Everybody feels lonely at times. We can be lonely by ourselves, in crowds, in relationships, and even among friends. For a few people, loneliness is either exceedingly rare or tragically constant. For most of us, I suspect loneliness is rather like a childhood acquaintance who visits every now and then, sometimes with little notice. He might simply come for a morning coffee as you watch the rain together. She could also stay for a week, only leaving your side to run quick errands before finally moving on again. I choose to write about loneliness this week not because I currently feel alone (I don’t) nor because I imagine my loneliness is worse than anybody else’s (it isn’t). However, it is something I have experienced recently and that I feel we humans often have a hard time acknowledging publicly. So I have thoughts.
It is hard for me to talk about my loneliness or any other vulnerable feeling in a public forum. I can do so here only because I am already through it and also because it arose in an easily understandable situation. After all, I was away from my home here in the Bronx for nearly a month, and for a considerable portion of that time I had neither Marist Brothers, family members, nor friends around me at all. One could reasonably assume that this kind of tangible disconnection would provoke at least some loneliness, whether recognized or not, so in sharing about it I risk no judgment. Anyway, even as much as I love my brothers and the form of companionship we share, people expect a chaste celibate life to involve a certain degree of loneliness—and they’re right! As such, loneliness is not the surprise… instead, some people are surprised to find celibate men who are visibly and authentically joyful much more often than we seem lonely.
In contrast, my heart goes out to the lonely women and men who love their spouses and children but somehow feel unseen and misunderstood by those closest to them. Neither family, friendship, nor romance is a surefire vaccination against loneliness after all, but what courage must it take to acknowledge such feelings even when surrounded by loved ones. Could they ever understand?
I recognize in myself that when I am lonely it is not something that another can deliberately “fix”. I’m so stubborn and neurotic that if I suspected somebody were trying to do so, I might even unconsciously double-down in my determination to feel loneliness anyway. It’s not something I generally care to wallow in, even though I secretly do enjoy a good mope on occasion (as I think many of us do). Instead of moping or looking for others to fix me though, what I did with my recent bout of loneliness was to bring it to God in prayer.
My recent spiritual reading had advised me that taking unpleasant feelings to prayer shouldn’t entail asking God to relieve me of them, but rather sharing them with God and asking what they mean and what I should do with them. In praying with my recent loneliness, I had the insight, “What if God is lonely too?” To which I realized, of course God is lonely. For Christians, the whole point of Jesus coming to share our lot was so that God might share in our joys and our sufferings. While I don’t expect God to participate in our disgraceful attitudes of prejudice, disdain, or condescension, I feel newly certain that a feeling God truly feels all of the basic emotions that we do: Loneliness when we turn away, sorrow when the young die early, anger when the weak are exploited, joy when we love each other well, disgust when we turn on each other in hatred. When I am lonely then, perhaps it is an opportunity to accompany God in the Divine Loneliness.
The spiritual quest pursues union with God—to think that will feel wonderful in every single moment is probably a bit naïve, isn’t it? To unite with a God that compassionately accompanies the suffering means sharing in that same suffering, just as uniting with a God that delights in an infant’s gentle cooing means also sharing in that delight.
My loneliness left me when I had that insight, and it has yet to return. That dreary guest will surely visit again though. Perhaps next time I can put the kettle on and share a cup of tea with a little bit less self-pity and a little more patience. After all, the times when I feel lonely may be when I am least alone of all.
I hope this week’s post wasn’t too much of a downer for anybody. Anyway, in searching for suitable “ear candy” I found a Portuguese cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity—a song with overtones of separation, distance, wonder, a touch of alienation, and yes, loneliness. The effect of hearing this familiar song in a relatively unknown language (to me, at least) evoked these feelings that much more. The “brain food” might be just the article that some of you would have preferred to read instead of my reflection this week anyway. A college freshman writes about her own experience of gradually coming to terms with her loneliness when nobody else seemed to be going through the same things. That’s it for now—I’ll be back next week… I promise!
Ear Candy: “Space Oddity” by Seu Jorge
Brain Food: “How I Am Learning to Live with Loneliness at a Jesuit College” by Gabriella Jeakle
Come back next Saturday for a new post!