Soren Kierkegaard remains a mentor to many people for a good reason. He touched the soul like a maestro picking up a violin and that master’s touch comes not so much from his intelligence as from his sensitivity. And that sensitivity was carefully cultivated.
Kierkegaard had always been a lonely person, but, as a young man, he made a deliberate, strong decision to remain wedded to that loneliness. He fell in love with a woman and they planned to marry, but eventually, in a decision that would cause him pain and anguish for a long time, Kierkegaard called off the marriage, though he deeply loved the woman. What was his reason? He was afraid that if he let another person into his life in this way it would interfere with his loneliness in a way that would impact on the depth of his understanding and with what he had to share with the world. He chose celibacy for what he felt was a noble reason, a deeper solidarity with the loneliness of the world. He cultivated loneliness as a means of deeper entry into the soul.
And that bore fruit: Countless people, men and women, celibates and married people alike, have drawn understanding and strength from his writings. One of these was Henri Nouwen who used to say that Kierkegaard made his loneliness his gift to the world. What Nouwen experienced in reading Kierkegaard and what many others experience too is the sense of being introduced to yourself, the sense of being understood and validated inside your frightening complexity and aloneness.
But is a decision to cultivate one’s loneliness always a noble thing?
Commenting on why he never married, Kierkegaard once wrote that he lived the curse “of never to be allowed to let anyone deeply and inwardly join themselves to me.” The sadness this produces, he continues, is “the sadness of having understood something true, and then seeing oneself misunderstood.” Unanimity-minus-one. Moral loneliness. Touching truth in a way that separates before it unites.
Many of us, no doubt, can resonate with those words. Somehow we never find our true soul mate in this world, someone to truly join ourselves to deeply and inwardly. But why? Is the fault without or within? Is it that we are never allowed to let anyone into that deep space or is it more that we never allow anyone in there? Is it just bad luck or is the fault inside of us?
We all yearn for someone to join ourselves to, inwardly and deeply, but yearning is one thing, allowing it to happen and paying the price for it is something else: Real intimacy is the most scary and demanding thing on the planet. We resist it as much as we invite it: Why?
Because as much as we want to share our deepest secrets we also want to keep them hidden, as much as we want constant companionship we also want privacy, as much as we want to be vulnerable we also want to protect ourselves; as much as we want to share our lives we also want our own freedom, as much as we want to give ourselves away in selflessness we also want to keep our lives and our possessions for ourselves, and as much as we want the stability of deep commitment we also want the freedom of opportunity. Intimacy demands a certain nakedness but nakedness, by definition, is not self-assured, strong, prideful, able to walk in and out of a room on its own terms, cool, fully self-possessed. Thus we are always ambivalent in our quest for intimacy. We move towards it even as, like Kierkegaard, we push it away.
Sometimes this is healthy: We are meant to carry our loneliness and solitude at a high level, to not sell our souls out too quickly or too cheaply, to not settle for second-best. In the words of Hafiz: Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut deep. Let it ferment and season you as few human or divine ingredients can. Sometimes loneliness must be cultivated.
But this can also be unhealthy: Sometimes the prison of our own loneliness is self-imposed and comes about mainly because of our unwillingness to give up freedom, private possession, self-protection, and that which is perceived as being cool. It is not so much that we aren’t allowed intimacy (because of circumstance, luck, or handicap) but that we do not allow it because of its real cost. Whenever that is the case, our loneliness, unlike that of Kierkegaard, will not be fruitful, a fertile sadness that is our gift to the world, but will be rather a sterile sadness that drains energy out of the world.
Let’s hope that whatever loneliness we do cultivate is the healthy kind, the kind that softens the heart rather than hardens it, that speaks as does the loneliness of Hafiz: Something missing in my heart tonight has made my eyes so soft, my voice so tender – my need of God, absolutely clear.