Twenty years ago, I wrote a book on loneliness. I was young then, lonely myself, restless like all young people, and still searching for many things. So, despite leaning heavily on Augustine, Aquinas, John of the Cross, and Karl Rahner for my insights, the book was probably as much autobiography as spirituality or theology. I’m still proud of it though. It’s a book on the loneliness of youth and none of us, regardless of age or achievement, ever really outgrows that.
Loneliness haunts you in a very particular way when you’re young. It comes turbo-charged with a restlessness that can beat you up like the playground bully, especially on a Friday or a Saturday night when it seems like the whole world is doing something exciting and you have been left out. When you’re young it always feels like you’re missing out on something. You ache to drink in the whole world and make love to it, but are stuck in a very confining situation where your life always seems too small. You want a larger connection to the world, more sex, deeper intimacy, and a soulmate that you have not yet found. At that time of life, you’re also overly-romantic, driven by fantasies of finding perfect love, perfect sex, and a one-in-four-billion soulmate who will finally fill in every lonely spot inside you. When you’re young it’s easy to be besotted by Romeo and Juliet: Find perfect love, make perfect love, and then die together. Surely the most noble exit off the planet!
Youth and restlessness go together. It is never easy to find simple rest when you’re young. You resonate naturally with Augustine’s dictum: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” and you can feel what Scripture means when it says: “God has made everything beautiful in its own time, but has put timelessness into our hearts so that we are out of sync with everything from beginning to end.” Yes, when you’re young you know exactly what “timelessness” feels like inside you.
None of this really changes as you get older, but a new kind of loneliness begins to break through inside. This kind doesn’t hit you broadside, like the turbulent restlessness of youth. It comes on more like a painful, bitter realization that, at first, you try to block out and deny. What is this loneliness?
It’s the realization that, at some level, there will always be a distance between yourself and others, even from those nearest and dearest to you. This hits as part of the realization of your own mortality. To realize that you are mortal doesn’t just mean that you more realistically accept the fact that some day, perhaps even soon, you will die. The brute fact of mortality also brings with it the realization that there will always be some areas of life where you will be all alone, alienated from others, separated by differences that seem, as the classical divorce formula puts it, irreconcilable. The ache in this kind of loneliness dwarfs the pain of youthful restlessness and often leads to bitterness of soul. It is helpful to understand this, precisely so as not to become bitter.
Where do you feel this kind of loneliness? You feel it in those silent areas that exist between your and your spouse, your families, your friends, and your community. There are always things that can’t be spoken, can’t be understood, can’t be harmonized, even in your most intimate relationships and especially inside of family and community life. This is the loneliness you feel when you drive away from the family gathering, finish that long talk with your spouse, stand trying to explain something to your own child, or are left muttering to yourself after that church or civic meeting. At those moments you can feel like a minority-of-one, unanimity-minus-one, alone morally with most of what’s deepest in you.
And it’s messy feeling too – far, far from that bitter-sweet romantic taste that comes with longing when we are young or that satisfied spiritual feeling you get when you’re suffering, but know that this is doing you good. This kind of loneliness makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you, morally and otherwise: “I’m out of sync here. Perhaps I’m just too stubborn or too stupid or too-proud or too-sinful or too-selfish!” Worse still, as William Stafford says, this kind of feeling opens up the floodgates inside you where all of your old wounds begin to seep through.
But, like the loneliness of youth, it too has much to teach us. As the Persian poet, Hafiz, puts it:
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My need of God