Few persons in recent centuries have touched the human heart as deeply as Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher. There are reasons for this, some more obvious than others. He was a man of rare brilliance, with a lot to offer.
But perhaps the major reason he was able to so deeply and exceptionally touch our hearts had less to do with his brilliance than with his own suffering, especially his loneliness. Albert Camus once suggested that it is in solitude and loneliness that we find the threads that can bind us together in community. Kierkegaard understood this and embraced it to the point that he positively cultivated his own loneliness.
As young man, he fell deeply in love and, for a time, planned marriage with a woman to whom he was passionately attached. However, at one stage, at great emotional cost to himself and (so history would suggest) at even a greater emotional cost to the woman, he broke off the engagement and set himself to live for the rest of his life as a celibate. His reason for this?
He felt that what he had to give to the world came a lot from his own loneliness and that he could share deeply in other peoples’ loneliness only if he felt that loneliness himself. Loneliness, he intuited, would give him depth. Rightly or wrongly, he judged that marriage might in some way deflect or distract him from that depth, painful though it was.
I suspect that many of us will smile at his reasoning. Marriage is hardly a panacea for loneliness, just a loneliness is no guarantee for depth. As well, many of us will be critical of what seems to be implied in this, namely, that celibacy is somehow superior interiorly to being married, as if married life were somehow a hindrance to depth.
However, there is a part in us too, our mystical center, that, I suspect, understands exactly why he did this. What Kierkegaard understood, not perfectly of course since this always remains partly a mystery, is the connection between loneliness and mysticism, longing and intimacy.
What is meant by this? How do we connect to each other in and through our loneliness and longing? What does it mean that we are in mystical connection with each other?
Thomas Aquinas once suggested that there are two ways of being in union with something or somebody: through actual possession and through desire. We understand the first part of this more easily, actual possession means concrete contact, real union, but how are we connected to someone or something through desire?
In his Booker-Prize winning novel, The Famished Road, Ben Okri describes a Nigerian mother chiding her overly restless son for haunting her dreams: “Stay out of my dreams! That’s not your place! I’m married to your father!” What a curious rebuke – scolding someone for being in your dreams! But the mystic within us understands this. In our restlessness and loneliness, just as in our prayers for each other, we haunt each other’s dreams and each other’s hearts in ways that are just as deep as physical touch.
Moreover by entering deeply into our own loneliness we also enter deeply each other’s dreams. Kierkegaard understood this and worried that if his marriage interfered with his loneliness it would interfere with his power to enter our dreams. Whatever the flaws in his reasoning, we can’t argue with the results. He did enter our dreams and he continues to positively haunt many lives. His words have helped bring healing, strength, faith, and courage to many of us.
Why? Partly it’s mystical and we have a better sense of it in our hearts than in our heads. Partly, though, this can be understood: Our loneliness is a privileged medium through which to enter our own hearts. Listening to our own loneliness puts us in touch with ourselves. When we come to grips with our longing we discover, as Henri Nouwen puts it, that nothing is foreign to us (grandiosity, greatness, greed, generosity, frustration, joy, the capacity to kill, the capacity to die for another, selfishness, sanctity). Every human feeling and the potential for every human action lies within the complexity of our inconsummate hearts. In our loneliness and longing we are introduced to ourselves.
But by being introduced more deeply to ourselves we are also introduced more deeply to each other. In letting our loneliness haunt us, we begin, in the best sense of that phrase, to haunt each other’s dreams. In loneliness and longing, empathy is born. When nothing is foreign to us nobody will be foreign to us – and our words will begin to take on the power to heal others.
“What is a poet?” Kierkegaard once asked. His answer: “A poet is an unhappy person who conceals deep torments in his or her heart, but whose lips are so formed that when a groan or shriek streams over them it sounds like beautiful music.”
Loneliness is what makes us poets, mystics, artists, philosophers, musicians, healers, and saints.