pressed pause on life for five years. I have four younger siblings, so there was always someone at home, always someone to remind me I’m not alone.

 

In childhood psychology, we learn that children go through developmental forms of play. One stage is called parallel play, where children play in the same space, but don’t really interact with each other. I joke sometimes that my introverted family is a little like that. But there’s comfort in living in communal space, knowing you’re free to interact when you have something to share.

 

But now I live in Virginia with my roommate from church. He travels a lot for his job, and there have been a few weeks where I’m on my own. I joked about his absence on Facebook earlier in the evening last night, but it didn’t hit me how much this empty house impacts me emotionally. Coming home for the evening to the emptiness chips away at something in my soul; it feeds a paranoia which tells me this is all I can expect for the future.

 

So I avoid sleep to hold onto one more day that included friends and laughter and happiness. The next day doesn’t guarantee any of those things. In fact, I may blink and grad school could be over. What happens then?

 

I reread a chapter Philip Yancey wrote about Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific writer who experienced same-sex attraction. Nouwen’s deep insecurities and craving for meaningful connection always resonates with me. Yancey describes Nouwen’s conflicted life:

 

“He would give inspiring addresses about the spiritual life then collapse into an irritable funk. He would speak of the strength he gained from living in community, then drive to a friend’s house, wake him up at two in the morning, and, sobbing, ask to be held. His phone bills usually exceeded his rent as he called around the world, disregarding time zones, in desperate need of companionship.”¹

 

My two o’clock breakdown didn’t involve driving to any of my cohort’s or church friends’ homes, because I would never want to impose my emotional mess on anyone else. Honestly, my breakdowns are usually over as soon as they begin: I’ll laugh at how silly I’m being and repress my deepest emotions. I’m fine. I got this. How are you?

 

Sarah Bessey wrote a must-read this week on the traumas we gloss over and refuse to process called “The Sanitized Stories We Tell.” I think she provides a brilliant analysis of our human inclination to cover up our hurts:

 

“It makes me wonder how much pressure we feel to sanitize our stories so that they don’t make people uncomfortable, how we anecdote our experience with the lightness or the healing or birth or new life alone in order to make it acceptable. We simplify and sanitize and so we miss the healing we could have if we only spoke the whole truth.”

 

I would love to tell you I eventually experienced some profound sense of peace or realized some comforting insight about my celibate vocation or God’s goodness, but nothing came in the silence of the night. Celibacy has its sucky moments. A lot of the time God doesn’t feel present in my suffering. That’s probably not what the church wants to hear, but that’s the truth. Nothing about obeying my convictions is easy. Sometimes I’m just a mess like Nouwen, going through an existential crisis and desperately wanting to know I’m not journeying through life alone. And sometimes I just need to sleep, hoping my neurochemistry will reset in the morning.

 

Yancey wrote more on Henri Nouwen’s thoughts about loneliness:

 

“He once described the wound of loneliness as resembling the Grand Canyon: a deep incision in the surface of existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. That insight typifies Nouwen’s approach to ministry. He did not promise a way out of loneliness, for himself or for anyone else. Rather, he held out the promise of redemption through it.”²

 

Faith tells me there’s redemptive hope, even in a lonely, late night. My suffering connects me to my Savior, with humanity, and the creation. Together we yearn for God’s restoration of all things. Faith promises God will provide the friendships I need for my entire life.

 

But for now, I think I’ll take a nap.

 

  1. Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2001, 301.
  2. Ibid, 303.

My Sister’s Keeper: A Response to Sarah Bessey’s “Jesus Feminist”

 There’s something redemptive about a man affirming the worth of a woman.

I love the way Greg Laswell reinterpreted Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” He stripped away the pop song to reveal the pain hidden within the lyrics. And as he says in the video, it’s a sad song. It’s the pain of a broken woman.

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Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist is like having a conversation with a bosom friend as Anne Shirley would say. I love deep discussions that tackle how theology impacts our daily lives. And that’s what I love about Jesus Feminist. Sarah provides a safe and friendly space to discuss a heated topic. It’s a work of bridge building, and I enthusiastically support those kinds of efforts. We need to be respectfully challenged. Christians may disagree on a woman’s role in the church, but we all can learn from Sarah’s fantastic insights.

 

jesus feminist by sarah bessey

 

When I look at scripture, I see some amazing, countercultural women (Bessey does a great job at examining these mighty ladies of God). Just look at the very first woman, Eve. Made from man, but not designed to be less than Adam. She wasn’t property or a slave. Eve was uniquely designed as a helper. All the rest of creation was unfit to work alongside Adam, but Eve was the perfect pairing—and made community possible.

 

This beautiful community we find in Eden makes me question patriarchy. The curse of the fall required women to be ruled by men. And women in God’s kingdom were given a domestic role in a physical kingdom to ensure Israel survived. But Christianity is no longer a physical empire. It does not grow through sexual reproduction, but through spiritual conversion. The New Testament esteems women as women. They were given amazing rights and privileges that were unheard of during the Roman Empire. Scripture declares that men and women are equal and co-heirs in Christ, echoing back to our status in Eden. Women regain their pre-fallen role of helpers in God’s kingdom and Christianity is far stronger and more effective when both voices work together to bring about shalom—the prospering and redemption of creation.

 

How this works out in the church remains controversial. For minorities, we sometimes feel left with scraps and crumbs–with no voice and no role in the church. Straight men largely determine scriptural interpretation. I don’t want to jump into the other ditch and hate on men, but I am saying straight men have a lot of privileges. As depraved human beings, we don’t handle privileges very well. We’re selfish, greedy, power-hungry, and forgetful. It makes some Christians into jerks. And there’s nothing worse than a jerk who thinks he’s doing God a service.

 

Back when I was a preteen, my denomination was falling apart over the issue of evangelism. Hyper-Calvinists in our churches didn’t believe we should send missionaries to foreign countries. They said it wasn’t scriptural or in keeping with our denomination’s traditions (more of the latter). My church was undecided. But that changed when a woman wrote the pastor. Her letter was reasonable and outlined her beliefs why she believed scripture supported evangelism. It outraged the pastor. He brought the letter to church and showed everyone. Evangelism wasn’t one of our traditions, and neither were women who wrote to their pastors. One woman’s courage was partly responsible for the formation of a new church that enthusiastically supported missionaries.

 

As I’ve grown up in the church, I’ve come across other things that bothered me. I’ve heard a decent amount of crap about women in the pulpit. One time a pastor exhorted women to keep their husbands from stumbling into lust or adultery by giving their men more sex. I walked out. Women often take the blame for a man’s lack of self-control. There’s the sermons on gender roles, “biblical womanhood” and biblical manhood” which supposedly free us, but often enslave men and women in shackles of shame for not meeting up to their pastor’s standards. And as a gay man, I’ve found a lot of sermons on homosexuality to be utterly unhelpful and offensive. I don’t envy pastors. They have a tough job studying scripture to discern what God is telling us today. But sometimes pastors can be presumptuous and arrogant. They take scripture and form their own theories in a void separate of real people and real life. In my experience, most conservatives stick with their own kind and create their own assumptions about those outside the fold.

 

But sometimes the outsiders you fear are right here; in your pew. That intelligent, free-spirited girl that struggles to keep her mouth shut to make you happy. That kind but distant gay guy who doesn’t know how to participate outside the straight paradigm. You think you know them. But they aren’t free to be known in your congregation.

 

woman in church

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user nealebc3

 

Being one of those inside-outsiders, I can say some of those pastoral assumptions wound the soul and take a long time to heal. I’ve become defensive around pastors. Walls fortify my heart; mental filters protect me from anything that might potentially hurt. But a Christian can’t really grow in that kind of environment—LGBT or straight woman. We can’t learn, we just stagnate in bitterness and hide wounds that fester. We need a safe place of vulnerability to God’s Spirit of conviction, because as the old hymn says, we are prone to wander from the God we love. And it’s far easier to wander when you’re alone.

 

Reading Jesus Feminist was a reminder that, yes, I am my brother’s keeper. But I’m also my sister’s keeper. And my sisters, we your brothers have failed you over and over. Men have patronized you, assuming you weren’t smart enough to sit at the table. Or they were so intimidated by your intelligence that they pushed you out. Men have reduced your worth to your beauty and objectified you. Or they made you feel worthless because they didn’t deem you worth a second look. They built a standard no woman could keep up. Men come up with silly ideas that they want respect and women want love. Why can’t you have both? They want to feel powerful, and they don’t like it when you show strength. Your strength is beautiful, because your strength is from the Lord. Not from an immature muscle-man.

 

No, girls. You haven’t been the fortunate ones. Men will take a beautiful girl and hide her, silence her, from the rest of the world. All you wanted was the freedom to feel the warmth of the sun. The freedom to know you matter without a man. The freedom to know you equally reflect God’s image to the world. The freedom to laugh, run, feel, speak in all the beauty of God’s kingdom. To know you belong.

 

I may be one man, but this man is reminding you this: You aren’t alone. I’m taking this journey with you. And you belong, my sisters.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey also blogs here.