I read recently that women, on average, claim to have about 3.5 close friends. Men, on the other hand, report to have less than one close friend at any given moment in their lives. One of the consequences of living in an increasingly fragmented, isolated society is that many of us suffer from aloneness. Aloneness is different from loneliness. If you are lonely, you generally feel that something, someone, is lacking in your life. You are acutely aware that you need the presence of another, or that you need community. Like the fourth grader who eats by himself at the lunch table, or the 90 year old who sits unattended in her wheelchair in the nursing home corridor, most of us do not consciously choose to be lonely.
If you suffer from aloneness, on the other hand, you are likely unaware that you need anyone at all, and unconcerned that someone may in fact need you. You are principally concerned with yourself, your needs, your ambitions. You are content to “go it alone,” as they say – to rely on your own resources for living. You are less likely to ask for help when you need it. Unlike the person who is lonely and has no one present, the alone person can be in a room full of people and yet have no meaningful connection with any of them. Such irony is underscored in the film, Up In the Air, when Kara says to Ryan: “You’re awfully isolated the way you live.” To which Ryan replies, “Isolated? I’m surrounded.”
The antidote to aloneness is partnership. We are not meant to live in this world alone. Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two for several reasons: (a) for accountability – we need others to help us stay focused on our mission, especially when there are obstacles or challenges and we lose sight of our goals or lose our joy in serving; (b) for sustainability – because pursuing our mission can often be physically exhausting and emotionally draining, having someone stand with us and work alongside us is not only empowering and heartening, but it’s often the cure to compassion fatigue; (3) for diversity – because some people have gifts and talents that we do not possess, we are stronger and more effective when, as the Apostle Paul says, “all the parts of the body work together.” We need one another, just as a body needs all of its parts.
Moses had Aaron. Mary had Elizabeth. Paul had Timothy and Titus. David had Jonathan. Ruth had Naomi. But who did King Saul have? Who did Judas have?
For many years I had a small saltwater reef tank with two unique specimens — a colorful sea anemone, and a small clownfish. The anemone, as you may know, possesses hundreds of long, colorful tentacles that, in its native habitat, catch plankton and direct it to the anemone’s mouth. These tentacles also serve as it’s only defense, each possessing the ability to administer a sharp sting to predators, which is why anemones are difficult specimens to maintain in a community fish tank. They are, by nature, loners.
But there is one species of fish that, over the years, has developed a remarkable relationship with the sea anemone, and that is the clown fish — the only species of fish immune to the anemone’s sting. But clowns choose not to prey on anemones. Instead, they partner with them. The clown cuts a deal with the anemone. It offers to share its food with the anemone on the condition that the anemone provides a safe shelter for the small, defenseless clown.
It’s a beautiful mystery that reminds us of the power of partnership: the small clown fish nestles itself within the anemone’s tentacles, rent-free; and when the clown fish is fed, even before he feeds himself, he carries a small meal to his host as a token of his friendship.
Wiggling and burying himself in all those arms, I can hear him saying, “Thanks for being there.”