Tag: Loneliness

A Message Carved in Rock

One of hundreds of petroglyphs just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

One of hundreds of petroglyphs just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I saw petroglyphs in New Mexico last week. “Petroglyph” means “rock writing” and refers to art carved in volcanic stones lying about the desert hills just west of Albuquerque. According to the scientists who’ve studied the petroglyphs, Native Americans from the Pueblo nation produced those markings during a few centuries before and after 800, c.e. Three of us hiked around the canyon where those ancient Pueblos left their art and we repeatedly asked what they symbols endeavored to say. “What do they MEAN,” we kept asking. We saw representations of snakes, birds, foot prints, lizards, horses, masked people, and a bunch of spirals, as well as dozens of other forms we couldn’t decipher.

The symbol on this rock resembles the theme on the New Mexico state flag, probably symbolizing the four ordinal directions.

The symbol on this rock resembles the theme on the New Mexico state flag, probably symbolizing the four ordinal directions.

As we read the signs along the trail, we learned that some of the art represented religious ideas while others purely secular themes. Some of the markings simply identified a path. Then we came across a trail sign that read, “. . . according to modern Pueblo people, it is culturally insensitive to reveal the meanings of some petroglyphs.”

“So, you had to be part of the club,” one of my colleagues said with a snort.

“I don’t think so,” said another. “I think it means that you honor your community. Unless you’re part of the community, to talk about what these things mean might actually make someone look bad, or hurt them, or lead to misunderstanding things that make sense if you’ve been living together for a while.”

We agreed with each other that the latter explanation made more sense.

All of that brought to mind an essay that I’d read just before going on the excursion. William Deresiewicz, an excellent writer and thinker, had reviewed a book written by a literary hero of mine, Annie Dillard. In reflecting on Dillard’s body of work, Deresiewicz (can anyone tell me how to pronounce that?) made the observation that “we are born with souls but die in bodies.” I think that’s why the modern Pueblos don’t tell us what some of those petroglyphs mean. Even though the symbols stir something in me when I look at them – they touch my soul – the fact that my body never breathed the same air, smelled the same smells, shared the same struggles, and celebrated the same successes as those Pueblo people makes it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to their art.

Many cultures include the spiral in their religious symbolism.

Many cultures include the spiral in their religious symbolism.

This doesn’t mean that I cannot imagine in some ways what the Pueblos faced and what their humanity desired and needed. Certainly, common concerns connect the whole human community now and across time. However, the real healing comes when we enter into each other’s lives, touch one another, listen to one another, and respond to one another in real time, in the places we occupy.

You see, true community grows when we’ve become mutually vulnerable, where we connect meaningfully with others who cherish and honor our vulnerability and offer theirs in trust, when we breathe the same air, smell the same smells, share the same struggles, and celebrate the same successes. That’s the only way loneliness can be assuaged and wholeness nurtured.

An academic knowledge of what this or that petroglyph means doesn’t have the power to heal me. However, when I see a spiral carved in the rock, I can imagine that some Pueblos had decided to draw a symbol for the power of coming to a center, of honing in on the most important thing, and that the most important thing is the power of blessing one another in a community of trust and love. Humans across cultures, across eons, across religions have come to this conclusion. So, this tells me that I need to spiral into a community center, too!

Beautiful scenery against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.

Beautiful scenery against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.

Yes, that’s another reason why we do support teams here at UAB Pastoral Care. When you enter intentionally into a relationship of caring and trust, you discover a depth of spiritual power you’d never experience by looking at it from the outside. You want to know if support teams “work?” I can show you statistics, or you can enter and experience the love. Which sounds more attractive?

Maybe that’s what the Pueblos are telling us about the petroglyphs. Embed yourself in your own community of caring and support and love, then draw your own symbols.

“Independence” Doesn’t Happen in Nature

We could see the Milky Way almost this clearly on that night without whippoorwills.

We could see the Milky Way almost this clearly on that night without whippoorwills.

Some years ago, I stood with a cousin of mine on a balmy June evening at the edge of a field on our late grandfather’s farm. It was about 10:00 p.m. and the field stretched away for nearly a mile to a distant tree line, visible as a dark jagged ribbon against a luminous night sky. We’d gone to that field because of its distance from any night lights and our desire for a clear view of the Milky Way. We stretched out on our backs in the thick turf and with our heads in our interlocked hands looked up. There it glowed above us, what the Bushmen of the Kalahari in South Africa call “The Backbone of Night.” It began in the constellation Cassiopeia directly overhead and stretched into the southwest. I felt the usual awe as I stared up into infinity and contemplated the immensity of the universe. “It’s just so awesome,” my cousin said.

“Sure makes me feel small,” I said. He pointed out the steady movement of a satellite, we laughed at the blinking lights of a high altitude airplane, and began to notice the various shades of color in the stars.

Then, I started to notice some things closer to earth. I could hear the night creaks of the insects and the calls of frogs from a small pond in the field to our backs. It felt familiar because my cousin and I had been to that very field many times over the years, long before we were married, had kids, got educated and moved to cities where ground glare made it impossible to see the Milky Way and where the night sounds included far more sirens than frogs.

I waxed a bit nostalgic. I said, “You know, it’s so quiet out here, but I haven’t heard a whippoorwill the whole time we’ve been here.”

My cousin sighed. (He’d returned to the farm much more frequently than I.) He said, “I miss them, too.” He went on, “They used to fill the air with their calls this time of year, but they’ve grown less frequent over the last few years.”

“Why is that,” I asked.

“There’re all kinds of theories, but I can tell you what happened here. First, they bulldozed all the hedgerows, which was where they hung out.”

“Why’d they bulldoze the hedgerows?”

“They wanted a bigger farm and they wanted to plant a lot of corn and the hedgerows made it inconvenient for the big machinery. Of course, without the hedgerows, the whippoorwills weren’t around to eat the moths that got in the corn, so they upped their usage of pesticides. After that, my grand-dad and dad wouldn’t let livestock in the fields to eat the stubble because they were afraid the pesticides would poison them, so the natural fertilizer wasn’t there anymore, which led to using artificial fertilizers. The heavy machinery compacted the soil, so they have to use even more fertilizers and pesticides. And now, the run-off from all those chemicals has killed off most of the bass in the tributaries to the Pee Dee. And if by chance you DO catch a bass in those creeks, I wouldn’t advise eating it.”

My cousin waved his hand at the Cosmos above us. “We might not notice it right away, but all of this is connected. I think we’ll hear that missing whippoorwill song again when we take all these connections seriously.”

The more we saw these guys, the better our snapdragons and rosemary grew.

The more we saw these guys, the better our snapdragons and rosemary grew.

I thought of that night when I was reading some research the other day. The author made the statement that the notion of “independence” is an abstract political term, but independence doesn’t happen in nature. Rather, interdependence characterizes the way the creation works. If bees don’t pollinate crops in California, grocery shoppers in Alabama pay higher prices – IF they can get the product.

That’s why we do Support Teams, in fact, because we human beings depend upon one another far more than many of us want to admit. As I’ve come to see, health isn’t just the absence of disease. To be healthy means a person is living and loving within a network of relationships, embodied in a community, and making a contribution to the community while enjoying other people’s contributions. Too often in our work as chaplains, we come across people who believe the “rugged cowboy” myth of our society, that if you’re what you ought to be, you can handle whatever comes your way all by yourself. We do Support Teams because we weren’t born alone, we weren’t raised alone, we weren’t educated alone, we don’t make all our clothes or raise all our food, or mine the minerals that someone else used to make our iPhones, TVs, and automobiles. We aren’t even entertained alone.

And we will not get well and stay healthy alone, either.

So we regularly offer our counsel and companionship so that folks can better use the unique medicine that is their community. For so many folks, that organized community is the missing piece in their worlds. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, needing each other to be healthy. And so often, when we take our actual interconnectedness seriously and organize and nurture it, a missing song returns.

Lesson #6: Why Do Pastors Resist Something Soooo Good? (Part 1)

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Lesson #6 has to do with the resistance to Support Teams that I’ve encountered among pastors and, indeed, it comes in two parts. Here’s Part One and it’s a heart-felt sympathetic description of why one encounters resistance. There’s a good reason for it. Part Two will come next Wednesday (March 9, 2016), and it’ll be a little more prescriptive.

Ever since I arrived in Birmingham and began working here at UAB, I’ve had this developing dream. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a network of churches around the region, in metropolitan Birmingham as well as in the surrounding counties, where we had a cadre of coaches in partnership with our Department of Pastoral Care trained to launch support teams for discharged patients coming into their communities? After all, I’ve reasoned, it’s in the DNA of congregations to visit the sick, embrace the disenfranchised, and nurture community. A network of coaches in partner churches actively supporting discharged patients could make a huge contribution to the kind of environment necessary for healing and wholeness. Such a network could even prevent a number of persons from being readmitted to the hospital.

Naturally, this has led me to talk with dozens of pastors. As a former senior pastor, myself, with 26 years of congregational experience, I anticipated some resistance, and indeed I’ve encountered it, and even more than understanding it, I identify with it completely.

You see, if you’re a pastor you’re compelled to live out some basic duties which define the profession and to which you know you must devote quality time. The result? Simply preparing Bible studies, planning worship, doing the research and reflection necessary to craft a sermon every week, writing the sermon, visiting folks hospitalized and homebound parishoners, doing pastoral counseling, and lubricating the institutional infrastructure constitute more than a full time job.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

And then, as if that weren’t enough to deal with, before you’ve pastored a given church for more than a week, you start getting calls, emails, or brochures from well meaning individuals or organizations announcing that they have a ministry, program, or offering that will solve all your pastoral and congregational problems. I got them every day of my 26 year ministry as a senior pastor. Here’s an organization that does marriage enrichment in order to solve your church’s divorce problem. There’s an organization that offers clever financial planning that’ll heal all your budgetary problems. And yonder is a fine, committed and “godly” cadre of experienced pastors who’ll teach you how to overcome your church’s lack-of-growth problem. Believe me – these are a tiny fraction of stuff I’d get every week, almost every day. You know what? The vast bulk of that material immediately got deleted or thrown in the trash without me even bothering to read them. One pastor with whom I met just this week (March 1, 2016) told me that he simply does not take sales calls.

And then – and THEN – there were those activists who had problems they wanted ME to solve, by means of my church. These would be on behalf of human trafficking, or race relations, or abortion, or voting for God’s candidate, or world hunger day, or homeless intervention. That list was even longer than the solve-your-church-problems list, and many of the issues were worthy. At first, I felt terrible about throwing away brochures with pictures of hungry children, for example, but honestly, we felt like we were already doing everything we were able to do on a number of fronts. I knew there were only so many causes I could promote without completely diluting the congregational focus. If we heeded every appeal that came across my desk, we’d be like Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when he told Gandalf that he felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped across too much bread.”

I’m acutely aware of this when I speak to pastors about our Support Team Network. I know that ideally, when fully deployed in the congregation, a well developed Support Team strategy will help lift pastoral burdens, because it spreads the care around, activates the talents of a wide variety of church members, and can prevent folks from “falling through the cracks.” But when I shove a Support Team brochure in the face of an already overwhelmed, busy pastor, they feel like swatting it away. I understand this.

So, what to do? Well, here it is again: nothing works for long without the growth of a trusting relationship, and reducing the kind of resistance I’ve described above is no exception. Next week, I’ll offer a few insights that have emerged for me regarding successful partnering.

“Community is Medicine”

Clint Eastwood as "The Outlaw Josey Wales"

Clint Eastwood as “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

I love the Geico commercial that has fun with the “loner cowboy.”  Have you seen it?  The cowboy sits on his horse while his girl comes running out weeping hysterically and yelling, “Don’t go, Jessie!”  He says, “I’m sorry, Daisy, but I’m a loner.  And a loner has to be alone.”  He then kicks his horse and goes riding off (only to slam his head against the letter “E” when “The End” appears across the screen – if you’ve seen it, it makes humorous sense).  I love the commercial, not because of the insurance, but because of the way it recognizes, and has a little fun with, that iconic staple of the American Western: the Rugged Individual.

Of course, that Rugged Individual motif shows up in far more serious narratives, like the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” starring an icon in his own right, Clint Eastwood.  In that movie, Eastwood portrays a former Confederate soldier, Josey Wales, whose wife and son are murdered by shadowy Union sympathizers.  Wells then sets out on the proverbial path of revenge, riding by himself from town to town hunting down the perpetrators of the crime.  He intends to ride alone, nursing his grief and rage.  As he rides, however, he reluctantly assembles a motley crew of other victims of Western movie peril until he has a veritable entourage going from place to place with him.  Finally, they find a ranch outside a town, which they all defend in an expected gunfight, and then Wales rides into town to confront – and dispatch – the ring leader of the aforementioned shadowy Union sympathizers.

Josey-Wales-filmHowever, when Wales returns to the tavern after the demise of the last villain, a US Marshall sits in the corner, a hat pulled down over his face, with his searing eyes glinting through the shadow of the brim.  Wales and the Marshall lock eyes.  Standing around the tavern, though, are the members of Wales’ motley assemblage.  One of them looks at Wales and says, “Hello, Mr. Jones!  This marshall here is looking for an outlaw by the name of Josey Wales.  You know anything about him?”  And everyone else in the bar participates in the ruse.  The marshall obviously knows that everyone’s lying, but he’s also impressed with the fact that Wales is so loved.  So, as he and Wales continue to look at one another, the Marshall says, “Mr. Jones, you’re a very fortunate man to have so many good friends.” And he rides away.

The point?  Even rugged individuals can’t do it alone.

Recently, Krista Tippet, who hosts the NPR program, “On Being,” interviewed three medical professionals in a program entitled, “The Evolution of Medicine.”  One of the three professionals was Mark Hyman, a physician and the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.  I was struck by how Dr. Hyman spoke of the power of community for healing sickness.  In fact, he said that “the power of community is central to health care,” and then later made it even stronger when he said, “. . . community IS medicine.”  Dr. Hyman and the other participants made it clear that as 21st century medical practice evolves, more and more attention needs to be paid to the power of community to support and heal the individual.  In fact, the three panelists emphasized that more than ever, we need to realize that most of our problems – and the solutions to them – are systemic in nature.

Even that rugged individualist, The Outlaw Josey Wales, discovered that his community became the support system that solved his problem.  Likewise, as we learn more about what makes for a life filled with health and well being, we increasingly see how important it is to pay attention to the systems of which each of us is a part.  Indeed, as we organize Support Teams for folks we know, in Mark Hyman’s words, we’re actually doing a very important form of medicine.  Community heals.  I’ve often described what we do with Support Teams as nurturing community and the more I do this, read, and interact with members of this amazing hospital community at UAB, I know that medicine isn’t just what the physicians and nurses do around the hospital bed or in the rehab clinic.  When we prepare meals for one another, assist with chores, listen to each other’s stories, or simply sit with each other in silence, we’re participating in a healing process – because community IS medicine!

The last thing we need to do is ride off and try to do this thing alone.

Everything is Incredible!

In the village of Siguatepeque, Honduras, lives a man named Augustin. Before the government gave free vaccinations to the children of the country, polio struck Augustin. For most of his 70 plus years, Augustin has lived in a wheelchair. He managed to learn a trade, however, and became a shoemaker. Augustin might have gone unnoticed by the villagers in Siguatepeque, another among the number of handicapped persons often overlooked by the more able bodied residents of the town as they went about their business – but for one thing:

In his spare time, Augustin built a helicopter.

This film is about ten minutes long.  You can watch it, or skip to the narrative I’ve written below – or both!  I find the implications of this story deeply compelling.

If you visited Augustin’s residence, you’d know it wasn’t a real helicopter – but you can see that it’s a least a rough model of one, made from parts Augustin collected from the dump, or along the road. You’d be amazed that many of those parts move! A chain drive turns shafts which make the blades rotate. It has the bubble cockpit of an early chopper like they used for M.A.S.H units during the Korean War, and it has a tail fin that angles back and forth. You’d recognize what it approximates, though you’d know immediately that it wasn’t airworthy.

Now, if you’re like the local priest, an Anglo missionary from the United States, you’d smirk, shrug your shoulders and say dismissively, “[Whenever we try to help him] he characteristically says, ‘I just want you to give me money so I can work on my helicopter. Which it’s not even a helicopter. God knows what it is.”

You might be surprised, though, to learn that none of the villagers who live in Augustin’s community seem to share the contempt of the priest. Rather, the people who’ve lived with him, who speak his native language, who’ve known him their whole lives, are much more accepting of him and his “helicopter.” One villager recounted how once he had no shoes and Augustin gave him a pair that were well made. That villager said that, no, Augustin isn’t crazy. On the contrary, he has a fine mind and lots of patience. Another says that her mother used to be crazy about Augustin. Yet another says that he thinks the helicopter WILL fly some day.  Perhaps the villagers see a reality the outsider cannot, see a redemption the outsider only sees as futility, sense of genius the outsider only understands as foolishness.

As for Augustin himself, he recounts how his own brother became an alcoholic and that before he died “for no reason,” he’d walk around in the streets shouting, “I’m not the crazy one! I’m a drunk. My brother – he’s the crazy one!” But Augustin goes on unfazed. He points at the contraption sitting in the living room and says, “You can see that it’s a caricature of a real helicopter, but the problem is that everything is incredible – and people don’t accept it.”

“Everything is incredible.” Could it be that we all have projects that appear senseless to people who don’t know us? Could it be that we all have our “helicopters” that won’t “fly?” Could it be that we all need to have folks who’ve known us, who know something of our histories, and accept us just the same?

If I can trust the gist of this film, it doesn’t seem to me that this “crazy guy” suffers from social isolation. I can imagine that he’s experienced loneliness, but to judge from the way so many people in his village can recount his history and even sympathize with and admire his project, it seems he’s even been supported in his efforts. He’s been able to persevere with his project because his community has supported him. They’ve shared his “craziness,” some even evincing a trace of pride that they know this man.

This story serves as an object lesson as to why our support team project is so important. I don’t think our support team vision is like the helicopter caricature, but when we fashion ourselves into intentionally supportive communities for people, we make it possible for them to pursue their life-giving projects. We participate in weaving the kind of fabric of life that will allow all of us to build our crazy dreams. That makes it possible for all of us to see that “everything is incredible.”

In that sense, Augustin’s “helicopter” has already flown.

Loneliness – Our Very Real “Matrix”

Laurence Fishburne as "Morpheus" in the 90's movie "The Matrix."

Laurence Fishburne as “Morpheus” in the 90’s movie “The Matrix.”

“Let me tell you why you’re here,” said Morpheus. Neo looks on with skepticism and we hear the ambient sound of thunder and rain. Morpheus continues:

“You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.”

When I read a recent article on loneliness (the article I featured in last week’s blog), I thought of this iconic scene from the movie “The Matrix.” For those who haven’t seen this almost cult classic, the movie posits a future in which humans have been hard-wired into a giant computer program so that everything they experience is really just part of an elaborate computer program projected into their brains by AI overlords. The machines keep the bodies of the whole human population in huge, subterranean silos where their biological energy powers the machines. The vast majority of humans remain unaware of the reality in which they actually live.

How many friends do we make this way?

How many friends do we make this way?

Loneliness, according to this article, surrounds us so closely that many of us remain unaware of its increasing ubiquity.  It’s true that loneliness has been with us ever since the human race first emerged, but I have the feeling that it’s a bit like “The Matrix:” it’s crept up on us so gradually and with such huge dimensions that we don’t realize the damage that it’s doing. In fact, much in our contemporary lifestyles that we take for granted encourages isolation over community. (More on that in later posts.)

The hero of the film, “Neo,” played by Keanu Reeves, happens to be one of the few humans who’ve begun to detect flaws in the program. It takes one of the other protagonists, “Morpheus,” played by Laurence Fishburne, to alert him to the elaborate charade.

The article to which I referred last week is our “Morpheus” when it comes to the phenomenon of loneliness in our society. I’ll quote again one of the lines from the conclusion of that article. It said, “loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken (Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, in Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2015, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 227-237).” I can imagine that many of us have felt this. We’ve felt it our entire lives, that there’s something wrong with the way our world isolates people, that loneliness isn’t a good thing. But this? Researched evidence that we’ve got an epidemic on our hands that’s actually killing people? Wow!

In “The Matrix,” Morpheus offers Neo a choice. In a much-quoted scene, he says:

Neo's options - blue pill or red pill?

Neo’s options – blue pill or red pill?

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

This article shows us how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Now, we could consider the findings of these researchers who offer us evidence of the tremendous damage loneliness is doing to our society, shrug our shoulders and continue business as usual. We can take a “blue pill.” Or, we can hear that deceptively blasé phrase for the giant and necessary challenge it is: “Unless action is taken.” We can take the red pill. We can decide that we’ll do what each of us can with the people whom we know to take this responsibility seriously. This well researched article bears an implicit plea that we all do what we can to address the issue of loneliness.

Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.

Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.

All kinds of questions need to be asked:

  • How do our work lives encourage or discourage human connection?
  • How well do our faith congregates welcome people and take initiative toward those who my be suffering isolation?
  • How do the physical designs of our communities, neighborhoods, and cities help or hinder human connection and what can we reasonably do about that?
  • How do our attitudes toward success and failure in life affect how we spend our time nurturing relationships?

The Support Team Network continues to address this challenge by training teams of volunteers to organize themselves intentionally to disrupt the isolation of a friend and family in need. It’s our way of acknowledging that there’s something wrong with the world. It’s also our way of doing something to make it right.

Your choice: blue pill or red pill?

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