In an autobiographical novel, My First Loves, Czech writer, Ivan Klima, shares how as a young man he struggled with a particular ambivalence. At one level, he wanted to be as free as his friends to act out sexually, but another part of him made him reticent to do that. This left him with the question: Was his hesitancy rooted in an unhealthy timidity or in a noble desire, a desire to carry his solitude at a high level. In the end, he decided it was the latter.
To carry one’s solitude at a high level is not easy to do, especially inside a culture where most everything invites us take a path of less resistance. Our society, like the one within which Klima was raised, mostly invites us in the opposite direction, to take the road more travelled. Even among people with faith, the idea is prevalent that it is not worth the cost, if the cost is high, to hold out, to retain a high ideal. Rather our culture suggests: Sooner lower your standards than live in pain. Sooner let your soul endure an indignity than end up being alone. Sooner sell yourself short than be lonely.
I recently received a letter from a woman who expressed frustration in finding support, even among her church friends, for living out a high ideal. Here is how she expresses this: “It’s been seven years now that I have lived widowhood, bringing me to lots of desolation and loneliness. I recall comments that were made to me shortly after my husband died, by good Christian friends: ‘You’ll marry again.’ ‘Why get married, just live with someone.’ ‘Why live with someone, just have the occasional Saturday night sleep over.’ This attitude is very prevalent in my age group. And yet I never hear spiritual writers comment on this. You have a large audience. Could you?”
Her letter goes on to help spell out what that ideal is: “There is something amazing and wonderful that widows, male and female, can bring to the world that is not happening at the moment. Everyone is promoting performance and good looks, from medical intervention for sexual dysfunction, to glamorous lifestyles traveling, to being in beautiful homes (always young, good-looking, always in pairs), to anti-aging interventions of all kinds from face-lifts, cellulite reduction, etc. We need another voice! Where do we hear of the joys of surrendering to a life larger than ours, to entering the barren landscape of breaking bodies and minds, where the spirit can finally fly free, unencumbered, through cracks and wrinkles? “
Perhaps it’s not as much that we have lost the ideal as that we have personally despaired that it can be there for us. In the end, we all still want to guard the dignity of our souls and we all still seek someone to meet and honor us there, with full respect for who we are. But, as one journalist reviewing a book on chastity recently put it, that ideal makes more sense when you’re young and still have dreams of what you’re waiting for than it does when you’re in midlife and have long given up hope that what’s best will ever happen for you. She speaks for our culture which believes, as the popular song puts it, that even a bad love is better than (what seems to be) no love at all. But, as Doris Lessing once put it: There is only one real sin and that is calling second-best by anything other than what it really is, second-best!
A lot of people struggle with this. Here’s how another woman, also a widow, writes: “And with deepest respect and honor we may have to call upon our courage to walk away from anything and everything that does not resonate with our soul’s truth as we struggle to know ourselves in the deepest ways. And if in the end we stand alone with the presence of God perhaps that is the way it was always meant to be. In other words, I’m setting my limits and it’s mighty lonely!”
That’s a pretty accurate description of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The gospels, in describing his passion, never dwell on the physical pain (the scourging and the nails) but focus instead on his moral loneliness, his radical aloneness, on what it felt like being “unanimity-minus-one”. And this, his refusal to compromise, was his great gift to us. He paid the price, in blood and loneliness, of entering that barren landscape of broken bodies and minds so as to carry solitude at a high level. Despite every kind of pain, humiliation, and loneliness he refused to comprise his ideals. And it left him mighty lonely.
Inside of everything that’s best in us, we hear an invitation to join him there: To live in pain rather than lower our standards, to risk being alone rather than compromise who we really are, and to be lonely, mighty lonely even, rather than to sell ourselves short.