Experienced as a very personal, raw emotion, which left unchecked, that is if we remain bereft of friendship and purpose in life, loneliness can lead down a road of various means of self-comforting, which may become addictive, ultimately leading to chaos, even serious depression.
Most of us, I suspect, tend to view loneliness primarily from a personal perspective: I am lonely.
Yet loneliness, the great and universal pain of the human family, has many faces, many circumstances.
What follows I do not claim to be the complete list, but these are some which came to my heart as I reflected upon what I wanted to say in this essay on loneliness, for I believe when we pray for the lonely we should endeavour to be aware of them as real persons, thus it does not hurt to take time to image them in our hearts: Think of the loneliness of the child soldier, torn from family and village, abused, drugged, forced to kill or be killed; the child labourer, the child orphaned by AIDS and having to somehow protect and feed younger siblings; what of the extreme and terrifying loneliness of the child in the grips of an abuser, a battering parent, a schoolyard bully?
The men and women in vast buildings, alone at night: security guards, office cleaners; police on patrol, alone; military personnel in distant outposts; the elderly, in nursing homes or even in their own home, rarely visited, rarely having another to chat with; the homeless person who while they may in the line at the soup kitchen be surrounded by people, nonetheless carry within such a huge solitary burden of how they have come to this place, that is raw loneliness indeed.
The prisoner in solitary confinement, the battered woman home alone – waiting; what of the severely mentally ill dwelling in the dark loneliness of wounded minds or of the Alzheimer or Autistic person alone behind a wall which disallows normal communication; priests abandoned by their bishops and confreres because of accusation – numerous are the lonely men, women, children of this earth, so numerous we might even say it is the great, common human affliction.
Some country roads are described as ‘lonely’ roads, and that is because hardly any human being frequents such roads.
A house in the middle of a vast area, frequently which we name as being ‘in the middle of nowhere’ is described as a lonely place.
Our very use of language, such as ‘the middle of nowhere’, shows that our sense of place even depends upon the presence of human beings!
At the root of most disordered relationships between people is a deeply felt urgency to connect in the expectation that a passionate embrace will take away the awful loneliness.
But in the end, outside of Holy Marriage, all such pairings have within them the seeds of their own disappointment.
How many men and women after having sought and found the elixir, return to their own empty abode?
Granted we can have a non-lonely life because we have intimacy, communication, affirmation, conversation, shared pain, worries, tears, joys, laughter with family, friends, co-workers, but deep within most human beings is an acute awareness of the vulnerability of it all: something triggers a break in the family unit; friends move or marry or whatever; we get laid off and are without the daily routine, companionship.
Suddenly we find, by illness or old age, by unemployment or divorce, by some form of radical change in the tapestry of our lives, we are alone.
While we may feel we are in a place, a state of aloneness, because we feel the intensity of loneliness, in truth we are actually standing on and in a threshold of choice.
We can choose to bend towards ourselves – or – journey outward through the journey inward.
To bend towards myself is to be enthralled by my own predicament and pain.
It is to drown.
To journey inward, that I might journey outward, is to love myself the way Jesus loves me that I might love my neighbour.
Un-chosen loneliness can make it extremely difficult to turn from self towards other, after all we are the hurt one, the lonely one and turning to other means choosing to put their needs before my own!
Thus the first step on the journey inward is to look at Christ Jesus, He who chose to embrace being alone, He who went looking for a lonely place time and again, to commune with the Father that returning amongst people Jesus could love and assuage all loneliness.
Of course if we have been thrust into extreme and persistent loneliness because of any experience of devastating rejection or abandonment there will be all sorts of emotional turmoil and looped thinking to struggle through – real emotional upheaval!
That makes the depth and acuteness of the loneliness all the more raw and the temptation to bend towards ourselves in a quagmire of ‘woe is me, nobody likes, wants, loves me’ a most dangerous one.
We must beg Our Lady of Hope to intervene and help us resist, or if we are already sinking into the muck, to come and pull us out!
There is, of course, a diamond in the rough, as it were, deep within each human heart, a diamond which through the ebb and flow of life is polished into the splendour of complete communion of love with the Holy Trinity, and that rough, uncut diamond is itself loneliness.
This loneliness is not because of some pain of rejection or abandonment, rather the complete opposite: it is because we have breath of life within us!
Since infinite of infinite Love Himself has created us for communion of love, ultimately the only love which can assuage this intrinsic loneliness is Love Himself: God who is love.
The external dimension of Love having created us for love, and therefore neither for loneliness nor aloneness but for completion, fulfillment, is that aspect of it not being good for a person to be alone and so the hunger for relationship with another human being unfolds in the gift of marriage and parenthood.
Thus the various ways in which married and family life, that is the sacred bond of a man and a woman who have children, is being torn to shreds in our culture, irrespective of the loudly proclaimed yet specious arguments proffered to justify the attempted dismantling of God’s order, such efforts have resulted in the cancerous spread of extreme loneliness and attendant ever more cruel and widespread acts of rejection, abandonment.
The more we, the Christians of this world, defend life, marriage, family, the more the scourge of global loneliness will be overcome.
Every time I hear the ‘sky is falling’ global warming or food shortage or over population alarmists shriek their mantras I pray we will understand: only the desperate lonely seeking comfort devours stuff to try and ease their solitary pain.
Where authentic community of love exists, no one is greedy, thus no more than is needed of the treasure of the earth, sea, air is consumed.
Want to heal the ecology, heal the human heart!
If then, in the depths of real loneliness, I want out! – I must turn away from myself and toward other, beginning with Jesus and His example, and so in a sense I must turn inward and pray.
If I turn inward, attentive to the Holy Spirit, in the solitude of the lonely place where Jesus Himself communed with the Father [that lonely place may be manifested in my life in silence with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a walk in a park, or the silent solitude of my room with the door closed wherein such secrecy our Father sees, hears, takes note, answers] one of the first experiences will be the encounter with my own emotional self!
That is the encounter with my own wounds, fears, neediness – the very things which may well cause people to feel I suck all the oxygen out of a room when I enter; I will encounter all sorts of things about myself that make it difficult for me to put the needs of others before my own; those old real or imagined hurts, rejections, not-being-heard memories I just can’t seem to let go of, etc., etc., etc. until, finally with the help of grace I will seek to ask Jesus to help me forget all that, get up, dust myself off, accept whatever loneliness I have and turn towards others, leaving my room, leaving the lonely place, going forth to wash the feet of my lonely brothers and sisters with a listening heart, a smile, a helping hand.
For Jesus this reaching out to the lonely, to everyone, ultimately led to His immersing Himself in the extreme aloneness and loneliness of the Garden of His Agony, and of the Cross – death for everyone is the ultimate alone moment, and finally Jesus willingly embraced the loneliness of death and of the tomb.
Because there is an innate fear within most rational human beings of being alone, left alone, of being lonely, we often recoil from those who don’t have the decency to keep their own loneliness well hidden but let it spill out all over the place when we are near them with a desperate look in their eyes pleading for attention, acceptance, love even.
No doubt many in the crowds crushing to get closer to Jesus were the truly lonely.
Amongst them, to them, with us, to us, Jesus invites us, with our burdens and weariness to come to Him, for He indeed is our rest.
We come to Him, and indeed discover loneliness is lifted, our hearts become filled, when we go out of ourselves to others, fearing not how lonely or needy they are, not pulling away from them because we feel demanded of – for it is a terrible thing to pull away from Jesus.
To welcome the lonely person is to welcome the stranger.
It is in fact Jesus whom we are welcoming and comforting.