Overcoming Loneliness?

Sometimes, I am a really bad person.

Especially when it comes to dates: birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions. Now, there are some I always remember. My wife’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, our children’s birthdays are among those dates I always remember and do something special.

But I have four older brothers. I know all of their birthdays. But I often forget to call and rarely send a card. I know that my Mom’s birthday is one of two days in October; I can just never remember which one. My Dad’s birthday is so close to Father’s Day that I always just say, “Happy Birthday,” on that Sunday in June and figure I am covered.

My nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives all have birthdays. One every year. I think my wife remembers them. If I am friends with them on facebook I get the reminder on the actual date.

Now, my ability to remember special days for my family members is in no way related to the amount of time I spend thinking about them. I think of them often. When I see certain pictures or hear certain phrases or smell certain aromas memories come flooding back. I think about and love my family and my friends.

But I suck when it comes to actually telling them that.

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This past weekend, I was among a group of adults who spent some time with 18 high school students. We gave them the opportunity to share some of their struggles as well as important milestones in their lives. When it came to the struggles, one word popped up in almost everyone’s story: lonely.

As a parent, I observe the groups my children spend time with. At church, we are involved with the youth group. I am constantly amazed at the intelligence, wisdom, service, and maturity of this group. They are not perfect, but they are probably the greatest group of teenagers I have ever been around.

And some of them are more popular than others. Some always have a smile on their face. Some are always involved in all the activities and always have friends around them doing the same things.

And these were the ones who were saying they felt lonely.

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Loneliness is hard because it causes us to isolate from the very people who can help us the most because they relate to us so well.

Lonely people need to know other people are experiencing loneliness, too. Lonely people need to know they are not, well, alone.

Lonely has nothing to do with popularity.

Lonely can’t be overcome by continually asking, “Is everything okay?”

Lonely is not remedied with a formula; a one-size-fits-all cure; a uniform procedure.

Overcoming lonely starts with the admission, “I am lonely.” And it’s a long road from that admission to feeling better. But every journey, no matter how long, has a starting point.

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So what does my shortcoming as a relative have to do with loneliness?

How often am I around people I care for deeply but fail to say something?

How often do I look at somebody in the same room as me but do not take time to check in with them because I figure I will see them next week?

How often do I see someone with a smile on their face and just assume that everything is okay?

How often do I see someone in a crowd and assume they are doing all right since they have so many friends?

I have experienced loneliness before. I know that it is a jumbled mix of wanting to be left alone and wanting everyone to care enough to notice and say something. I know that people who are lonely want to find that one person they can talk to but they are afraid to speak up to anybody. I know that lonely people can find themselves in the midst of a large group of people and hide how they are feeling on the inside.

And I know that in my darkest moments of loneliness, I can approach the one or two people who have consistently expressed care and concern without seeming pushy.

So maybe, just maybe, if I want to be that type of person who can help others overcome their loneliness, I need to show some care and concern and interest in their lives.

It’s great that I think about how much I love my brothers. Maybe it would be better if I told them.

It’s great that when I look at people in the church auditorium I say a prayer for them. Maybe it would be better if voiced the prayer over them so they heard it.

It’s great that I genuinely care for people. Maybe it would be better if I showed it by remembering the things that are important to them.

As I said, the remedy for loneliness is not going to be the same for everyone. And in large part, the lonely person has to make a huge first step in reaching out and asking for help. But there must be people available to hear that call. We must make ourselves available to people so they will know who they can turn to when life is at its darkest.

And we can’t wait until people are in the grips of loneliness and despair before we begin to act. We help overcome (and prevent) loneliness by being people who genuinely care for and are interested in other people. We help lonely people by our willingness to consistently speak truth and encouragement into the lives of others.

It makes me sad to think that people I care for deeply may experience loneliness and ask themselves if anyone actually cares. It also makes me sad to acknowledge that I have not done enough to speak my love and care into their lives.

But that can change. I will do my part. I hope you will, too.

Knowledge, Love, and Shutting Up

“…we know that all of us have knowledge, but knowledge can be risky. Knowledge promotes overconfidence and worse arrogance, but charity of the heart (love, that is) looks to build up others. Just because a person presumes to have some bit of knowledge, that person doesn’t necessarily have the right kind of knowledge. But if someone loves God, it is certain that God has already known that one” (I Corinthians 8:1-3, The Voice).

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I received a message last week. “Paul, can we meet soon and talk?”

Those kinds of messages scare me. Especially when they seemingly come out of the blue. There’s a paranoia part of me that thinks, “What did I do wrong?” There’s an AA sponsor part of me that thinks, “Are they struggling with addiction?” Although not as prevalent anymore, there is a part of me that shudders to think, “Amway?”

But, as usual, none of these parts was correct. This friend wanted to address something from my facebook activity. (Imagine that: ME with facebook activity! How rare! #sarcasm)

It was not something I wrote. It was not even something I shared. It was something I liked or commented on that another facebook friend had shared. And there were some issues with the article that neither I nor any of the commenters brought up in our online discussion.

And this friend was concerned. Not because they thought I was wrong. Not because they thought my soul was in danger of eternal damnation. Not because they thought my liking this post would usher in the end of Western civilization. But simply because the article in question left no room for disagreement; no room for dialogue. It was another in a long line of: “I am right, if you disagree you are wrong” articles.

Normally, I hate those. I really do. But I read a ton of them. And I share a lot them, too.

And so many times, I do not even realize I am doing it. It is as if sharing close-mindedness has become as much a part of my enlightened, westernized thinking as always standing up when sometimes says, “728b.” (#oldchurchofchristjoke)

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I have always assumed that eating meat was one of the most difficult issues the apostle Paul dealt with. I think this because he addresses it multiple times. He also seems to call each side of the meat-eating debate weak and strong. In one city, meat-eaters are the strong; in another they are weak. Go figure.

Maybe it’s because Paul was addressing something that went deeper than the act of eating. Maybe Paul was addressing something deeper than the hot-button issue of the day. Maybe Paul was dealing with something that could not be parsed so easily into ideological sides. Maybe Paul knew something we need to learn:

Knowledge often makes us arrogant jerks. Love often makes us kind enough to put relationship over ideal.

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When I first began my journey in sobriety, I often heard the question: “Which is more important—to be right or to be sober?” The lesson was I could push so hard to prove I was right that I would end up driving myself to drink because of the stress of showing everyone I was right. Sometimes, I needed to say that it did not matter if I was right or wrong. What mattered was that I did things to promote sobriety.

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When an issue becomes more important to me than a person, I have lost my focus. My friend reached out to me because I was perpetuating a cycle that said, “If you do not agree with me, you cannot be right; you cannot be a Christian; you cannot be a good person; you cannot be my friend.”

If you ever hear me saying that, please tell me to shut up. Telling me kindly is preferable, but maybe I deserve it bluntly.

I quoted from I Corinthians at the beginning of this post. It is only a few chapters later in the context of worship that Paul says, “If I have all kinds of knowledge, but I do not love people, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” In other words, Paul is saying, “If you cannot be loving, shut up. Your loud knowledge is not helping anybody.”

I welcome disagreement. I welcome dialogue. I always want to be inviting. You may not win me over to your side. I may not win you over to mine. But more often than not, I don’t care. As long as you will stay in relationship with me.

So give me your ideas: how do we break this pattern of: agree with me or be wrong? How do overcome close-mindedness? How can we dialogue respectfully?

No More Porn

Let me start by saying I was recently guilty of the behavior I am going to address in this post. More on that later.

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Several months ago, I attended a Man Retreat. It was a weekend devoted to answering the question, “What does it mean to be a man of God?” I was one of a handful of adult chaperones (which, in hindsight, sounds kind of ridiculous!). Although I have written about that weekend before, I want to bring up one of the topics that was discussed once again.

It is time to say, “No more porn.” As we had times of open discussion, the young men in my group talked about how much they hate pornography—the entire industry. Yes! 14-18 year old young men HATE what pornography is doing. They hate the accessibility. They hate the prevalence. They hate how it objectifies women. They hate to think that one day one of their sisters, or cousins, or aunts, or mothers could be involved. They hate that their friends talk about such things as “car porn” or “food porn.”

I walked away from that weekend convinced that this current generation of adolescents will be the group that brings an end to pornography as we know it.

“That’s a bold statement,” you might say. Or you might tell me, “That’s an awfully small sample size to base such a claim on.” And perhaps you would be right.

But I will stand by it. And if I am going to stand by it, I need to act on it. So how can I do that?

First, I need to say, “No more porn.” Sure, I can point to the fact that there are no dirty magazines or movies in my house. But I need to ask if my children see in my everyday actions that I truly hate the way pornography objectifies people. Do I make inappropriate comments when certain actors or actresses are on the screen? Do I watch movies that do not fit the industry’s definition of “porn,” yet would still embarrass me to watch if my parents, or my pastor, or my Savior were present? Am I calling out the destructive portrayal of women that my children witness in the shows they watch? Am I searching out stories that show the value of a person based on who they are, not what they do with their private parts?

Second, I need to stop saying the word “porn” as if it is a neutral word. Calling things “porn” only serves to de-sensitize us to the damaging nature of pornography. Looking at amazing cars is not “car porn.” If I happen to drool over pictures of desserts, I should not call it “food porn.” When we do that, we make it sound like pornography is nothing more than a joke, a humorous yet facile way to describe something. (Huffington Post, I’m looking at you.) But that is wrong. Pornography is destructive. Pornography kills relationships. Did you know that there is now something called “Pornography-induced erectile dysfunction”? And did you know it is occurring in men in their 20s? Stop using the word as if it is little more than a punchline.

Third, I need to stop excusing porn. Every time someone says, “It objectifies men, too,” or “It’s their own choice to be in those movies,” or, “Hey, it’s just a way to make a living,” we are saying we don’t care that women are trafficked and treated as sex slaves so that a few people can get rich off of destroying numerous lives to provide a quick release. Girls are lured into the industry with promises of acting roles and are treated like prostitutes with the movie producers being the pimps. They are used and dumped when they no longer generate revenue. And yes, pornography objectifies both men and women and serves to subjugate sexuality to nothing more than a quick fix. But I cannot minimize the damage the porn industry does to women by saying, “It hurts men, too.” Because when I say that, what I’m really saying is, “Leave my secret sin alone because if you dig any deeper, I’m going to have to come clean.” Instead, say something like, “Yes, this industry is destroying our young women and men and it must be stopped.”

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I said I messed up recently. A friend of mine posted a funny question on facebook about movie titles that could double as porn titles. I read all the comments. I laughed. I even added one of my own.

And then I remembered a small group of high school men I spent time with a few months ago. They had said, “We need to stop laughing about pornography.” THEY said it. Not me. Not the other adult small group leader. The young men. The teenagers. The highschoolers. The ones so overcome with hormones right now they can barely see straight.

Their words convicted me. So I deleted my comment. I didn’t read anyone else’s comment. And let me say that I am not angry with my friend who posted the question. Because he just did what a lot of us do. He is not a mean-spirited person. He is not someone who contributes to the defamation of women. He is a great husband and father. He just asked a question similar to questions I have asked in the past.

Too often, I have treated pornography as a joke. I have pretended that since I am not in the industry I have no responsibility for the damage that is done. And that is wrong.

So I want to change that. I want to say loudly: NO. MORE. PORN.

It ends now.

I will remove the word from my vocabulary, unless I use the word to call it out for the destructive evil that it is.

I will not let it be treated as a joke.

I will not remain silent in the face of mistreatment of women or the misrepresentation of sexuality.

I will allow the words of teenagers to convict me when I am wrong.

I will not let people tell me that young people don’t realize what is going on or that they don’t care.

I will encourage young women and men to appreciate who they are.

I will pray that young women and men have the courage that I so often lack.

We can stop it. We must stop it.

NO. MORE. PORN.