The Ache of Loneliness

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Most of us will occasionally fall into a trap of thinking that we need to be perfect, or rather that we need to hide our weaknesses in order to be accepted and loved. This attitude creeps in unconsciously, almost like our personal inner-app that works in the background; and perhaps we are not much aware of it. I don’t know if society has inflicted us with this notion that weakness is to be despised, but many of us have succumbed to the idea that we need to keep proving (to the world and to ourselves) that we are successful and strong, not just sometimes but all of the time. If nothing else, this is quite unrealistic. Also, this kind of context does not allow us to talk about very human realities of sometimes feeling inadequate or lonely. When we unmask loneliness it is interesting what we can find beneath it.

Matthew Hussey, public person I admire who is someone you would consider ‘successful’, recently spoke about loneliness. He is always upbeat and positive, so it was surprising to hear him address this topic. “We are all lonely at times”. We will never grow if we don’t embrace the parts of our humanity that make us wrestle with ourselves. It reminded me of something I wrote about this topic a few years ago, and I decided to share it here.

In silence, in solitude, when no one is around to listen, a thirst can emerge from our depths. It is only me there and I cannot but take note; clutter of memories from the past has been reduced to a very minimum, creating space for this deeper ache to emerge. It has been emerging all through the years, fighting for breath within the clutter, but now, as the air is clear it is more acute, naked, real. Occasionally, in a blink of a moment, something cracks open in us and we ‘see’ the reality for what it really is. We ‘see’ our desires for what they really are – thirst that is not ‘mine’, or ‘yours’ but ‘ours’. There is a deep loneliness in each of us; it is primordial, communal, it bears the name of our ‘lostness’ and ignites the search for ways to quench that hunger. In it, we are one, connected in this quest for meaning, for satisfaction, for liberation. Not all of us let it come as acutely or we may be experiencing it differently, but nonetheless it lives in us all. Even if we cannot point the finger to it, it points its finger towards us in that rare placid moment when the reality uncovers itself before us.

Some years ago, I spent a week in Taizé community in France. It was a decision-making time, when I was trying to discern what I would do after I finish my masters. I thought the question was whether to continue with Ph.D or go and do something ‘more practical’. Yet the search was deeper than what I will ‘do’, now I would rather say it has been about who I would ‘be’. I spoke with one of the brothers after the evening prayer saying, “I find this deep thirst in me to give more, to be more, to do more (for God), but I do not know what to do with it”. He smiled. After a short pause, he told me a few simple thoughts that still nourish me whenever I remember. “Change your prayer into a prayer of thanksgiving and do not try to fill that thirst; learn to live with it. Then in time, let God fill it.” Yes, it made sense. It was not easy though, still isn’t. To live with that thirst that aches deep within you without not only trying to fill it, but also not even knowing what could be sufficient to satisfy it, has been hard. Yet, it was wonderful; not that I liked the times of the struggle, or the ache of the longing that became my (often) daily companion. But attentiveness to the search brought me more into life. Truly, it thought me that it is for life that we were created, not for dying – and even if we experience death and loss in any form, it was only to lead us more into life. Somehow, it even increased my capacity to hope against hope. The ache of loneliness and this desire that was brewing within me were not the same, though I believe they do come from the same place deep in us. Their reality may be different, but the source is the same – it is in the far end of the unquenchable depth of our souls that they start.

Sometimes I hate this feeling of loneliness that creeps in and emerges uninvited. And I do not think it has much to do with being single, though perhaps at times. I presume it belongs to a sentiment that would appear even if one was married or living in a community that shares their calling, as it comes under many faces, hides under many life’s circumstances and only takes them as an excuse for its existence. It is almost like a disease, a mark of lostness ingrained in our souls. It is in everyone. What we do with it is another matter, as it has a great tendency to wrap us around ourselves – it is easy to become self-absorbed or dwell in self-pity. Neither is recommended. We may all fall into it from time to time, we are after all weak in our humanity, but as soon as we become aware of taking the road of self-pity, it is good to acknowledge it and try to move away. Staying on that road could perhaps even lead us towards depression, but I will not write about that here, as I am too ignorant. These are grey areas, and one has to tread them softly. There is another, better path. We can allow loneliness to lead us towards a deeper compassion, as “without a more profound human understanding derived from exploration of the inner ground of human existence, love will tend to be superficial and deceptive” (Merton). The ache of loneliness stands humbly before God in prayer, expanding our “capacity to [love,] understand and serve others” (Merton).

Merton once said, “Go into the desert”, go into the silence, “not to escape other men but in order to find them in God”. Perhaps it is also valid to say, go into that loneliness deep within you and find in it all the humanity in its lostness, find there all those who are abandoned, desolate, alone and offer them to God. As, with the ache of your heart, you ask Him to set you free from your own lostness and aloneness, you also ask Him to deliver them from their lostness. No one is alone in loneliness, yet we do not know it as it ‘feels’ like a desert in which all the sand is taken from my hands, and my hands alone. There is a redemptive power in embracing loneliness as a bridge towards the humanity of others. In those ‘redemptive moments’, a desire to offer more to God becomes one with the loneliness in us that seeks to receive more. In giving of one-self, in sharing one’s sighs (through prayer) with all the sighs of this world, giving flows into receiving and becomes bearable. Or even if not bearable, at least meaningful, and therefore can be easier to tolerate. Then a time may come when we will be invited to somewhat let go of this loneliness, which may have become so familiar to us, in order to let God lead us into the fullness of life we were meant to live, and deeper into love for which we were created.

The ache of loneliness reveals in us that it is closely related to intimacy. The longing for intimacy, which is present in every heart, in every soul, is a flip side of loneliness. Yet if we explore the desert areas of our hearts we may discover that solitude has the same healing powers as intimacy does. Solitude unites us with everything through God since it has a different inner quality than loneliness. Loneliness teaches us the ‘illusion’ of separateness and disconnectedness; it is a stem of Adam in exile, whereas solitude grounds us into God and leads us back into the Garden of Eden. Solitude is a mark of unity; loneliness, on the other hand, is a mark of lostness. Will the ache of loneliness ever fade away in this life? Perhaps if one manages to share the depths of one’s heart with a lonely other, perhaps if the intimacy and solitude soothe the ache, then it can ease a little. If in the process we become more real, that too will help us connect with one another; and this connection is what we long for when we experience the inner thirst.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 20th March 2016, adjusted from 2011)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

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One thought on “The Ache of Loneliness

  1. It’s hard to leave a meaningful comment on something that is already so touching and profound – I must say thank you. You have wrapped me in a spiritual blanket and I am grateful for its warmth.

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