Why I am Always Behind and the Loneliness of People Today

Some of my more direct friends occasionally ask me why I haven’t got round to doing such and such yet. The answer I give tends to vary. There is always the honest ‘laziness, sheer laziness’ or the intellectually more respectable ‘lack of inspiration’; but I think I am more likely to try to steer the conversation away from the question, especially if it is something both the questioner and I want me to do. That isn’t as deliberately evasive as it may seem. My not being well can be used as a valid excuse for some of my dilatoriness. Even ordinary tasks take much longer than they used to, as anyone seeing me doing odd jobs in the house or garden will testify. But that is not the point. There is a sadder reason, which has nothing to do with me at all: loneliness and its impact on people who may not seem lonely to others but are, often desperately so.

Much of my day is taken up with the routine of monastic life: prayer, lectio divina, household tasks, and the administrative duties associated with running any organization, to which should be added the community’s online ministry. But most days we also receive a lot of emails/letters and, increasingly, telephone calls, that don’t fall into any special category and can’t be dealt with in a few minutes. They are the cries of lonely people, often not asking for anything in particular but just to be heard. They pose a challenge to us as nuns, but also to society in general.

I am not sure why people contact us, but I think it has something to do with trust. Without knowing us, people trust us to take them and their difficulties seriously — and to be kind. We try, but we often fail, too. The man who telephoned late one evening when I was in the middle of chemotherapy and ‘just wanted to talk’ wasn’t very happy when I explained that I wasn’t up to a long conversation just then. He ‘phoned again ten minutes later and was rather put out to get the same nun on the line, as I would have been in his position; but we are not counsellors or therapists and it is no good trying to be or do what we cannot, especially when feeling drained.

Taking people seriously and being kind: not rocket science, as they say, but it does demand time and effort because, inevitably, need arises according to its own timetable not ours; and truly listening to people is hard work. I think we are immensely privileged as a community because those who turn to us do trust us, and very often they have had bad experiences in the past. What worries me, if that is the right word, is the loneliness behind the calls we receive. I always feel chastened when someone ends a conversation or message with the words, ‘Thank you. I haven’t been able to speak about this to anyone else.’ I can understand that there might be things one would be reluctant to discuss with family or friends, but the matters I am referring to do not, by and large, fall into the category of embarrassing or awkward. It is simply loneliness and the feeling of isolation that makes them difficult to talk about.

So, here is your challenge from the cloister for today: switch off your smartphone, take your eyes off that screen and pay attention to the person nearest you. Don’t be so anxious to pour out your own thoughts and feelings that you fail to notice theirs. Learn to be a friend, to be kind. Not only will you be helping to make the world a better place, you may even, indirectly, be helping a procrastinating nun get something done. Or maybe not.

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Valuing our Friends

You notice I write, valuing our friends. Friendship is an abstraction: it has to be enfleshed in a particular person, so to say, before we really understand what it means. Recently, a friend with cancer wrote me a rather sad little note. She complained, not bitterly or angrily but sadly and regretfully, that one of the things she found hardest about her illness was the falling-off of old friends. Not all her friends, of course, but one or two she had loved most dearly seemed to have no time for her now that she could no longer be the friend she had once been. They did not understand her exhaustion and mistook it for indifference. The limitations of her life irritated them: they were unable to grasp that there were activities she could no longer enjoy, foods she could not eat, events she could not attend. She who had been the life and soul of the party was now a party-pooper. She could no longer give her friends the time she had once delighted to share with them, so now they seemed to have no further use for her. What could she do about it?

I have to admit that my first thought was: nothing. To a much lesser extent than my friend, I have experienced something of the same myself — and it is made much worse because people tend to think that nuns have limitless amounts of time to devote to them. During the last few days, I have been an arch party-pooper myself. In my case, I know that there will come a moment when the nausea and the tiredness lessen and I am capable of being something like my old self. My friend is not so fortunate. For her there seems to be only less and less vitality. Her world seems to be closing in on her, and I am convinced it need not be so.

It is easy to be a friend when all is going well, when we can enjoy time spent together and celebrate all we have in common; but to be a friend in sacrifice, when everything we once shared seems stripped away and, if we’re honest, our friend endlessly disappoints with his/her inability to be what they once were, that is much harder. We say, glibly enough, ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’ or assure others that ‘we’ll always be there for them,’ but when it comes down to it, I wonder how many of us actually are. I think uncomfortably of the times I have failed my friends, when I’ve been too busy or preoccupied with concerns of my own really to be a friend to another.

To be a friend: that is what matters. The old Germanic roots of the word incorporate ideas of love and freedom — love freely given and asking nothing in return. Is this too high or difficult an ideal to place before us all? It is no accident, surely, that Christ addresses his disciples as his friends, but with this significant addition, ‘if you do what I command you.’ (John 15.14) His commandment is to love one another as he has loved us, with that generous, sacrificial love that seeks the good of the other rather than itself. Perhaps today we might think about our friends, especially those with whom we may have lost contact or who we know are going through a difficult time. Sometimes a brief word, a quick email, is all that is needed to assure the friend of our interest and affection. But it must be selfless, with no do ut des* about it. That is the difference between being a friend and seeking the fruits of friendship. Love asks nothing but to love; and if we truly value our friends, that is precisely what we will do.

* I give, that you may give in return.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail