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UNDERSTANDING CHRISTIANITY

A monthly forum on the third Saturday of each month from 6:30 to 7:30 P.M. following Evening Prayer at 6

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Tonight’s Topic -

“ THE ART OF LIVING SINGLY”

led by The Reverend Roger G. Allee

Priest Associate, All Saints Episcopal Church, Ft. Lauderdale

 

          When Dick Nolan contacted me and invited me to lead this Forum on Living as a Single Person, I said, “Me?! Are you sure? I don’t think I am doing it very well myself, so what would I have to offer to others?” He assured me that he felt I, in fact, had a lot to offer. So, here I am. I thought I would begin by telling you my story, in which I will try not to bore you. Then, we can open it up for questions and discussion.

          From the Book of Common Prayer, we have the following prayer.

          Almighty God, whose Son had nowhere to lay his head: Grant that those who live alone may not be lonely in their solitude, but that, following in his steps, they may find fulfillment in loving you and their neighbors; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

          I wonder how many people even know this prayer is there. I have never heard it used in worship.

          Before going further, it is necessary for us to be clear about the distinction between being alone and being lonely. Of course, being alone is obvious – it simply means being by one’s self and away from others. Loneliness is quite different and may be a painful experience. From the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, we find that “loneliness is an unpleasant affect, combining sadness and anxiety, a felt response to the absence of sufficient relational contact. And, isolation is the condition of being separated from all important persons, things, or relationships.”

          Loneliness may be situational and temporary – caused by some kind of life transition that disrupts relationships. Or, loneliness may habitual – a characteristic built into a person’s personality. Habitual loneliness often is the result of an individual’s anger, suspicion, and anxiety. Clearly, the person suffering from habitual loneliness needs the help of a professional counselor.

          I believe that all of us suffer from situational and temporary loneliness from time to time. Also, I believe that any of us can fall into habitual loneliness – maybe not for a lifetime, but for a span of time.

          Loneliness can be caused by not feeling understood by others. This can happen when one has no identity of one’s own, but only that which has been assigned by someone else. King David suffered this kind of loneliness and so did Jesus. The loneliness of not being understood – or heard, known attended to – can be shattering to our lives. King David responded to his loneliness by shouting out to God, demanding to be heard. He cried, “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” [Psalm 130.2]

          We each have a right to be known, understood, and attended to and, so, perhaps we need to be like David and demand to be heard and to be known.

          Another cause of loneliness is feeling unnecessary. If no one needs you, what is your identity? What is your value? Sometimes, the feeling of being unnecessary is forced upon us. We may be laid off or fired from your job. A partner may leave us or die. Aging and illness may deplete the skills we once used to make a difference. I imagine this is a form of loneliness that God feels. Think about it – God created all there is out of love and waits patiently for all of creation to love God in return.

          Loneliness can come from not feeling loved. Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest who writes a daily meditation column, says, “Feeling loved isn’t a matter of getting attention, having companions, competing successfully, or feeling attractive. Feeling loved is having someone who cares whether I exist – someone at hand, someone whom I see across the table or room, looking at me with fondness. Feeling loved is being listened to, taken seriously, and treasured for reasons deeper than accomplishment or advantage. Feeling loved is a gift with no strings, a greeting with no restraint, a conversation with no agenda.” To not feel loved is a devastating feeling.

          I enjoy solitude from time to time. I understand the value of solitude for my spiritual health. But, I do not like being alone all the time and I find that I can give in to feelings of loneliness quite easily.

          Within the Episcopal Church, my experiences have been that often parishes provide activities for couples, for senior citizens, for youth, and sometimes for single people. However, it seems to me that the single people are really not thought of very much. Too often, when someone dies, the surviving spouse/partner is attended to for a while, but it doesn’t take long for the newly single person to find they are alone. I have personally experienced that phenomenon. It seems that the single person makes others uncomfortable, probably because the coupled people simply do not know what to do or say.

          Loneliness seems to be a topic that American society and the Church do not wish to talk about. My take on that is that people feel as I do when I began by saying to you that I don’t know what I have to offer. It is an area where people suffer in silence because they don’t want to admit their own struggle and/or they don’t know what to say to someone who does admit their situation and feelings.

          Living as a single person is something some people choose to do. And, there are those who see it as their vocation. I am not one of those people! I don’t want to be single. I don’t want to be alone. I struggle with loneliness and cravings to be with someone.

          I read a newspaper article several weeks ago about a young couple in North Carolina who were lonely and struggling to meet friends. The article pointed up that many people – even married people – are lonely. The reporter showed how our society has become more and more isolated, leaving people to struggle with loneliness. So, you see loneliness can happen even when you have someone in your life.

          It is my belief that we are not intended to be alone. The entirety of the Scripture story is about community. The ancient Israelites were a community. The Church is a community. The Trinity is God living in community with God’s self. Everything points to us being in community and not alone. However, many of us find ourselves alone.

          In my case, I have an entire parish family that is a part of my community. But, that community has limits and boundaries that must be maintained. I have some friends, but none where the friendship is such that I can call up and say, “You want to come over for coffee?” Or, “you want to go see a movie?” So, even with a parish family and some friends, I often feel alone and I struggle with loneliness.

          I grew up in a family that didn’t communicate much. As I look back on it, I realize that I was for the most part alone as a child – oh, I had two parents and a sister, but we didn’t do things together very often. I remember going off to ride my bike every night after dinner, just to be away and to find people to talk with or play with. When I got home, I mostly spent time in my bedroom alone. I just didn’t have much in common with my family. All through school I felt that I was somehow different and I didn’t have many friends.

          I knew I had feelings for guys when I was a teenager. However, being raised in a small town and in a fairly conservative family, I had no point of reference for those feelings. I didn’t know what to do with them. My internal thoughts told me my feelings must be wrong. I went to college and met a woman whom I ultimately married. I knew almost immediately that that was a wrong action, but I have always been a part of the church and I felt I had taken vows that must not be broken.

          After 29 years of marriage and three children later, I left the marriage because my wife and I had grown apart. Even after attempts to “make things right”, I came to the realization that this marriage was never going to be right and we were both miserable. After leaving the marriage I came out to myself and then to others.

          I started looking for men. I met a man with whom I spent 4 years. While it was fairly good for the first two years, it became clear to me that I had made another mistake. Again, I broke off the relationship.

          After leaving that relationship, I vowed to myself that I would not make a third mistake. I would enjoy life and if and when the right man came along, we would both know it. Well, he did! Shawn and I met, began dating and ultimately moved in together. I had finally found someone I truly loved and who loved me. It wasn’t that my ex-wife or my first partner didn’t love me, but I didn’t really love them. Shawn and I had been together for about 4 months when he began not feeling well. His physical condition continued to worsen until after three trips to the emergency room, the hospital admitted him to find out what was really going on. He was admitted to ICU, stayed there for one month when he died. We had been together for nine months at that point. Shawn’s death was devastating! I had finally found real love and now it was gone! I railed at God for being so unfair! I felt cheated and betrayed!

          It has been quite an emotional ride since his death. I went into the depths of despair. I began acting out in unhealthy and sometimes inappropriate ways. That was a time when I fell into habitual loneliness filled with anger, fear and anxiety. A friend kept telling me I needed to see a counselor. I resisted saying that I was just fine. Then, one day I woke up and realized how scared I was and began looking at the unhealthy and inappropriate ways I had been behaving. I made an appointment with a counselor and began the journey back to health.

          While I am doing well now, I struggle often with loneliness. Sometimes I am tempted to go back to the unhealthy behaviors. Often I cry with the Psalmist who said, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” [Psalm 130:1-2] After all, all I want is someone to love and someone to love me. Is that really asking for so much? I crave physical and emotional attention. Don’t we all? I simply want to have someone to share my life with – the joys and sorrows, the good times and bad, the mundane and the exciting.

          There are times when I violate the commandment not to covet what my neighbor has. What is it that I sometimes covet? Not their house or apartment. Not their car. I covet a relationship! I see a couple walking down the street and I think, “Why can’t I find someone to love and be loved by?” Oh yes, loneliness sets in and I struggle.

          In my good times, I am able to look back and see all that I have learned through my life, particularly the last 10-12 years.

          The therapy I had helped me to begin looking at myself in deep ways the likes of which I had never done before. One of the most important things I learned explained why I had gone into that marriage and why I ran into the arms of my first male partner. I so much needed to be loved and I kept looking to others to provide that. What I spent all my life failing to do was love myself. A side note here – I have often preached about the fact that one must love one’s self before one can love anyone else. You see, I knew that in my head, but not in my heart. Through therapy, I have begun to love myself. It is an on-going process – lots of years of unloving to undo!

          I began to realize that my failure to love myself, my loneliness, and the depth of pain when Shawn died – a pain the likes of which I have never felt before – is what led me to indulge in unhealthy behaviors. I said earlier that I still struggle from time to time and am tempted to go back to those behaviors. I have succeeded so far in not going back because I have begun loving myself and even though I am tempted, I know that I do not want to indulge because it is not a loving thing for me to do to me.

          The pain of losing Shawn has been and is being dealt with by time. The grieving process is just that, a process. It takes time, but with time, the healing happens. But, learning to love myself is another matter. The Psalmist again pleads with God, “Rise up, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God!” [Psalm 3:7] And, again, “Listen to me and answer me; I have no peace, because of my cares.” [Psalm 55:2] in each of these verses, the writer attributes his unhappiness to others, but what I have had to learn is that I am my own enemy sometimes!

          Years ago the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung asked: “What if I should discover that the least of the [people] of Jesus, the one crying out most desperately for reconciliation, forgiveness, and acceptance, is my self? That I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved, what then? Will I do for myself what I do for others?” [Source: The Signature of Jesus, Brennan Manning]

          I strive to be a good disciple of Jesus and to serve others. What I am having to learn is that I must also serve myself. If I can’t love myself, I can’t love others. If I can’t love myself, how can I expect someone else to love me?

          Debra Farrington is the author of One Like Jesus: Conversations on the Single Life (Loyola Press) and leads retreats on being single and whole. She says, “We won't make good partners for anyone in this life if we can't be a good partner to ourselves first.”

          A part of loving my self is being comfortable with myself and not needing to have someone else with me. It took me a while to realize that I was, in many ways, not comfortable with myself. I’m learning to be. How do I know? I look back over the two years since Shawn died and I see a string of guys that I met and who were attracted to me. I have begun to see a pattern – I come on strong, I chase, I cling and ultimately drive them away. My first thought each time was that they were losers! That I was better off without them. That they didn’t deserve me! My, when I hear myself say those things, I realize just how unloving, how needy, how unhealthy I was! The fact of the matter is that most of those guys were, in fact, not the right guys for me or me for them. I dated the last guy for five months when he called it off. I was devastated because I really had deep feelings for him. They were genuine feelings – different than the others. I did not feel that he was a loser, I did not feel I better off without him, and I did not believe he didn’t deserve me.

          He broke it off, though, because he realized how I felt about him, but that try as he did, he didn’t feel the same way toward me. He told me that he prayed daily to love me like I loved him. He wanted to be able to, but those feelings just never came. When he broke off the relationship, he told me that I deserved to be loved but that he was not the right one and that he knew that the right guy will come along for me.

          That break up was painful, but it was also a catalyst. Somehow, God used that situation to help me realize the pattern of my behaviors – chasing, clinging, and driving guys away. It was a wake up call for me to do more work on loving myself, being comfortable with myself and not depending upon others to love me. So, I’m on another learning curve.

          A mistake I have been making was looking to others to provide for me a sense of wholeness and completeness, a sense of happiness and joy. In my search for that, I now realize that I sacrificed so much of myself. I sacrificed what is really important to me, just to be with someone. I’ve had to take time again to take stock of my core values – what is really important to me? What, if anything, am I willing to forego in order to have a relationship? Having someone in my life is not worth giving up who I am and what is important to me. But, patiently waiting for that guy who can be in my life without my having to give up who I am at the core of my being will be worth the wait. You see, no one else can provide for me a sense of wholeness, completeness, happiness and joy. I must do that for myself.

          Also, in looking back, I now understand that even when I was married and when I was with my first partner, I was, often, lonely. Loneliness is not necessarily about being alone. One can be quite lonely even within a relationship. One is lonely, I believe, when one is not comfortable with one’s self.

          I know people who try to deal with their loneliness and pain by over indulging in alcohol, drugs, strings of anonymous sexual encounters, or work. None of it works because none of those things help the person to look deep inside to the core of their being. Of course, that isn’t something a lot of people want to do, including me! What most people, including me, want to do is avoid the pain. But, avoiding the pain does not bring healing.

          Healing will come only when we learn to see ourselves as God sees us – wonderfully and lovingly created, but in need of forgiveness, reconciliation, and acceptance. God is always ready to forgive us, always ready to be reconciled to us and always accepts us. We, however, must be ready to forgive ourselves, be reconciled with ourselves, and accept ourselves. In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. That includes our selves.

          Again, the Psalmist asks, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” [Psalm 13:1] Those questions are the cry of someone in pain, someone who is looking for some magic silver bullet that will take away their pain and give them what they long for. I have discovered that is not how God works, at least not in my life.

          There are those who might say to the person who is dealing with the pain of loneliness something like, “Leave it in God’s hands.” Or, “Let’s just pray about it.” You know what? God, in those statements simply is not enough! God isn’t enough because God is leaving it in our hands! So, if you and I leave it to God and God leaves it to us, we go absolutely nowhere!

          As Christians, we have varied views of God. Some adhere to the Sunday School God of my youth which taught me that God was either the great Parent in the sky who would look out for me and protect me from all the bad and painful things in life; correct me when I am wrong and punish me when I am bad; or a wonderful Santa Claus who will bring to me everything I want. As I have grown up I find that neither of those views of God has been a part of my experience.

          My experience of God is that God loves me, forgives me, strengthens me so I can deal with the unpleasant things in life, and wants only the best for me. My experience of God is that God does not set some kind of a course for my life, but allows me to make choices and learn from them.

          My experience of God also has been that God does not send us the bad stuff. You know when people say, “It was God’s will that your child/spouse/partner/ parent die.” God did not cause the tsunami, or the hurricanes, or the earthquakes that have devastated so many lives. God did not send those things to punish people. God did not instruct or guide the terrorists to kill so many innocent people. God did not take Shawn away from me. God does not want me to suffer. God does not send me pain because it is somehow good for me. God does, however, walk with me through all of that. God is there to hold my hand, to strengthen me and to support me. But, God leaves the choices of how I respond to life’s circumstances up to me. So, the way I deal with my loneliness is all up to me.

          E. James Wilder writes, “Recovery is facing and embracing all the pain in our lives, so that we will gain maximum growth: learning lessons, gaining power and looking for ways to help others do the same. Those are the goals of recovery, a destiny that is beyond what any person could achieve alone. It takes other people’s loving involvement in order to develop our maturity, and it takes God’s redemption to bring something good out of our own pain. God is working in everything for our good – so that we will have something extraordinary to give to others.” [The Life Model]

          If we are dealing with loneliness, we have a need for recovery. Loneliness happens to all of us, but it is not how things are supposed to be and we must recover our emotional health as we deal with our loneliness. I’m not about to try and tell you what is right for you. All I can do is share what has worked for me as I struggle with being alone and lonely.

          Several years ago, I weighed almost 200 pounds. I woke up one day and decided I didn’t like myself that way. So, I joined a gym, hired a trainer and worked out faithfully three days a week. To fully understand the magnitude of that decision, you need to know that I absolutely hate such physical activity! But, my choices were continue to weigh more than I should and not like myself or do something about it.

          The same is holding true for me about dealing with loneliness, being alone, and wanting so much to have someone in my life. I have choices. I alone can make those choices. God will be there with me as I make them, but will not make them for me. The choices I have made include reconnecting with a circle of friends from whom I had isolated myself. Also, I’ve been rediscovering what it is that brings me joy. I enjoy cooking, needle pointing, going to the beach, bicycle riding, and movies. None of those things requires that I have someone with whom to do them. Would it be nice to have someone with me? Absolutely! But, having someone with me is NOT a requirement. I have been making some improvements to my apartment – some done by professionals, but some done by me. Just the planning for what I wanted to have done gave me joy and something to do that took me out of my self-pity. Also, I’ve never been one who was comfortable striking up a conversation with someone I don’t know. I always wait for them to do that. When they do, I enjoy conversing with people about many things. Another choice that is mine to make is not waiting for others, but mustering up the courage to strike up the conversation myself. After all, what is the worse thing that could happen? They won’t allow themselves to be engaged in conversation with me. If that happens, part of my own healing is to realize it isn’t about me!

          Dealing with my aloneness and loneliness has been painful and fruitful. I still long to have someone in my life to love and to be loved by, but I am learning to love myself and to be comfortable with who I am. Perhaps, my therapist will turn out to be correct. He used to tell me that I will meet Mr. Right when I least expect it, probably in the produce aisle of Publix. What I have learned is I can’t make anyone love me – and, it is unlikely that anyone will love me if I don’t love myself.

          Also, I am learning the difference between want and need. I want a partner, but do I need one in order to enjoy life, to be “complete” or be who God created me to be? NO!

          Additionally, I am learning to adopt an attitude of gratitude for what I do have. In my case, I have three lovely daughters, two of whom are currently partnered, and a grandson. I enjoy a very loving and fulfilling relationship with all of them. I have some friends, I have an apartment that I have decorated and furnished which is a place of solace for me. I am healthy. I have so much more than so many people in the world.

          Being alone is not what I want, but it is what, at the present time, I have. The choices of how to deal with being alone is completely up to me.

          So, beyond learning to love one’s self, what can a person do to deal with loneliness and the feelings that go with it? The feelings that often accompany loneliness are sadness, resentment, anxiety, and sometimes depression. To deal with those, one first must realize they are not the only person is alone and lonely.

          Peter Crawford-Smith, a counselor says, “Loneliness is part of being human; no one is immune.” In my case, as I have shared, my current feelings of loneliness have been created by the loss of Shawn. However, there are many things that can trigger loneliness for people – even people in a relationship.

          In addition to the loss of a partner, one can become lonely due to moving to a new community, a change in jobs, jobs or relationships becoming routine and repetitive and retirement. Crawford-Smith says that boredom and loneliness are often partners.

          We cannot wish our way out of loneliness nor can we can escape it through excessive and unhealthy behaviors as I tried to do. Some suggestions offered by Crawford-Smith include:

  • Slowing down and being more attentive to yourself and your surroundings
  • Looking at your activities – have you fallen into the all work, no play syndrome?
  • Assess your personal well-being including physical, emotional, and spiritual
  • Look at your relationships
    • Enhance those you have
  • If you are married or partnered, is the relationship healthy and exciting? If not, why not?
  • If you are married or partnered and feeling lonely, speak with your mate about it, don’t just harbor those feelings. Share how you feel and work something out between the two of you to enliven and re-excite the relationship
  • Do something about it.
    • Form new ones
  • Get involved in community activities or volunteering. The best way I know to take the focus off myself and how bad I feel is to get involved helping someone else.
  • If you are feeling depressed, seek help from a professional [not with drugs unless your depression is so deep as to warrant them, but to really talk through why you feel as you do and what you can do about it.]
  • If you are nearing retirement and have no vision of how you will spend your time, begin thinking about it. I have observed far too many people who retire to nothing and never succeed in re-inventing themselves. Their work was their life and when the work is gone, so is their life. Not a good place to be!

          When you must be alone but do not want to be lonely, connect with your deepest being by involving yourself in things that you really enjoy and that make you feel good. Perhaps, you enjoy walking, listening to music, reading, tending plants, playing with a pet, browsing a museum, or taking a bubble bath. Do whatever you can to reconnect with yourself and with others.

          If you are feeling lonely, you are probably having other feelings, even feelings you know you don’t want such as bitterness or the sense that you are being unfairly treated by God or the universe. First, keep in mind that feelings are not right or wrong, they simply are. The way you feel is the way you feel. But, harboring negative feelings is an unhealthy way to live. It will not cure your loneliness. It will not find you friends or a partner.

          Again, Deborah Farrington, do not leave God out of your loneliness but, “Befriend your loneliness. Think of it as your teacher, and ask it for wisdom. Speak to God about your feelings, and ask to know what this time of loneliness has to teach you.”

          Assess, acknowledge and own your feelings. Then, when you identify those negative, unhealthy feelings, make a plan to change things. Remember what I said near the beginning: God is always ready to forgive us, reconcile with us and love us, but we must be willing to do the same for ourselves.

          Finally, stay in communication with God. Psalm 116:1-8 says:

1 I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

2 The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow. [This may be how one who is lonely feels!]

3 Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.”

4 Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion.

5 The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me. [God does care for us, loves us, and wants us to be happy.]

6 Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well.

7 For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8 I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living. [This is what the lonely person needs to do – learn, again, to walk in the land of the living.]

          I don’t know if any of this has been of any value to anyone here tonight, but it is the experience I have had, and that is all I can share. Now, we can open this Forum up to questions and discussion. My hope is that anyone who is here tonight and struggling with loneliness and being alone might just hear something that will help them in making the choices they have to make.

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A Brief Introduction To Fr. Allee



          Churches have most often treated the issue of living as a single person (regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or age) simplistically and inadequately. Fr. Allee, an excellent communicator, is openly gay and single. He has been married and is the father of three adult daughters. His (male) partner died of a rare blood disease just a few years ago. His candid exploration of living singly will open up personal issues usually ignored or glossed over by both secular and religious associations and communities.

          Fr. Allee has been an active churchman since becoming an Episcopalian in 1964. He has been involved in every aspect of parish ministry as a lay volunteer - including service on a rector search committee, vestry, and senior warden. He has also worked as an organist-choir director in five different Episcopal parishes and as a parish administrator.

          Fr. Roger worked in the Broward County Public School system for many years where he served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal, and staff & organizational developer. The skills and experience gained in the public school system provided an excellent background qualifying him to teach in the Diocesan School for Christian studies for several years.

          Fr. Roger was ordained in the Diaconate in 1996 and served in that role at St. Benedict’s (Plantation) until his ordination to the priesthood in the fall of 2002. His current ministry at All Saints focuses on nurturing ministries. Additionally, he serves as chaplain and Board member of Integrity Fort Lauderdale. Fr. Allee has also served on the Bishop’s Council of Advice on Human Sexuality.

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