Loneliness does not happen in an instant. It is a progressive unveiling, like reaching shadows which stretch their wizened fingers upon a canvassed ground. Still, when loneliness self-presents within our consciousness, it mutes all the colors, flattens all the music, and ignites the fires of self-reflection. These thoughts often run amuck with fantasizing nostalgia that catastrophizes our futures. Ironically, loneliness is lonely even to itself. It does not understand itself, even if it longs for something more.
Contrary to popular opinion, loneliness is not reduced by proximity to others since we all know you can be lonely in a crowded room, a marriage, or even locked-up with a cellmate. Then, ministering to loneliness will not amount to a series of positive affirmations, a call to optimism, nor be cured through social interaction—even if some of these things may alleviate its intensity at times. Instead, the way through loneliness will lie in the blessing of solitude and the care of God.
No blog post or article can alleviate loneliness. The reason for this is simple: our loneliness directs us to something deep within, something unknown but present, something actively reaching-out inside us which feels incomplete. However, if this article can’t solve your loneliness, it may set you on a course to move through it. And there is no better day than today to start that journey. The holidays are coming, and it’s best not to wait to deal with loneliness then.
Henri Nouwen wrote of the transition from loneliness to solitude through a rich combination of metaphor:
Instead of trying to run away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into the fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life, we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage, but strong faith (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. p. 22).
We will return to some of Nouwen’s thoughts on this process shortly, but for now, let us begin by thinking of five ways to work through our loneliness during this holiday season.
We are all grieving. We have lost our rhythms, our comforts, our sense of purpose, our closeness to others. Grief is the inevitable result of loss, and not everyone grieves the same way. For some, grief is anger; for others, it is depression; for another, it is stubborn perseverance. We all grieve differently, and that’s okay. ‘Denial’ is characteristically a symptom of grief. It can strike early or late in the process. However, when we experience loneliness, we are often past denial’s optimistic stubbornness and have settled into a new normal. But if we’ve settled in, that doesn’t mean we’re at peace.
You’ve likely heard the advice of the Serenity Prayer, “Accept the things you cannot change [and have the] courage to change the things you can.” For many who will be separated from their loved ones this Christmas, this adaptation is difficult and frightening. But when we tell ourselves that it’s acceptable to be sad and disappointed and that by God’s grace, we will be okay, we begin to move from helpless victim to empowered confessor.
There is power in confession, even confession to the self, because truth leads to freedom. In the spaces where what we long for meets the reality of what cannot be, our confession centers us on the “now” we must contend with. A “now” enriched with God’s presence and grace. A “now” in which, as Advent proclaims, we await the arrival of God’s mercy. To accept the things we cannot change is the first step in befriending a helplessness that makes room for God’s grace.
I have read that the Amish view a dying loved one as a gift to the community because, in their dying, they draw out the love of others in the community. A dying person brings a community together with all its gifts and shows the bereaved they are loved and supported. It is an image of generosity amidst ultimate loss that illustrates the complexity of loss and grief. For every bad thing that happens, and to which we must find a way to endure, grace lurks like sunshine breaking through a shaded window--if only in slivers of light, they are still slivers of gold. Walking through loneliness requires a generous sense of the good. It requires a faith that knows that though God seems absent, he is, in fact, the God of blessing. Like the King in the story of Esther, our King always holds out his scepter for us—a sign of welcoming, a summoning to draw near.
When Jesus holds out his hands for Thomas to see, his resurrected body has not forgotten its wounds. The Scripture teaches us that in those wounds, we are healed. In our pain, in our grief, those same hands remain outstretched toward us. They are an invitation to embrace another who is also wounded, a Man of Sorrows, a man who had no place to lay his head, a forsaken man. ‘Generosity’ in this sense means seeing in those hands the place where our hands should be, that we belong there in his embrace and that our woundedness is not to be seen as some premonition that God has abandoned us. Instead, those hands are reaching out as a form of calling, a generous beckoning to attend to what is given “now.” Those hands gesture to us to not let the past, the present, or the future, rob us of the promise of his arrival. That promise is that God has not abandoned us and is working all things out for good. It is the recognition that the shades are drawn, but they cannot mask out all the light. It is the reality that only faith beholds, which sees, however darkly, that the darkness cannot overcome the light.
Like the King in the story of Esther, our King always holds out his scepter for us—a sign of welcoming, a summoning to draw near.
“I should be over this by now; where is my faith?” “Why doesn’t anyone love me?” “Why don’t people notice my good qualities?…” These are the voices of the inner self, which are not actual questions because they are not interested in real answers. These voices only function as accusations. It may seem strange, but by accusing ourselves of being bad people, or people who miss the mark, we provide a warped sense of self-care. If we can bring ourselves down low, there is control in such a descent; commiseration is a form of coping. By accusing ourselves of all manner of petty and bad things, we allow ourselves to subtly self-identify with our failures. We are a failure. No one loves us. We aren’t good enough to deserve another. Those voices dangerously soothe us because we can justify our emotional experience by thinking poorly of ourselves instead of searching out the One who stands outside us. We tell ourselves that we deserve it. And if we deserve it, we don’t have to face the more likely reality that bad things happen to those who don’t deserve it. If that were true, we’d have to face the unknowability of suffering, the apparent meaninglessness of it all. And that may challenge the way we see God. In the fragile fires of loneliness, there is already little warmth. Why risk extinguishing faith? Such are the accusations of the mind.
When we catch ourselves thinking accusatorily, we do well to take those thoughts captive to Christ. Christ does not speak accusatorily over us but always offers us words of promise, comfort, and blessing. Because we stand in his righteousness, Christ is never our accuser but our intercessory advocate. The voice of accusation is not of God but the devil. Yes, God moves us in his law to repentance. But we do not find our identity or worth in our obedience; the law is not meant to devalue us but to draw us to the grace and love of God. Patience means relearning to hear God’s words about who we are over the words of our hearts. And this takes practice; it takes time and prayer.
In her book, A Long Letting Go, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, a professor of medical humanities, writes about the experience of watching someone die—whether through terminal illness or some other means. At one point, she reminds us of the importance of patience:
Nothing will be the same again...But as surely as we have to let go of the one we loved and walk away, finally, from the bedside, we have to let go of that part of ourselves that was shaped and animated by his or her presence and let ourselves be bent by the wind of the Spirit to, new and modified purposes. It is perhaps good not to drive ourselves too quickly to reassurance; there is a time to mourn as surely as there is a time to die, and we need not foreshorten it. (p. 77)
We need to be patient with our own emergence from loneliness and let go of the nostalgia that blankets us in false longing. We need to forego the dark predictions for our lives in the future. Loneliness experienced yesterday and today is not a guarantee of loneliness tomorrow. Tomorrow is a new day for God to bring new gifts.
Nouwen believes we can traverse the desert of loneliness through an embrace of solitude. It is essential to recognize that Nouwen does not see solitude as a prerequisite of loneliness. As we have seen, loneliness goes much deeper than non-presence. As such, being around people, while perhaps enlivening at times, is not a cure for loneliness. To think otherwise is to demand too much from others. Loneliness is a problem of the self, not of other people’s absence. “No friend, no lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness…As long as our loneliness brings us together with the hope that together we will no longer be alone, we castigate each other with our unfulfilled and unrealistic desires for oneness, inner tranquility and the uninterrupted experience of communion,” Nouwen says (Reaching Out, p. 19). In other words, loneliness is a part of life, and thus an emotive state we must move through. It cannot be avoided, though perhaps its arrival can be put to good use.
In solitude, we let loneliness speak and hope to turn our deserts into verdant fields.
Nouwen writes that loneliness has a hidden, unknown beauty, just like a desert has many flowers that only those who frequent deserts know. This is because in loneliness, we are forced to listen, to attend, and learn. If we do not learn and attend, the loneliness continues. ‘Solitude’ is the deliberate act of making room to listen to our lonely hearts. It is the space between the heartfelt prayers that are offered up in desperation. Solitude is the retreat from the distractions that often cover over the deep recesses within that require attention and care. Loneliness must be endured, but in solitude, we attend to our loneliness and see it as an opportunity to listen to our felt needs. In such a place, we strive to rid ourselves of our self-deceit and courageously center ourselves around God’s Words over and about us. Solitude teaches us that loneliness is a learning process, a cry for care that can be answered by the one who cries it by taking time in solitude. And as we search-out the caverns and cavities of our self-awareness, new needs come into focus. Then, fresh with knowledge of our wounds, we go to the Wounded Man. What at first seems like simple solutions, “I wouldn’t be lonely if I only had…” turns out to be a bandage laminating over a more profound set of needs that are hard to identify without discovery. It is undoubtedly true that humans are social creatures whose mental health requires social presence. But wholeness and joy spring from a self that knows its place within God’s Kingdom, his economy of grace. We all suffer loneliness at times. But in solitude, we let loneliness speak and hope to turn our deserts into verdant fields.
St. Paul writes, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6). This statement comes after what has been a rather lengthy meditation on Paul’s own flesh and self. The critical point is not that we should refrain from self-reflection but that we should not set our minds there. To set our minds on the flesh is to shutter out the reality of God for us as if it did not exist. Yes, there is a knowing that God exists and loves me, but Paul has something more like concentration in mind--focusing. The mind should put its energies into focusing on the Spirit, on who God is, on what God is doing, and who God says I am. Does this push away the loneliness? Not in and of itself. Focus on Scripture’s promises is not an antidote to loneliness. Even our Lord was lonely at times. Instead, God’s words are a compass that points us to the way through our malaise. Our focus on God and his Word, a healthy prayer life even when we don’t feel up to it, are means by which God assists in our learning. And learning is the way out of loneliness. When we have identified and attended to that which is missing, and either repented from it as idolatry, or given ourselves over to provide for its need, it is then that we begin to pass out of loneliness. Loneliness is a hidden wound that aches for healing. God’s word is a lamp on our path into this new reality because it guides us in truth and offers a spiritual intimacy no other person can provide. Brother Lawrence wrote in his fourth letter, “It isn’t necessary that we stay in church to remain in God’s presence. We can make our heart a chapel where we can go anytime to talk to God privately…so why not begin?”
There are, of course, many more ways to work through loneliness. But these are offered so that there is something manageable to do in the solitude that the holidays may bring. As COVID-19 continues to surge throughout the world, and as families continue to be separated from loved ones, please know that all of us here at 1517 and Christ Hold Fast have you in our hearts and prayers. We know these are challenging times and many people struggle with exasperated mental health issues right now. And yet, here we are in Advent, the season of the already but not yet, the season of arrival and anticipation. The anticipation of what? Of the Savior, of peace and joy, of love and salvation. Advent speaks to our loneliness and tells it that there is One who is coming. Just as a night cannot last beyond its given time, so too our loneliness is always one step closer to fading away because Christ is still closer to returning today than yesterday. Tomorrow is a new day, and perhaps, Christ will reveal his presence in new ways for you. The past does not fate the future when it comes to God.
In your loneliness, be kind to yourself. Refrain from letting it identify you and let God’s Word speak truth to you about who you are. Finally, in the desert of your loneliness, make time for some solitude. Listen. Attend. Plant seeds from what you learn. Turn the dry ground into fruitful orchards. Taste. You will see the Lord is good.