The second word that God formed in my heart to meditate on while I was in Asia was “individuality.” I wondered about this word until I met all the amazingly unique people — just on the small team that I was privileged to travel with. And then I had the chance to wander the streets near our hotel, and discovered that the wildest, most awe-inspiring beauty was found in the people — the old men playing cards; the families gathered around tables in cafe-front windows eating and laughing; the beautiful children — all lost in a sea of faces and motorized scooters! Yet in the midst of this newly discovered beautiful individuality, I felt something familiar — something that I had read was as rampant in China as it is in Chicago — loneliness.
Not too long ago the University of Chicago discovered that the average American has 0-2 close friends. I wondered about the statistics in Asia, and yet I read studies before traveling there that all of the covert statistics of loneliness — addiction, anxiety, depression, and abuse — are dramatically increasing in E. Asia, especially in the past six years. Loneliness is like that. Most of us don’t go around announcing, “I’m lonely.” We live it out in the choices we make to convince ourselves that we cannot bear this feeling that Mother Teresa described as “the most terrible poverty.”
Individuality, of course, does not equal loneliness, but often it is the aspects of our individuality that result in our fearing being known or our being misunderstood when we are known, and that does equal loneliness. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Language . . . has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it is has the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.’” In the midst of my Asian Adventure meanderings about individuality and loneliness, I prayed that God would continue to use the pain of my own loneliness to create a glorious solitude. I came across this prayer from Richard Foster that describes the salvation story that I long for, pray for, and caught glimpses of in the midst of all the people and noise of China. Interestingly, Foster wrote this prayer in the midst of a busy convention. I understand that paradox — in the midst of busyness and a multitude of people our individuality is lost and despairing loneliness can set in. This prayer was a saving grace to me in China and has been since then.
Today, O Lord, I feel the loneliness of anonymity. No one in this city knows me and no one cares. At least it seems that way. So I am left to myself and my own thoughts.
My loneliness, of course, is quite comfortable. It is not the loneliness of the truly abandoned. But perhaps it can help me enter more fully into their feelings of abandonment. O Lord, may my small experience of loneliness teach me to have fellowship with all those who are marginalized:
When I eat alone, help me pray for those who have nothing to eat;
When I walk the streets alone, help me remember those who do not
have the strength to walk;
When I feel on the outside of every conversation, help me see the
nameless people to whom no one pays attention.
When I speak and am ignored, help me hear those whose voices
fall on deaf ears.
And whenever my circumstances are devoid of familiar voices may I always be able to hear the voice of the true Shepherd. Amen.
“God, my Shepherd! I don’t need a thing . . . . Your beauty and love
chase after me every day of my life.” Psalm 23