Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Loneliness

 

Davies, Mark

 

Loneliness as Searching

Its only four in the afternoon, but the overcast sky makes it seem later. I step off a curb, careful to miss the puddle along the gutter. The road is blacker than usual with the pebbles of the asphalt holding the rain in their crevices. The whole day seems gray, as the drizzle falls lightly and slowly to the ground. I look down the rows of houses along the street that fade into the mist. I remember this place well. It is the street where I grew up. The place where I was a boy. Now, many years later, I have returned with my wife and children. It is our bi-annual pilgrimage that we make from far away Alberta back to Ontario to visit my parents and family. On this lazy Sunday, I have decided to prowl the old haunts of my childhood. I have not done this in a long time. Despite the rain I set off alone on my quest. My walk is uneventful and relaxing. I stroll past places and things that were once a part of who I was. I take in the scenery quite unconsciously and think of nothing in particular, yet I feel that something is not quite right. Something is amiss. I am not sure what it is and keep walking.

 

As I reach the end of the street and cross over, I note that the old Methodist church is still there. The aged bricks of the building appears even more severe contrasted against the dullness of an overcast day. Something about this building has caught my attention. Strange! All those years that church was at the end of my street and never once did I venture inside. In fact, the only thing I can recall about it is when the minister kicked us off the parking lot one afternoon while we were playing ball hockey. Then I remember. Just around the corner of this old building is a crevice in the corner. An architectural anomaly in which the side wall of the church almost abuts the front wall of the church, but instead it recedes back, then in and around, leaving the most perfect space for hide ‘n go seek. This was where, as a youth, I would come and play secret games of my own invention. Hiding behind the wall in joyous delight, knowing that those who passed by on the street had no idea that I was there. Now, many years later, even though I know it is there, still I want to check to make sure. And so around the corner I go to investigate, and sure enough it is still there: my secret hiding place. However, something seems to be missing. What can it be? I feel somewhat foolish, and look around (perhaps someone saw me!). I quickly retreat to the street and resume my walk.

 

The familiarity of all that surrounds me brings me comfort, yet I am aware that something is different. I realize that while this was once my home, it is no longer my home. I have left it and moved on. I am no longer part of all of this and I feel the invisible barrier. I pass another walker on the street and we both politely nod and make room for each other. I do not know this person, and the encounter reminds me of how it used to be. Of the time when I knew everyone on my street. But now for the most part they are gone and so am I. I feel like a ghost invisibly passing through a place of which I was once part. And then suddenly it dawns on me-I realize what it is about my walk that has been bothering me-I feel lonely. This realization breaks over me gradually. It is not the desperate, racing loneliness that I have know at other times in my life. This is a gentle, sad loneliness. One that makes me even more aware of all that surrounds me, and all that I am experiencing. I am somewhat surprised. Is this what loneliness is like? This isn’t how I usually understand loneliness. Could it be something else? Perhaps it is nostalgia? But nostalgia is connecting with something that once was in our lives and feeling the joy of that connection. What I am experiencing feels like the moment after nostalgia. Just past the joy is the sadness. The sadness of loss and emptiness. And somehow deep within myself I know this is the sadness of loneliness. How do I know its loneliness? I am not sure, yet something deep within me acknowledges that I am indeed lonely. Immediately, out of habit, I begin to fight my loneliness and attempt to talk myself out of it. How can I be lonely! I am only a few blocks away from those who love me; I am here in the very cradle of my birthplace; I still have many friends here in my hometown. Yet these arguments prove useless in shaking my feeling of loneliness. Since this loneliness is not so painful as other times I resign myself to it. I allow myself to feel it. My loneliness becomes my companion as I walk down this rainy street. The irony of my situation is unmistakable: I used to be most lonely in life when I left home, not when I returned home.

 

Typically we are aware of loneliness only when it is present. Seldom do we think of it when we are not lonely. We do not say to ourselves, “I am feeling not lonely right now.” Thus we often conceptualize loneliness as something foreign or alien to us. When we are lonely we sense that something is wrong, something is out of place. Is it wrong to be lonely? Or is it, as Szalita suggests, “the price we pay for being human” (1984, p.234). Certainly loneliness is a universal experience. I suspect that there are more people in the world who understand the word “loneliness” than there are those who understand the word “love.” Yet we throw the words “lonely” and “loneliness” carelessly about, smugly implying we all know what they mean: that there is one universal experience of loneliness and once you’ve had that experience you will never forget it. So when I say I am lonely you know exactly what I mean. But do you? For me this hometown loneliness is a different kind than I am used to. It is a sadness, but not a terrible sadness. In a strange way it is comforting. This loneliness is soft, like the mist falling from the grey skies. It is not a torrential downpour that loneliness can be, nor is it the Chinese water torture that beats one mercilessly one unending drop after another. Certainly my loneliness walking down Russell Street has caught me quite by surprise. The necessary preconditions that I associate with loneliness aren’t there. My loved ones are close by, emotionally I am well rested, I am not bored, I do not really feel shut out from anything. Yet strangely I feel like a piece of a puzzle that has not found its rightful place. I am not connected in the right way. There is something that does not fit. What was it I was looking for in the corner of that church? What have I lost? What am I looking for? Am I searching for that which cannot be found? So often what we assume about the lonely person is that they simply need to “get out and be with others?” Is that truly the answer?

 

What is the lonely person looking for?

 

The Emptiness of Loneliness

A common method of punishing problem prisoners has been to place them in solitary confinement. This punishment was originally used by the Quakers, whose intent was that by being alone the prisoner would reflect upon their crime, come to a point of repentance and then experience the forgiveness of God. However today, “solitary” is conceived as being one of the most painful psychological punishments there is. Rather than being an integrating experience, it is a disintegrating experience. It is like a black hole collapsing in on itself in the middle of our being. Sometimes the loneliness is so heavy we feel its ache in the middle of our chest. When our homes or apartments are void of meaningful relationships, when they are empty it can seem like solitary confinement. Like a prisoner in solitary, we too want to escape our loneliness.

 

Loneliness is aloneness that is uninvited and unwelcomed. It is always there, just below the surface waiting for the moment when we are vulnerable. Loneliness is the guest who comes to us when no one else will. Loneliness is a deep sense of inner aloneness that overtakes us and at times can even consume us. In one psychological research study the most frequently stated description of loneliness by the subjects was “it feels like there is a hole or space inside my chest” (Rubenstein & Shaver, 1982). Loneliness is a missing of something, an ache anything. It comes in many guises: as pain, self pity, craving, sadness, or desperation. Loneliness is no longer being a part of that which once was, it is not being a part of that which currently is. Loneliness can be an acute psychological state, or a chronic way of life. Loneliness is the restless painful side of aloneness.

After my divorce I found myself living alone for the very first time. I hated it. I dreaded the thought of coming home to that empty apartment. Finally I decided to move to my new apartment. Its right across from the mall. At least now on the nights I don’t have anything to do, I can go across to the mall and be where people are.

There are times when we may be unable to escape our loneliness: when we move to a new city; when we are away on business; when our loved ones are away; when we realize we have no loved ones. Our sense of loneliness follows us wherever we go, it waits for us, for that time when we are vulnerable to its presence. A presence that is marked by emptiness. The anxiety increases sometimes to the point of fear and our senses sharpen. We have a heightened sense of being sealed inside our own skin. Whether we like it or not the focus has been turned on us and our situation-that we are alone. We become painfully aware that we are all we’ve got. As this awareness grows so does our sense of isolation. We become restless, bored, agitated. Time grinds by slowly rather than flowing quickly. We experience the growing desperation of a addict who needs to find his or her next fix. Who can we phone? Where can we go? What can we do? The urgency of our own inner emptiness is palatable. Often we are so agitated by our aloneness that our judgment is clouded and rationality is dimmed. Rarely do we stop long enough to ask what our discomfort is seeking to tell us. We just want to get away from this gnawing feeling within. And when our aloneness becomes loneliness we are willing to accept almost anything or anyone that will take our boredom, our restlessness, our hunger.

 

The awareness of our condition grows, like someone gradually and continually turning up the volume on a stereo. The difference is that the sound one hears is silence. A silence that grows to deafening proportions. The silence that is outside ourselves. Margret despaired that if she died tomorrow no one would even miss her. When I asked her how she knew this she replied, “Simple, I come home every night after work and the first thing I do is look to see if there are any messages left on my answering machine. There never is.” The answering machine is silent. The apartment is silent. And this silence that becomes mysteriously loudest at night. Why is it the night time is so lonely? Why are we so afraid of the silence? Is it because of what we might hear? Or because we are afraid that that is all there is? Is the silence really “out there” or is it deep within ourselves? In our modern technological world to experience silence is foreign to us. We stand on the mountain top wearing a walkman. We drown out our own inner silence through our own restlessness and the inner voice that cries out for us to do something about out condition. Silence is an unmistakable sign that we are alone, yet rather than condemning us to loneliness, perhaps silence offers answers to our loneliness.

One of the loneliest times of my life occurred after I had left all my family and friends back in Ontario and moved to Alberta. I was living in the basement of an empty house, in a city where I knew no one. I remember one evening walking down to the local theater to watch “The 39 Steps”. For two hours I sat there in the dark, alone and managed to lose myself in the movie. After the movie ended, I noticed a woman exiting ahead of me. She had come from the movie and was alone too. My heart quickened with hope – she was walking the same way home that I was. There was a desperation to me; the kind that is unmistakable. Like a starving person walking by a bakery, I walked behind her wanting to overtake her and just talk to her, just introduce myself to her and learn her name and tell her my name. To go for a coffee and talk about the movie, or work, or home or anything at all. But she kept looking back at me nervously and increasing the pace of her walk. The hope died within. She didn’t want any part of me. I felt condemned again to loneliness. Looking back I realize the irony of the situation – she was afraid of being alone with me – and so was I.

Yet there are times in our lives when we actively seek to be alone. When we have had too much of the company of others. Armed with the safety of being related to others in meaningful ways, we have dared to strike out alone. Unlike the aloneness that is loneliness, it is us who initiates the aloneness. we choose the time, and more importantly the place. Solitude is best for me in the mountains, or even better yet, at a cottage on a lake where the lonely cry of the loon echoes at sunset. When I come to these places I experience some loneliness, but not much. The freedom I feel outweighs the trappedness of loneliness. As I gently push my canoe with my paddle in the water I feel strong, in control, both of the canoe and of myself. The fear, desperation and vulnerability of loneliness are gone. I am no longer dancing to some crazy frenetic tune played out on the rush hour highways of the city. The act of paddling makes me feel that at least for the moment I have caught the rhythm of the universe. Here in my solitude I find that there is so little effort to the act of living. No desperation, no anxiety, just acceptance of all there is. In these places of solitude I feel like I am in sinc. Solitude, unlike loneliness, is filled with peace rather than restlessness. Could it be that the difference between the aloneness of solitude and the aloneness of loneliness is that the former is a filling that we accept, while the latter is an emptiness that we reject? How is it that our aloneness can be both so painful and so beautiful? What makes the difference between aloneness that is solitude and aloneness that is loneliness?

 

The Vulnerability of Loneliness

Natalie was raised in an Eastern bloc country and when she was quite young her parents divorced. The State decided that she was to go and live with her father. She did not want to be taken away from her mother and when the police came for her, she was hysterical, As they were physically dragged her out of the house, she managed to snatch one of her mother’s blouses draped across the back of a chair and took it with her. She remembers lying there in the darkness that night in a strange room, in a strange bed and crying herself to sleep. All the while holding her mother’s blouse close to her face, smelling the odor that was her mother. Is there any lonelier cry than that of a child for her parent? Perhaps we so identify with this child because, when we are lonely, we too feel vulnerable and scared. When we are alone and frightened we too want someone to come and hold us and make us “feel all better.” Is it an embarrassing condition for an adult to be that vulnerable? Could this be why we are so ashamed to admit that we are lonely? Because we are admitting that we need someone else? That we need give and receive love, and care? That we need to tell others our story, and know that we are part of theirs?

 

Loneliness creates in us a doubt about ourselves. We wonder, “what’s wrong with me?” We experience anxiety about our very being. Deep inside we feel as helpless and as frustrated as the child who comes crying to mommy because, “no one will play with me.” As adults we may smile at the “cuteness” of such a scene. But as adults it does not seem so funny when we can’t find anyone to play with, or share something with, or go for a walk with. And there is no mommy to run to. The hurt is deep, for when we are alone there is no one who will wipe away our own tears of loneliness. When people are indifferent, and exclusive, our existence is insulted. We feel shocked and exasperated. “How dare they not care! How dare they shut me out! I’m worth something! I’m a somebody you know!” When others ignore us, and invalidate us we feel angry. But behind the anger is often a deep sense of loneliness. Esteem takes its blows. Loneliness feels like the bruise of this insult. We feel like no one cares. No one cares whether or not we are alive or dead. In times of loneliness even if others do care we may not be able to receive it. In self pity we may shut ourselves off from the care of others.

We used to go down the disco every weekend. I remember this one night, no one had asked me or my friend to dance. And I can remember that Lynn and I just stared at each other and I knew she was thinking the same thinking the same thing I was: Will anyone ask me to dance? Am I good looking enough? Am I attractive enough? Am I worthy enough.

The child sits silently in the classroom impervious to all that is going on around her, simply staring out the window, not understanding why her parents do not live together anymore. The class clown, is working his audience well and everyone is laughing, but nevertheless he worries whether or not he is really accepted. The single secretary notices the new salesman in the office and wonders if maybe he might ask her out. His children bid him farewell and run out to the car where his ex-wife waits: it will be another two weeks before he sees them again, and suddenly the apartment feels so silent and empty. In our loneliness we cry out like Seneca, “Here I am! Behold me in my nakedness, my wounds, my secret grief, my despair, my betrayal, my pain, my tongue which cannot express my sorrow, my terror, my abandonment. Listen to me for a day-an hour! -a moment! lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence! O God, is there not one to listen?” (cited in Caldwell, 1960). After 35 years of marriage May died and a year after her death May’s husband shared his loneliness:

I walk into the kitchen and am already half way through my sentence before I realize May isn’t there. I don’t know how many times a day this happens. In the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the car. I turn, expecting her to be there and she’s not. Its like, where did she go? When did she go? Then there is nothing. Just emptiness. Its like I’ve lost my way. Now I have no one to witness my life.

Perhaps that’s what loneliness is – being invisible. No one really sees us. Not the physical part of ourselves, but they do not see who we are as a person. The anonymous student; or the student begging for attention; the secretary who is an animated part of the office furniture; the old many on the street. We feel invisible when we are lonely. Now who will witness my life? And yet how may of us can remember a time where we were recognized. Where someone saw us for who we were. A teacher, or boss, or worker, or parent, or lover. They saw us! The teacher who made us the class helper, the coach who made sure we were included, the friend who phoned, the thoughtful note from our spouse. And almost as if by magic loneliness disappeared. But it seems we live in a world that has too many other important items on its agenda, than to simply take the time to see the other as an individual in her or his own right. And that is where all the lonely people come from.

 

We long to be validated, to belong, to make a difference in someone’s life.

 

The Absence of Relationship?

The nakedness and vulnerability of loneliness is painful and often there is a racing desperateness about it. We go to great lengths to escape our loneliness- singles bars, video games, porno movies, TV, radio, walking the mall- anything so long as we no longer have to listen to the deafening silence of being all alone. And while these activities divert us for a time, the loneliness is still there waiting – waiting to return as soon as the anesthetic we are using at the time wears off. It seems like nothing will suffice. Even sex between two individuals is not enough, if it is outside of true relationship. Casual sex is pseudo-love. After the night of physical union and ecstasy, where we were locked in passion with another, in the morning there is nothing but a hangover of emptiness that was there before the evening began. There is the mumbled excuse, the awkwardness and then the leaving, all alone. What is it we crave most when we are lonely? What is it that fills our inner emptiness? Sex? Entertainment? The company of others? Or is it relationship? Real meaningful relationship. Someone with whom we can share our lives and who will share his or her life with us. Someone who will receive the gift of ourselves when we give it to them, and someone who gives us the gift of themselves. Someone who walks down life’s path with us. Is relationship the antithesis of loneliness?

 

When one is hungry but unable to find food one often becomes even more acutely aware of one’s hunger. So it is with us when we cannot find relief from our loneliness. But with physical hunger even if one eats enough junk food, the emptiness goes away. One can say that one is full. Not so with loneliness. The junk food of relationships that we find offered by the TV or in the singles bar may distract us, but the hunger of loneliness is still there. Loneliness seems to have its own appetite, its own desires. At times a simple word of recognition from a teacher, a phone call from a friend, laughter at a party, a kiss from a lover can instantly dissipate any loneliness that we may be feeling at the time. Yet at other times each of these events can serve only to increase our loneliness. What is the difference between merely masking our true condition, and answering it?

When I was 25 I spent my first New Year’s Eve alone. I had moved to a new city where I did not know anyone but my roommate. He was going out to some party that someone from his work was having and invited me. But I declined. I just couldn’t face the prospect of pretending I was having a good time getting drunk with a bunch of strangers. That was a long and boring evening. In this eternity I was angry and hurt and upset and depressed and restless all at once. I felt like everyone else in the whole world was out there having a good time. Everyone but me, and it hurt. Yet still, I preferred the honest loneliness of my empty apartment to the pretense of togetherness. I did not want a party where all those people would only serve to remind me that I didn’t know them, nor they me.

Loneliness is feeling all alone, even when one is among people. Billy Joel (1971) looked into the lives of those who frequent piano bars and observed that “they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but its better than drinking alone.” Some of the most painful times of loneliness come when we are in the presence of others. The child whose classmates ignore her, the single bridesmaid at the reception whom no one asks to dance, the lone figure walking down a street filled with strangers – strangers who all seem to be with someone else. The presence of others do not fill our inner emptiness, our inner longing. They magnify it. Perhaps loneliness is a measure of the distance we feel between ourselves and others. Yet some have never known intimacy or relationship at all in their lives. The forgotten child, battered and bereft. They have never experienced a warm, nurturing relationship while growing up. When it is offered to them at school, or as an adult, they do not know what to do with such an offer. It is foreign to them. Yet still, somehow, intuitively, they understand that they are lonely. Being in relationship to others seems instinctual to us as humans. It is part of our humanity. Yet if no one teaches the forgotten child how to be in relationship, are they condemned to a life of loneliness? Yet how many of us know the dilemma of wanting relationship, but fearing relationship.

I’ve never told my children that I love them. I do. I just could never tell them that. See, my first wife died when they were quite young. She died of M.S. We didn’t know what it was back then. She was just Gawd-awful sick, and that was all I knew. I’ve never told anyone about this. Not even my boys. When she finally died, it tore me apart. And I never wanted to hurt like that again. I didn’t want to lose another one I loved. I guess I tried to protect myself. But then my oldest boy got it, and just a few years ago he died. I wanted to tell him how much I loved him, but I just couldn’t. I want to tell them all but I can’t…it hurts…….Almost every night after supper I go for long walks. sometimes with my wife. Sometimes alone.

In many ways we too have gone on our lonely walks. Many of us carry within us such loneliness. The pain of never knowing relationship, the pain of unconsummated relationship, the pain of love that has been lost. Each pain is unique and personal, but it is often what we call loneliness. Yet the alternative often frightens us. There is such risk in relationship. The risk of disappointment, the risk of intimacy, the risk of pain, and perhaps worst of all, the risk of rejection. Suppose we should lose them? Suppose they betray us? Suppose they do not like me? So we hold back. Withdraw from intimacy and relationship. We often fear the vulnerability of intimacy and relationship. Instead we chose the ache of loneliness. It too is painful, but at least there are no surprises. We know what to expect. What kind of person can draw us out from our fear and insecurity? Who is it that is safe? Who can we really trust?

 

As one gets older and more experienced in life the more we are able to anticipate our times of loneliness. Research consistently shows that contrary to popular belief, the elderly typically report less loneliness than teenagers (Anderson, Horowitz and French, 1983; West, Kellner, and Moore-West, 1983). What is it that they have learned? Have they learned how to be make more friends as time goes on? Or have they simply learned how to be with themselves? But the elderly are not impervious to loneliness. Sometimes it comes quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Like with the death of a spouse. You just can’t plan for it. But the loneliness of loss is different than the loneliness of social isolation. Something has been lost. Something clearly is missing. Something that was there before. Its more than just the death of a person. Its the loss of that which is familiar. The loss of one whom we shared our lives with. What is that impulse in us that sees something beautiful and immediately we want to share it with another? In this act of sharing, the object becomes even more beautiful. So we share-our lives with theirs, and their lives with ours. In sharing we become connected with the other. But when we lose the other, and there is no one to share with, we feel like we have lost a part of ourselves. We realize that so much of what we held precious in life, so much of what we built our lives on is now gone. All we are left with is ourselves. Our aloneness. At least in part, loneliness is withdrawal pains of the soul. We look for a time, often a long time for that which is no longer there. Loneliness is the pain of not finding it. Finally, hopefully, our search changes and we find that which we never even knew we were looking for. And we know that we’ve found it because loneliness is no longer there. Loneliness is the ache of this state of non-relatedness. Loneliness is what suggests to us that we are to be in relationship with others.

 

Aloneness and Loneliness

As part of my trying to understand other individual’s experience of loneliness I asked a friend if wouldn’t mind sharing a time of his life when he was lonely. Though happily married and one of the least lonely persons I know, I also know him to be very sensitive and intuitive about such matters. He agreed and I suggested that we get together for lunch. “Fine,” he said, “say next Thursday, at the hospital cafeteria around 12.” I thought this a somewhat a strange place for a luncheon, but it was certainly convenient for me and I agreed. He began our luncheon by asking if I remembered any of the girls I went out with in high school. That surprised me, and immediately I began to review some of my old flames (when I broke up with them or they with me-how lonely was I then!). Then he shared about a girl in his high school called Nancy. He even showed me an old picture he had of her, and I could see instantly why he was quite taken with her. She was a beautiful girl with long blond hair and an incredible smile. Though he became friends with her he never went out with her. She always had another boyfriend. Yet all through high school and even into university he was in love with her. But she never reciprocated.

 

He concluded his story by telling me, “The last place she ever worked before moving away was here at this hospital as a nurse. She met some doctor here, and they married and moved away. That was over ten years ago and I don’t know what ever became of her. But you know what? I still have dreams about her. Maybe one or two a year. For the last four years I’ve been keeping them in my journal. I have my journal divided into sections: one titled God; another titled life; another for memories. Yet I’ve kept my “Nancy dreams” under the heading of loneliness. I’ve never been able to figure out why.”

 

I was transfixed as he continued on with his fascinating story, “Mark, you know me. You know I am happily married, and that I love my children. I couldn’t ask for more in life. But for years after she had gone I used to come to this hospital and walk through the cafeteria looking and hoping. ‘Maybe she will be here. Maybe I’ll see her again.’ I’m not sure what I was looking and hoping for, only now I don’t think that it was her. I think that I was looking for something else.” Then he sighed, apologized for not being what he considered very helpful, and after an awkward time of silence said, “Maybe its just me, but sometimes I find life to be a lonely affair.”

 

His words and his pain were real. I too have felt this loneliness that is not so much of an experience as it is part of life. Its not something foreign to our existence, some sort of disease that strikes us like some social leprosy. There is something deeper to this loneliness. That somehow, no matter how good life, gets it is never going to completely answer our loneliness.

I remember the first time I ever realized that I was truly alone. It was on a summer holiday with my wife and children. We had come to a Northern Ontario lake where I vacationed when I was a boy. It was here that I first learned how to swim and fish and drive a boat. The lake itself is spectacular and I had not seen it since I was a teenager. Upon arriving I could hardly contain myself. Immediately I borrowed a boat from the owner of the Lodge and piled my family in. Off we were to explore the lake. It was almost overwhelming for me to return to this most special of all places when I was a boy. Yet the further out in the lake we went, the more bays and inlets I recognized and pointed out, the more bored my family became with it all. By the time we returned I was furious. How could they find this wonderful lake boring? It felt like a slap on the face. After some harsh words with my wife, they left me down at the beach alone. It was a long time before my anger dissipated. It was replaced by depression. And then standing there looking out over the soft water it hit me: here I was with the people I loved most in this world, and who loved me most in this world yet no matter how hard I tried, or how hard they tried they could not see this lake the same way I did. They could not know me like I did. No one could. The only constant traveling companion I have known throughout my life is me. It was there on that beach that I felt, not just lonely, but really alone in life. Stark naked alone. I no longer felt any relationship with this familiar lake and its shoreline and its rocks and trees. Like a tree planted in the ground I was there, a complete and utter entity unto myself. Bounded by my own skin and breath. And it was frightening. To really understand in an undeniable way I journey through this life alone. That no one (except God) can really know my story, my life my being.

Could it be that what the existentialists suggest is true? That ultimately in this life we are alone? Is loneliness a passing experience that we seek to escape? Is it some sort of companion that only makes itself present when we are vulnerable to it? The mystics suggest that it is only through accepting and exploring our loneliness that we will become connected with that which matters most-God. That through the often difficult journey of solitude we will find our true identity, and be rightly connected to God, to ourselves, and to others-the holy trinity of relationships. Yet rarely if ever do we meet our loneliness by seeking solitude. We may isolate ourselves from others, but this is a shutting off, rather than a way of seeking. St. Augustine in his Confessions noted that “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee” (1961, p.21). Is loneliness that eternal part of who we are?

 

Going Home

As I round the corner I see the white house with the black trim that I was raised in. Something in me beats a little faster. The house that is so familiar seems somehow fresh and new. Inside it are my loved ones: my mom and dad, my wife and children. This is the place where I was raised. The place where I learned to skate with the little girl next door. The place where I remember Christmas dinners with my brothers, sister-in-laws, nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles. The place where, sitting on the verandah on a hot summer’s day, friends who were driving by would stop for something cold to drink. I know that this was a place where I knew lonely times as well. But for the life of me I can’t remember them. I know there are people who have never known home. People who never felt like they were wanted, or loved, or accepted. Theirs must be a deep seeded loneliness. An incredible emptiness.

 

I mount the front stairs two at a time I and no longer feel any loneliness. Quite the opposite. There is nothing missing. I feel complete and at peace. Home is the place of deep meaningful relationships, with myself, my family, my friends. It is what I know, and what knows me. Home holds warmth and security where life’s wounds can be healed. It is a place of identity and acceptance. You belong and you know you belong. You don’t need to prove it, or even accept it. Its just there, part of you. As I enter the front door there is only the anticipation of my loved ones. Home is being connected: it is the antithesis of loneliness.

 

Perhaps there is some loneliness that we should never even attempt to cure or rid ourselves of. Perhaps loneliness is that which calls us to deeper more meaningful relationships with ourselves, our God, and others? One of the great paradoxes of loneliness is that it is at once one of the most personal experiences we will ever have, yet one of the most universal. We are all lonely in our own way. If we were never lonely, would we ever reach out to others, or inward to ourselves? I am tempted to say that I know the cure for loneliness: it is called home. But I know that my cure is incomplete. Loneliness is too complex, too personal for easy answers.

 

 

Bibliography

Anderson, C. A., Horowitz, L. M., & French, R. D. (1983, July). Attributional style of lonely and depressed people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 127-136.

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