Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Our Joy is Others in our Lives: How to be Fully Human

Published on Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Our Joy is Others in our Lives: How to be Fully Human

Some of you might already know that after 12 years at historic St. John’s Church here in Richmond, I have shifted ministry to a new locale. I am now a Priest Associate at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, just five minutes’ drive from my home. My 12 years at St. John’s were wonderful, but there comes a time “for everything under the sun,” as the Bible tells us. And so it was time for me to begin ministry someplace else.

The lead photo shows the front entrance to St. Martin’s. I have long been attracted to the liturgy there because it’s very ... as they say ... High Church. That is – for those of you who care for such distinctions – the worship services at St. Martin’s are high Anglo-Catholic, with a holy water font by the door to the sanctuary and much of the service sung or chanted by the clergy and ministers leading the service. Having been a Roman Catholic for all of my adult life until being called to ordination in the Episcopal Church, in many ways this has been a return to my childhood roots – liturgically speaking.

But deeper and more than that, St. Martin’s has a warm, family feel to it, a welcoming spirit that is palpable when you enter its doors. It’s a niche church also in the sense that some members travel long distances to worship there because of its Anglo-Catholic ritual. I have certainly been drawn to it for that reason, but also because after leaving St. John’s last summer and visiting other congregations in search of a new church home, I realized strongly ... again ... how important it is to me to put down roots in a worshiping community. Being an introvert by temperament and inclined to meditative practices, I still recognize the centrality for me of community bonding.

Which brings me to the matter at hand – or at least the matter of substance for this blog. In the Sunday Review section of The New York Times' Oct. 27 issue (I NEVER throw away a Sunday Review section from that paper, even if back issues have to ride around on the seat of my car for weeks), there was a front page piece by Ruth Whippman entitled, “Happiness is Other People.” (See the second photo below.) The writer had moved from Britain a few years back to live in this country and found herself very lonely. At first she tried various apps on her phone that promised her joy, promised her bliss, promised her happiness. Messages would beep on her phone all day long reminding her that “happiness lay within,” and “happiness is an inside job!” Whippman says that in our extremely individualistic culture:

... this is happiness framed as journey of self-discovery, rather than the natural byproduct of engaging with the world; a happiness that stresses emotional independence rather than interdependence; one based on the idea that meaningful contentment can be found only by a full exploration of the self, a deep dive into our innermost souls and the intricacies and trip wires of our own personalities. Step 1: Find Yourself. Step 2: Be Yourself. (p. 4)
Whippman points out that while Americans – from teens to at least mid-adulthood – put more stress on finding happiness by looking within, we are spending less and less time with others. “Nearly half of all meals eaten in this country now are eaten alone. Teenagers and young millennials are spending less time just 'hanging out’ with their friends than any generation in recent history, replacing real world interaction with smart-phones.” (p. 5) Recent research has also found a high rate of depression and isolation among such young phone users.

Whippman also notes that while introspection and even solitude are important for a psychologically healthy life, you still need to find a balance, because the research findings are clear that ultimately, “our happiness depends on other people.” Even for introverts such as me, I try very hard to balance my need for alone time with my need for my family and friends. Because I know – and Whippman reminds us all – that shutting out others from our lives, withdrawing into isolated selves safe within our own cocoons is – as she puts it – “shockingly dangerous to our health.” My own research when I was in the academic arena and plenty of other studies – both animal and epidemiological – have shown over the years that lack of social support and social isolation raises the risk of early death. Whippman ends her article thus:

The most significant thing we can do for our well-being is not to “find ourselves” or “go within.” It’s to invest as much time and effort as we can into nurturing the relationships we have with the people in our lives.

Given all that, the next time you have the choice between meditating [or] sitting in a bar with your friends complaining about meditation class, you should probably seriously consider going to the bar, no matter what your happiness app says. (p. 5)

In one of my recent blogs I mentioned The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. (The third and fourth photo below show His Holiness and the Archbishop embracing and holding hands as a sign of the great affection they have for one another and the  friendship they have shared over the years.) In one of the chapters on happiness near the beginning of that book, Archbishop Tutu was discussing the South African concept of Ubuntu. And I think his words are a fitting way to end this blog and underscore our need for others in our lives. He says “we are wired to be caring for the other and generous to one another. We shrivel when we are not able to interact. I mean that is part of the reason why solitary confinement is such a horrendous punishment. We depend on the other in order for us to be fully who we are ... [this is] the concept of Ubuntu. It says: a person is a person through other persons ... I [learn] to be a human being from other human beings. We belong in this delicate network. It is actually quite profound.” (pp. 59-60)

So yes, as I have said, we all need a certain balance between solitude and privacy, reflection and quiet time. There has to be a balance in all of our lives between that need and our need for others. Again, given your temperament that you are born with – introvert vs. extrovert – that balance is different for different folks.

With that observation I shall close this blog by saying, “Happy Thanksgiving.” And oh yes, give thanks for those folks around you because ultimately, we need each other both to survive, as well as to thrive all the days of our lives on this journey we are on together.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate and Theologian-in-Residence at historic St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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