Some years ago, writer Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker shared the story of his three-year-old daughter’s imaginary friend. The name she gave her imaginary friend was Charlie Ravioli, and Charlie Ravioli was always too busy to play.
One day Adam Gopnik and his wife watched their little girl punch a number into her imaginary cell phone. She put it to her ear and said, “Ravioli? Meet me at Starbucks in 25 minutes!” And then they saw her crumple.
“What happened, sweetie?” they asked.
She said, “He already had another appointment.”
It happened time and again. They’d see her pick up the phone and call her imaginary playmate, only for her to come away deflated. He’d canceled lunch. Again.
Still other times, Charlie Ravioli’s imaginary secretary Laurie would answer her imaginary phone, only to say, “He’s in a meeting.”
Charlie Ravioli was always too busy to play.
And this is how one three-year-old prepared herself for life in what journalist George Monbiot calls “The Age of Loneliness”–which is our current age. Which is now. 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.
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
[Sing that with me….]
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
Where, and above all, why? Why are there so many?
A significant part of the answer comes from a book entitled The Lonely American, by Jacqueline Olds, M.D. and Richard Schwartz, M.D.. Loneliness emerges, they say, out of “a push-pull social dynamic.” The push is in how modern life makes us overbusy, overscheduled, and also hyper networked–glued to screens and email and social media. As for the pull: it’s the culture of American individualism which honors the self-made person and shames those who aren’t self-reliant.
Does this push-pull dynamic make sense to you?
Do you feel it in your own life?
Olds and Schwartz go on to say, “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.”
Why we hate it–the scientific reason why–takes a few moments to explain.
Start with the part of your brain deep in the frontal cortex—part of a complex alarm system—called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. It’s primed to protect you. It acts whenever there is even a hint that your well-being is threatened. Stub your toe, the alarm goes off, and the physical pain you’re feeling is part of that alarm. Slam your fingers shutting a door, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex howls “MAKE THIS HORRIBLE FEELING STOP,” and the excruciating feeling radiating in your fingers is to make sure you understand that what just happened is bad and you want to avoid that from now on.
The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in your brain is all about keeping you alive.
But did you know that loneliness is yet another trigger for this alarm system? That may seem strange, because loneliness is completely unlike stubbing your toe, or slamming your fingers when shutting a door. Loneliness does not come with a literal punch to the gut, or the burning of your hand on something hot. And yet, 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. When you stay with the tribe, your chances of survival are better. When you isolate and go it alone, your chances of survival are worse.
Scientists have devised experiments that show this. That when a person’s feeling of belonging to a larger group is threatened, the brain’s alarm system goes off, resulting in literal bodily pain.
The pain of loneliness is nothing to underestimate.
That’s why we hate feeling left out. And yet. And yet. The push-pull dynamic has us in its grip. The push-pull is that strong. The push again is that we feel we don’t have the time to belong. Americans make a virtue out of busyness, for reasons of capitalism and competitiveness and “God helps those who help themselves” Calvinism. Olds and Schwartz say that “Surveys done by Gallup and the Conference Board indicate that Americans, who already take fewer vacation days than workers in any other industrial nation in the world, are cutting back even further.”
This push dovetails with the pull, which is our culture’s idolatry of rugged individualism, of standing apart from the crowd, of doing it yourself, of self-reliance, of owning all your own appliances and tools and instruments and never having to borrow. To fail at this is to be judged as lazy and incompetent and wrong in some way, resulting in humiliation, which is also a source of pain.
And there’s even more: 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, despite how the body warns us with literal physical pain. And other consequences too. Serious ones. The pain of loneliness takes a person into all sorts of forms of unhappiness. The hidden pandemic of loneliness gives rise to impaired health, increased aggression, increased rates of crime, decreased lifespans.
When an organism is in constant pain, as lonely people are, that’s what’s going to happen.
Being Charlie Ravioli is perilous.
But we can do something about this. Stop giving all our life energy to busyness and lone-rangerism. Revise our stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure. Olds and Schwartz say, and I quote, “In our advice to the lonely, 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.’” Unquote.
The join-a-church-choir part is literally in their book.
I know Dave our Music Director loves that!
The only thing I would add is that you might consider joining other church groups too. The same principle is active. Allow yourself the time to get involved or more involved in this Beloved Community. Make yourself available. Covid has disrupted the church-going habit of so many people, and if you are one of them, and you are on the fence about coming back, again, listen to what Olds and Schwartz say. Loneliness is even worse now, after Covid, and so re-building the church-going habit is going to bring healing. It’s worth it.
I mean, don’t the folks around you look “potentially interesting”? At least that?
And what about the picnic after church, the musical desserts, the bouncy house, and the pie throwing at the Senior Minister!
But we just have to be more intentional today with what we do with our time and talent and treasure in our Age of Loneliness and push-pull. We have to become more intentional in our stewardship. What’s at stake is the sake of our hearts and souls. 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.
Let’s turn loneliness around.
Let’s do that for ourselves and for each other.
As I close, let me highlight this reminder to be more intentional about our stewardship of our life resources with a demonstration.
Take these quartz crystals. One is for the heart and mind. One is for the soul. One is for the body. Think of all the things in your world that support and nurture and heal and express these most meaningful things. Heart and mind. Soul. Body.
Good relationships for sure. Love and caring. Things that enliven and rejuvenate. Good food and exercise and sleep. Efforts by which you improve your little corner of the universe. Maybe a certain Unitarian Universalist church located in Rocky River, that feeds your spirit and enables you to meet people who are indeed so very interesting….
But what happens when other things take up too much space in our lives?
Take these pebbles: for me, they symbolize the daily grind. The things in our lives that are about maintenance, primarily. Doing the dishes, taking out the trash, taking the kids to soccer, changing the cat litter, folding the clean laundry. Keeping up with what’s happening in the news. Gritty stuff that must get done, but if we allow it to take over our lives, we really do find ourselves demoralized and drained. We can get so busy that it’s killing our heart.
[Fill up the container with pebbles. Now try to place the crystals in the container. No room.]
[Now empty the container]
And then there’s kitty litter: for me, it symbolizes the things that don’t mean much at all, or actively work against meaning. When we are just killing time, in whatever ways we do that. Maybe when we are indulging our worries, for, as Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” When we go on and on with the story we’re telling ourselves, about how someone hurt us and they knew exactly what they were doing and they intentionally did what they did to hurt us and we spin and spin that story in our heads and get lost in it for 5 minutes or 5 years …. It’s kitty litter.
[Fill up the container with kitty litter. Now try to place the crystals in the container. No room.]
[Now empty the container]
We want fullness in our lives. The only way, really, is to start with the crystals. Make them a priority, every day. Hold back the other stuff to make room.
[Fill up the container with the crystals]
What’s for sure is that we can’t avoid maintenance duties in life. If a part of your job is answering emails, then so be it. Doing the dishes, taking out the trash, folding the clean laundry–gotta do it! Keeping up with what’s happening in the news–yes.
[Add pebbles to the container already filled with crystals]
But note that there’s no chance now of overdoing this, with the crystals already in place. No chance of becoming Charlie Ravioli or Adam Gopnik’s daughter.
As for the kitty litter. Again, it’s going to happen.
[Add kitty litter to the container already filled with crystals and pebbles]
No one is perfect. No one is a saint. It’s ok. And again, with the crystals already in place, there’s no chance that the kitty litter will take over.
As we move into a new program year, how can we make matters of mind and heart, matters of the soul, matters of the healthy body top priority?
How can we make that commitment to ourselves, which is a kindness we do to everyone we will meet?
That’s how we turn loneliness around and do so many other good things too.
In this upcoming program year, let’s give the gift of meaning and connection to others and to ourselves.