Last week I attended a community conversation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio, on the topic of loneliness. The gathering was sponsored in part by the Ohio State University Interfaith Council (of which I am a member).

Though I was very eager to support my colleagues who coordinated this event, I was a little skeptical that listening to a panel discussion about loneliness was going to ward off feelings of loneliness for any of us in the long-term. That skepticism clearly betrays my extroverted bias.

The panelists gelled with effortless brilliance. Kristen Radtke, author of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness; Angus Fletcher, story scientist and author of Wonderworks: The 25 Most Influential Inventions in the History of Literature; and amaha selassie, a peace builder and the director of the Center of Applied Social Issues at Sinclair Community College, had clearly warmed into conversation over an ample Mediterranean dinner in the church social hall. With the wheels of conversation greased by good food and drink, their conversation flowed as easily as if we were in someone’s living room instead of the more formal Episcopal worship space.

Eventually people in the audience organically walked forward to ask questions, pulling and pushing the conversation in new and livelier directions. I was riveted by the rich, wide-ranging conversation. Even though I wasn’t speaking to anyone, I felt woven into the fabric of the group. I felt less lonely. (And I didn’t even know I was lonely!)

The magic wasn’t just in sharing a meal with and being physically in the presence of a room full of people (something I’ve rarely done in the past two years). Simply naming the human reality of loneliness, being given space to explore the nuances of it – a feeling and topic rarely discussed in “polite” company – was relieving and empowering.

My key take-away was this: You can feel just as lonely by yourself at home as you do sitting in a room full of people. Loneliness is not really about being alone; it’s about feeling like you do not belong.

When I was a young, forward-thinking clergy person and leader in the church, I often felt painfully lonely in rooms full of people, too aware that my unusual ideas and the female body that held them were not entirely welcome. To remedy that, I learned to find the colleagues I trusted, to have regular spiritual practices, and to spend time with supportive friends who were not part of my immediate work world. More than that, I now feel called to create the kinds of spaces where unusual ideas and “unexpected” bodies are all welcome.

Last Thursday these authors and teachers, along with the room full of mostly strangers, served as an ad hoc community drawn together by a shared, deeply human, and deeply normal experience of loneliness. Naming it lessened its mysterious power over us and drew us together.

The experience of being in this audience reminded me why I do the work I do: to create the kind of space where we experience the connection and joy of coming together to name and claim the fullness of our humanity (even the unpleasant stuff). This kind of community is a reminder that none of us is alone, even when physically separated from others. We are glued together by shared human experience. We just have to give it a chance to help it stick.
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