I’ve always recalled being lonely. From the elementary school, when I hardly knew a sentence of English and would sometimes read rather than play at recess because the girls seemed cliquey and the boys would get into soccer. To high school, where family and school seemed like two different worlds. My mother, suffering from chronic fatigue, constantly talked about her health problems and the virtues of Chinese medicine. My dad was extremely smart, but also extremely withdrawn. Both were very conservative. My friends were into the arts and progressive politics, which my parents weren’t interested in the least. I felt my insides being torn apart, one side being by immigrant adults, one side torn by the cool American youth.
I had same problems in college. Not fitting in. The social activists were bright-eyed fans of the liberal arts, and didn’t really understand that I felt an insane pressure to major in business or economics. My practical parents did not understand why I would sign up for scandalous, useless classes like sociology or anthropology. Again, I felt torn. I couldn’t be an economics student passionate about social justice, or a social activist who “sold out” to make money. The Grounds, full of lively chatter, also whistled in their emptiness. I didn’t feel like I belonged.
Even Christians– the community where I felt most welcomed – felt elusive. It was like I was peering into a group of arm-waving worshippers from outside the church window. I wondered why they were so joyful and on prophetic fire for the evangelism, where I was felt utterly alone in my turbulent walk with God. There were days when I trembled in prayer for hours, pleading to God to fill the bubbling void of anxiety in me. Where was the joy that I was missing out on?
In his quasi-memoir Washed and Waiting, Wesley Hill, a theology professor at Trinity School for Ministry, talks about this struggle with loneliness beautifully and poignantly. Hill discovered his homosexual orientation in his youth, and following the orthodox Christian view of homosexual relations, has chosen to be celibate. He kept it mostly to himself in college, fearing the stigma associated with homosexuality. But then, little by little, he began telling his friends about his struggle, and talking about it with his pastors. People did not exactly understand struggles. But they did not show judgment like he expected; instead they graciously offered a compassionate ear.
“No longer was I struggling; I was learning to struggle well, with others, in the presence of God,” Hill writes. And I have been trying to learn just that. I thought that I was the keeper of my pain – as if by being an oyster and hiding it, I could fashion my pain into a pearl. But I started learning too, that Christians felt lonely and out of place at times. Like me, many of my Christian friends did not come from supportive Christian parents. Like me, many people found it difficult when their family just didn’t get their chief source of joy and hope. It was a way for us to connect but also encourage others in our walk.
Nobody can feel our feelings for us or take our burdens away. Thus, no one, no organization, will be that “one thing” that satisfies us. But Christian community, in its best forms, points both our joy and suffering toward God. “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). God has chosen to work through us to encourage and exhort one another.
“Is it worth it?” I ask myself sometimes, “To trust God with this sense of alienation and restless desire to belong? Maybe this is what I was meant to be.”
I am the first-generation immigrant, the only child in a non-Christian family. I was the third-grader on who never wanted to go to recess (eventually I did). I was the nerdy high schooler who kept so quiet at lunch and chose to meander among wildflowers and meadows after school instead of going to sports practices. I was alone in my pain and joy.
I was the bright-eyed activist, marching for climate justice who felt like no one else really cared. I was the economics student, who questioned why I had to do all the problem sets while others were doing fun things. I was a commuter student who felt silly carrying around a lunchbox all the time. I felt, again, out of place and out of touch.
Yet Paul reminds us: “My grace is sufficient of for you, my power is perfected in weakness. Therefore I will boast more gladly in all my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I think loneliness – and all the circumstances that have made me feel at the margins – has been a thorn and a rose. God gave the empowering gift of loneliness for a reason, so that I would constantly feel out of place, but also so that I could understand the motivations of different groups of people. The young and the old. The ones who would paint and sing, and the blazer-wearing yuppies. The Christians, the atheists, the Buddhists, and Unitarians.
Being lonely has edified my character, I think. It has made me realize that no group, no matter how saintly, can fully understand the desires of my heart and soul. No one will ever know what it is to be exactly me. All are insufficient and imperfect. But God said – be in fellowship with those imperfect people. Struggle well with those imperfect people, whom I love. Be with them so that they remind you of the sin in the world and point you toward the sufficiency of my grace.
So I step out. Not alone in my loneliness and alienation, but struggling with it with my community; guided by a light that shouts: “I love the broken church.”
Photo credits: The Odyssey Online