Some years ago, I wrote a book within which I suggested that there are four basic kinds of human loneliness: alienation, restlessness, rootlessness, and psychological depression. Were I to write such a book today, I would add another kind: moral loneliness.
As human beings, we are born with deep and multifarious longings. There’s a fire inside of us that aches insatiably. At every level, body, psyche, soul, we feel our un-wholeness and are restlessly driven to seek consummation with others and the world beyond us. We never quite overcome this in this life, but are always somewhat alone, restless, rootless, and depressed. Like Adam before the creation of Eve, we survey what is around us and long for something that will take away our aloneness. This constitutes the fundamental dis-ease of the human person.
Sometimes this longing is more inchoate and we are not clear what precisely we are lonely for. At other times our aching is very focused and we are so obsessed with a certain person that we lose all emotional freedom. Sometimes we are lonely in both ways, inchoately and compulsively, but always we are lonely.
When we examine loneliness within our current culture, it is all too easy to conclude that, ultimately, we are lonely for sexual union. For reasons too complex to examine here, our culture has tied the final solution for loneliness to romantic sexuality. This is so true that, today, the very expression “lover” connotes a sexual partner. In our culture the common impression is that we will be lonely until we have the right romantic sexual partner and, as a corollary, it follows that the right sexual partner will be a panacea for our loneliness.
There is some truth in all of that, despite its one-sidedness. Sexual union, in its truer forms, is indeed the “one-flesh” consummation decreed by the Creator after the condemnation of loneliness “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Outside of sexual union, one is, in the end, always somewhat alone, single, separate, cut off, a minority of one.
However, sexual union itself, as the history of human sexual experience reveals, is no guarantee of a consummation that alleviates aloneness. Ultimately, we are lonely at levels that sex alone cannot get at. Our deepest aloneness is moral. Where we feel most alone is, precisely, in the deepest part of our being, our moral soul, the place where we feel most strongly about the right and wrong of things and where what is most precious to us is cherished, guarded, and feels violated when it is attacked. Not often does anyone penetrate that dwelling. Why? Because where what is most precious lies is also where we are the most vulnerable to violation. We are, and rightly so, deeply cautious about whom we admit to the room wherein lives what is most precious.
Most often, in that house, we are alone. A fierce loneliness results – a moral loneliness. More deeply than we long for a sexual partner, we long for moral affinity, for someone to visit us in that deep part of us where all that is most precious to us is cherished and guarded. Our deepest longing is for a partner to sleep with morally, a kindred spirit, a soul mate in the truest meaning of that phrase.
Great friendships and great marriages, invariably, have this at their root, deep moral affinity. The persons in these relationships are “lovers” in the true sense because they sleep with each other at that deep level, irrespective of whether or not there is sexual union. At the level of feeling, this type of love is experienced as a certain “coming home”. Sometimes it is surrounded by romantic feelings and sexual attraction and sometimes it isn’t. Always though there is the sense that the other is a kindred spirit whose affinity with you is founded upon valuing most preciously what you value most preciously. You feel less alone because, in that place where you cherish and guard all that is most precious to you, you know that you are no longer a minority of one. Like Adam looking at Eve, you have now found someone of whom you can truly say: “At last, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone!”
Therese of Lisieux suggests that, as humans, we are “exiles of the heart” and we must overcome this through mysticism, that is, precisely by moral communion with each other through sleeping with each other in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, faith, fidelity, mildness, and chastity. A culture which does not value sufficiently non-genital love because it is considered “just platonic” might well examine what it means to be morally lonely … and what, in our loneliness, we are really looking for.