It was dark outside as I rode toward home on the YMCA bus that night, so it must have been fall or winter. I was about 11 years old when I rode that bus twice a week from Golden Springs Elementary School to the YMCA in downtown Anniston, Ala., where I took swimming lessons and played on a basketball team, among other activities, depending on the time of year.
I was sitting at the very back of the darkened, noisy bus looking forward at all the other kids. The song on the speakers at that moment — from the radio, I presume — was the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.” I don’t know why the scene is so strongly imprinted on me.
“I’m not like y’all and I don’t really like you very much,” I thought. “I’m all by myself.”
I felt a little bit afraid — not for my physical safety, of course — but I mostly felt completely alone. It’s the first time I can recall ever feeling so disconnected and alone and alienated. And in a very simple and childlike way, it was the first time I felt a yearning to be connected to someone.
It’s the first time I remember feeling so alone that I had a powerful need for love and understanding to fill a part of me that I couldn’t yet understand.
As I grew up, I tried to bridge the gap between others and myself with achievements. In immature ways, I tried to be successful and impressive. I didn’t think anybody would like me or love me unless I was the best at everything I did.
I learned what I was good at and I focused on those things. I had achievements. I got accolades. And I pushed for more, thinking that more achievements would finally get what I was looking for.
I dreamed of achievement and riches and glory. I’ve talked about this before. I understand now that I was hoping to finally be acceptable to others — that they would finally accept me and love me. I thought if I did enough, they would follow me and I would feel as though I had what I needed.
In the early years of my adult life, if you had asked me the purpose of life, I would have said it was to achieve and build and do big things. I did some things that were big deals to me at the time. But I never found any of it to mean what I had hoped it would mean.
It was a painful process to throw off all of that thinking. I’ve talked about much of it before. I’m in an entirely different place — so much so that my 30-year-old self wouldn’t recognize me today.
This Thursday evening, I had just gotten home when I realized that it was almost sunset and that the clouds were moving into favorable positions for a sunset photo. So I backed the car out of the driveway and headed to my favorite spot. As I drove, I could see the golden and magenta rays of light starting to shoot out from around the clouds.
For reasons that I can’t explain, it felt like an epiphany.
As I drove toward the spot where I got the sunset photo, I talked to God about it. In a way far more clear than usual, I found myself seeing and feeling really clearly that the purpose of this life is love and connection. The absence of love and connection is a spiritual condition that I would call hell on this Earth.
What I felt on the bus in Anniston that night so long ago was just a tiny foretaste of what we humans feel when we don’t feel connected to anybody or anything.
When we experience that emotional hell, we do terrible things to ourselves to try to fill the empty space. We pursue all sorts of addictions. We pursue whatever we hope might make us feel better, even if it’s only for a minute. We’re not conscious of what we’re doing. We just instinctively reach out for something that we can’t even understand or define.
Everything else in this world is some form of a distraction from the love and connection we need.
Our culture is nothing but one non-stop distraction after another. You don’t ever have to allow yourself to feel what’s missing. You don’t have to experience your emptiness. You can watch a million movies, stream a thousand shows, browse social media, pursue ego fulfillment and do an endless array of things to avoid facing what we need.
As I was in the grocery store thinking about all this, I looked at all the things that the store was trying to sell me — and I realized that they were all distractions designed to fill something inside.
If we read about that rich woman’s divorce, we don’t have to think about our feelings. If we read this article about how to lose weight, it can help us figure out how to be better looking and maybe feel better about ourselves again. If we read about that woman’s personal life and happiness, we can avoid thinking about the mess into which we’ve gotten our own lives.
You can put almost everything in your life into one of two piles. Call one of them love and connection. Call the other one distractions. There are some gray areas, of course. There are some things that don’t really fall into either category. But for the most part, most of our time is divided between those two opposites.
We need love and connection. We yearn for it. Something inside of us isn’t right without it. Even when we hide it from ourselves, something in us knows. Even when we pretend it doesn’t matter and that we can ignore the doubts and fears and loneliness, part of us knows.
If you make your life a full-time distraction machine, you can avoid your emotional needs for a long time. I did that. You’ve probably done it, too. But at some point, it catches up with you. You either deal with it — or you let your distractions destroy you.
I don’t have the love and connection that I need today. I don’t know why. I honestly don’t. I’ve never felt as alone as I feel today. I don’t know why I’ve allowed myself to get into this position. But I’ve come too far — and I’ve learned too much — to let myself pursue empty distractions.
You can choose to prioritize love or you can choose to prioritize substitutes. One of them will bring you spiritual joy. It will bring you contentment. It will bring you all that you need. The substitutes will leave you just as empty and bewildered as I used to be.
I wish I could sit down with that little boy on the bus all those years ago. I wish I could have explained to him what he felt and why he felt it. I wish I could have explained what he needed and what he should pursue. Since no one taught me that, I wasted a lot of years.
At least I finally know what I need. I need love and connection. I need God.
And I need somebody who wants to be connected to me just as much as I want to be connected to her. Anything less than that is an ugly distraction with no value, something that isn’t worth my time or my effort or my love. Worthless.