Thou wentest forth in the Spirit of power, fresh from the baptismal wave, into the desert, that a pattern of the solitary life also might not be wanting in Thy Person. Loneliness, forty days’ fast, the sharp tooth of hunger, temptations from the deceiver-spirit,—all were borne by Thee with even mind, that thus all might by Thy working be made bearable to us.
–Ninth Meditation of St. Anselm, On the Humanity of Christ
Some thoughts on loneliness have been percolating in my mind lately, and I’ve decided that this will have to be a series of reflections, rather than just one or two posts. How to positively respond to loneliness seems to me to be the big challenge of life today for everyone, not merely the folks who’ve chosen the single life in response to their attractions to the same sex.
I’ve found great inspiration in this regard in the writings of Henri Nouwen, so I’ll be relying on much of his writings on the subject as a springboard for my reflections.
I’ve been rereading some of my favorite passages of his as I’ve been thinking about what I might write, and the opening lines of his excellent book Reaching Out seem to sum up the situation:
It is far from easy to enter into the painful experience of loneliness. You like to stay away from it. Still it is an experience that enters into everyone’s life at some point. . . You might have felt it as a young adult in a university where everyone talked about grades but where a good friend was hard to find . . . you still might feel it day after day during staff meetings, conferences, counseling sessions, during long office hours or monotonous manual labor, or just when you are by yourself staring away from a book that cannot keep your attention. Practically every human being can recall similar or much more dramatic situations in which he or she has experienced that strange inner gnawing, that mental hunger, that unsettling unrest that makes us say, “I feel lonely.”
He writes “loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today,” and that “too often we will do everything possible to avoid confrontation with the experience of being alone, and sometimes we are able to create the most ingenious devices to prevent ourselves from being reminded of this condition.”
(Isn’t this one reason Facebook and social media have had such resounding success?)
Henri Nouwen continues:
Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all. John Lennon says: “Feel your own pain,” but how hard that is!
I’ll be reflecting on these sorts of thoughts over the course of who-knows-how-many posts. Fundamental to a healthy approach towards finding fruitfulness out of loneliness is that last line of Nouwen’s: we need to first confront, head on, our deep loneliness. That’s the first step, it seems to me: honestly acknowledge how painful our loneliness is to us.
Guiding all of these considerations though, will be the theme of that great quote from St. Anselm: Christ suffered great loneliness too, for our sake, so that by his working, it will be made bearable to us.
So stay tuned. I have a lot to say, because, well, I have felt a lot of tremendous loneliness in my life. These thoughts won’t be hypothetical–they’ll be what has made sense of all of the loneliness in my life.
Hopefully they might help someone else in some way. In the meantime, here are all the other posts I’ve written on loneliness.
(Alex, this is for you!)