Loneliness and the Art of Conversation

door to hell

For many, the church is the loneliest place they know. To be sure, the church owns no monopoly on leaving the soul cold, and many of us endure isolation in all the spaces of our lives, estranged in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplace, in every place where we would have hoped to discover friendship. However, I believe this loneliness particularly acute within our spiritual communities precisely because we claim something better. We claim to be a people where everyone belongs, where everyone is gathered into the family. We are a people of the Table, where all find welcome and everyone has a seat.

No community, spiritual or otherwise, will be able to entirely eradicate the weight of loneliness. For some of us, our cravings and demands for connection with others are insatiable, our expectations way out of whack. Still, the church at times disappoints us with greater sting because we long for something more than frantic activity or fresh piles of biblical information. I want to encounter another actual human. We do not want to be prodded, pushed somewhere. We want to be where we actually are – and to be there in that one spot with someone else.

Several years ago, I sat in a circle with the intention, I thought, of listening to one another’s stories. Within a few moments, however, it was obvious that the group facilitator (the one billed as something like the ‘expert listener’) was not actually listening with open mind and heart to the person across from him, but rather he was waiting to hear certain key words or phrases that he could then use as a pivot to present the material he wanted to disseminate. He had a destination where he wanted the group to land, and he intended to use the story medium to get us there. I felt used and very, very lonely.

There is no cure-all for our loneliness, but I would like to see our churches return to the very human art of conversation. This work will be slow and clunky. It will be inefficient. It will certainly create lots of mess. The “movement” may not, in the end, get off the ground. But if we practiced genuine conversation, we would find ourselves to be more richly human which, as I understand it, means we will be more like Jesus. And that sounds about right to me.

John O’Donohue once gave four questions to ask yourself, question that help us to locate the good conversations (i.e. ones that are more than “just two intersecting monologues”):

When was the last time you had a great conversation, in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew?

When was the last time you had a great conversation where you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost?

When was the last time you had an encounter with another that created a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plane?

When was the last time you had a great conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks?

If you have difficulty recalling the last time you’ve enjoyed such an exchange, I’d encourage you to go looking. I hope our churches can become communities where these conversations happen. I truly do.

18 Replies to “Loneliness and the Art of Conversation”

  1. Funny how some of us seem more apt to talk and others to listen, but for true conversation we must learn to do both. Your words have me thinking…

  2. Thank you for this. Right this minute, I’ve been feeling pretty lonely, partly because I’m over tired and because I’m letting some friends ease out of my life. I believe friends should be free to come and free to leave. Other friends need me to be more superficial, something I tend to forget. Though I was thinking this weekend, how come it’s okay for them to rant about their lives but not for me to rant about mine? Loneliness can well up for me because of how very tired I am right now.

    At any rate I wanted to share a book I just now heard about and want to get my hands on. The author is on Facebook and might be someone you might enjoy friending. Use my name if you need to. It’s called Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart by John Backman.


    1. Well, the friendship deal is not easy water, is it? Sometimes, it’s joy, sometimes it leaves us lonely. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. A great topic, Winn, and one that is so forgettable because it’s rare. I felt I wasn’t listened to when I grew up and it still surprises me when I say things I didn’t know I knew as Donohue says. By the way, he is my favorite author.
    Thank you for your wise words on this subject. I will share in the Progressive Christian Mysticism group.

  4. Love this, Winn. And in answer to John’s questions, I’d have to say every time I sit in my study with a directee. Every single time. It’s one of the greatest gifts of this ministry. And I don’t talk all that much – maybe that’s a big clue right there. 🙂

  5. Thank you, Winn. We are reminded of a situation that one of us had when we were in seminary leading a class presentation. The highlight of the presentation was a multi-media slideshow emphasizing pain and brokenness in our world. After it was over–and there was a time for Q & A–the slideshow took the class in a very different direction than what was planned. The professor grading the presentation criticized that because the prescribed order was too easily discarded. But we want to say, as does this article, that if we are truly ‘listening’ to others and what they need, there are times when we have to discard the standard protocol and the prescribed order in order to venture where peoples’ hearts and minds really are.

  6. Winn, these questions caused tears to well up. True listening is a rarity – more so in churches. I crave the kind of church where interchange occurs, where relationships are formed, where deepening of love and trust in God blossoms, where discipleship is taught and nurtured. Where grace, mercy and forgiveness are in the air, not simply judgment and one-way lecture on sin. If there is such a church, that’s my church.

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