If you have lived, then you have been alone. Then you know that deep, searing, soul-pain that is loneliness.
Our lives are bookended with being alone; the very first long, lonely journey we take through our mother’s birth canal, bursting into a world of seven billion souls— to our final moments, lying in our beds, just a few breaths left, surrounded by loved ones, yet knowing the next few moments we will quietly slip into darkness utterly alone.
In between life’s alpha and omega, our lives are marked by many ways of being alone—alone in our isolation, alone in rejection, alone in loneliness, alone in depression and despair, alone in pain and sickness, alone in our grief, and sometimes alone in blissful solitude.
I have always lived with someone. I have always had a roommate. From my brother, to my college roommates, to my wife. Yet, that did not protect me from those feelings of isolation, loneliness, and melancholy.
I often felt alone at the dinner table, surrounded by parents and my brothers and sisters. I have felt isolated in the classroom, and in the gymnasium, in a movie theatre, on a date, and sitting next to the love of my life.
I have felt alone—the odd-man out in a group of friends and co-workers. There seems to be no way of escaping the many faces of loneliness and of the feelings of being utterly alone.
Oh, I had friends—and I had lots of fun with my friends. The loneliness I am talking about is one I constructed myself. It was fabricated from my perception that everyone except me was connected to whatever is happening at the time.
I guess that is why I have always noticed the loner, the person sitting by themselves in meetings, on park benches, or at lunch. I almost immediately assume they are miserable in their aloneness.
I remember in grade school and high school often seeking out those who took their lunch alone—because I knew the pain myself. Frequently my reaching out was met with gratitude, and friendship.
To this day, in my work with addicts and alcoholics, I look for that downcast person, the face of loneliness and desperation, and without fail, I find they secretly desire some kind of human connection, but do not know how to ask for it.
In 1972, Gilbert O’Sullivan had a hit record “Alone Again(Naturally)”. The bee-bop sound belied the deep and troubling lyrics describing a despair and doubt, lyrics I never paid much attention to until now.
To think that only yesterday I was cheerful, bright and gay Looking forward to who wouldn’t do The role I was about to play? But as if to knock me down Reality came around And without so much as a mere touch Cut me into little pieces Leaving me to doubt Talk about God in His mercy Who if He really does exist Why did He desert me? In my hour of need I truly am indeed Alone again, naturally
My freshmen year in college was a year of loneliness for me. I was thrust from home into an institution of 20,000. I was surrounded by strangers, with a roommate five years older and never around. It seemed in that first semester I did everything alone.
Some years later, I found myself disconnected once more from everything— family, work, friends. I was the unwilling pilgrim in Dante’s Divine Comedy:
In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death:
Psychologists have now discovered through research that solitary confinement is the quickest way to detach an otherwise healthy individual from reality, often never able to recover completely.
Victims of suicide are first victims of the lethal delusion that they are alone—and will always be alone.
Marriages end when the partners no longer feel the connection they once had. The two that were supposed to become one have become two again.
Human beings are made for connection—for community, and for communion. When this is missing, we gradually fade away into the shadows of depression, melancholy, rejection, and despair.
So, if going through events of life alone—whether it is the loss of health, home, friends, family, jobs, physical ability, is an unavoidable aspect of being alive, is there a way to be alone without experiencing jarring loneliness?
I believe there is.
It can be found in the lives of those who have sought times of being alone as a positive way to journey through life—times we know as solitude. It is in the lives of the desert fathers of the fourth century, and up to the daily lives of the modern day contemplatives, artists, and writers.
The fundamental difference between loneliness and solitude is spiritual in nature, and it can make the difference between a life full of joy and beauty, and a life of anxiety, depression, melancholy, and despair.
From the desert fathers to modern day contemplatives, men and women have awakened to the reality that they were born in God, and that God abides in them. In that realization they discovered a transformational impact from choosing to be alone in the presence of God. This solitude recognizes that we can never be alone. As Thomas Merton said, “My dear brothers, we are not separate. We just imagine we are”.
If the pathway to solitude is spiritual, the signpost to it says “Trust”—to open my heart to the very real possibility that God has always been there, waiting for me to wake up to this reality.
St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves”. That is pretty close!
Training myself to seek out this way of being alone has been a turning point for me, though I came to it late in life.
If loneliness leads me to self-pity and melancholy, solitude is my pathway to self-awareness—a way of being connected to myself. For how can you know what is in yourself if you are afraid to be with yourself? Again, trust is required. Blaise Pascal, the 18th century French scientist and Philosopher said “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
The important word in this quote is “quietly” – not a quiet from a lack of exterior noise, but a stillness and contentment of soul–to sit in complete trust and confidence in God–to not run in terror at the aspect of being physically alone.
Brennan Manning, (a favorite author of mine for his simple and straight forward approach to the spiritual life), says that the secret to life is the ability to see God as our “Daddy”—to whom we forever belong.
Loneliness can not be completely avoided. It is part of the human condition. But it does not have to drive me to the brink. I have discovered the best salve for my loneliness is in being the wounded healer for others who seem to be lost in loneliness. When I feel lonely, that is my cue to think of someone else who may also be experiencing a bout of loneliness, and reach out to them. A simple act of sitting down next to them, or calling on the phone to check in can be all that is needed.
My heart pours out to you who are suffering today from your sense of loneliness and isolation. It is a pain I know all too well. It is my earnest prayer that you look within, and find there the one to whom you have always belonged, the one who has always been there—and trust the one who will never leave you to face your perils alone..