You might have felt it as a little child when your classmates laughed at you because you were cross-eyed or as a teenager when you were the last one chosen on the baseball team. You might have felt it when you were homesick in a boarding school or angry about non-sense rules which you could not change. You might have felt it as a young adult in a university where everyone talked about grades but where a good friend was hard to find, or in an action group where nobody paid any attention to your suggestions. You might have felt it as a teacher when students did not respond to your carefully prepared lectures or as a preacher when people were dozing during your well-intentioned sermons. And you still might feel it day after day during staff meetings, conferences, counseling sessions, during long office hours or monotonous manual labor, or just when you are by yourself staring away from a book that cannot keep your attention. Practically every human being can recall similar or much more dramatic situations in which he or she has experienced that strange inner gnawing, that mental hunger, that unsettling unrest that makes us say, ‘I feel lonely.’
Loneliness is a universal human condition. It is something that we all go through at one point or another. For some, the duration of their loneliness is longer than others. Regardless, if we are honest with ourselves, loneliness has been or is a part of our existence and has shaped our identities.
Henri Nouwen calls our attention to this aching aspect of our lives in an effort to move us deeper within ourselves. It is this moving inward that then allows us to move outward towards others and towards God. There is always overlapping and intertwining; each area is not cut off from the other, but always remain as a whole. Within his beautiful book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, he urges us to transform our loneliness into solitude as we move inward; our hostility to hospitality as we move towards the other; and our illusion to prayer as move towards God. He says,
The more we come to the painful confession of our loneliness, hostilities, and illusions, the more we are able to see solitude, hospitality, and prayer as part of the vision of our life.
Yet, he urges us to begin with the transformation of our loneliness to solitude because “it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”
He is referring to our ever-present attempts to anesthetize our pain. We often times busy ourselves into chaos as we seek to run from our loneliness. If we can only work enough hours, drive the kids to enough practices, take enough courses. The inner void is constantly trying to fill itself with busyness.
If you are like me, you aren’t even fully aware of this busyness that is covering the loneliness. It becomes engrossing in many areas of our life until it becomes our life. The longing for wholeness drives us and also exposes our hopes. We don’t fill ours lives with that which we don’t think will fulfill our hopes.
So we recklessly seek recognition and success. We want to be known as the hard worker so we bury ourselves with work; we want to be recognized as the “Mother of the Year” so we buzz around town putting our kids in every activity we can; we want success as the scholar so we expend our time, money, and effort into multiple degrees. The examples are endless because this covering over of loneliness is endemic to humanity.
As we seek recognition and success as the anesthesia to our loneliness, we often do this to the rejection of others. It doesn’t take much looking around to see how even our most intimate relationships can be tainted by competition and rivalry. The loneliness within me pushes me away from others and their loneliness does the same to them. We build up walls of self-protection and self-defense in efforts of keeping ourselves safe. This comes at the detriment of community as we continually isolate ourselves. If we are not going to be recognized and successful, no one will.
Or we do this by throwing ourselves into relationships that we think will be the end all. If only we can find the perfect spouse. If only we can find the perfect social club. If only we can find the perfect church. The list goes on. Quickly these relationships devolve into groups of lonely people. Where their affinity once seemed to be the glue holding them together, they find strangers instead of community. Again Nouwen states,
Indeed, it seems that the desire for ‘final solutions’ often forms the basis for the destructive violence that enters into the intimacy of human encounters. Mostly this violence is a violence of thoughts, violating the mind with suspicion, inner gossip or revengeful fantasies. Sometimes it is a violence of words disturbing the peace with reproaches and complaints, and once in a while it takes the dangerous form of harmful actions. Violence in human relationship is so utterly destructive because it not only harms the other but also drives the self into a vicious circle asking for more and more when less and less is received.
Living out of our loneliness is what moves us in hostility towards the other.
This journey from loneliness to solitude starts with an awareness of what we have used or are currently using to cover our loneliness. Busyness and relationships are the avenues we walk down in our longing for recognition and success, and as such, are good starting points. Jean Vanier says we only become aware of our loneliness at times when we cannot perform.
Lent is a season where we can intentionally explore these longings and our loneliness through self-denial. As we deny ourselves activities, busyness, and, perhaps, relationships we are able to clear away the fog hiding our loneliness. The void we often fill becomes apparent as we find ourselves longing for recognition and success now denied. Perhaps these questions can help in this journey:
What do you busy yourself with?
What part of your life would cause you stress, anxiety, and pain if you couldn’t “perform”?
How is loneliness keeping you hostile towards others?
Other posts in this Lent series: