A peculiar dynamic that seems ever-present in life is the fact that we all seem to need connection more than anything, but we’re all so ill-equipped to actually achieve it.
Isolation can kill. Loneliness can work all sorts of malignancies into our days. The remedy is communion — real and meaningful connection with other people, other spirits. I wonder, sometimes, if everyone is finding this as much of a challenge as I am.
It’s not that I lack friends — I have many good ones, in fact. And they know me intimately; any one of them could mimic my best and worst traits on cue. I also have three children with whom I share as much life as possible. I’ve been married once and engaged twice. I’ve lived with a house full of strangers and all by my lonesome. I taught for years, giving up my lunches and free periods to teach more, and was therefore surrounded by kids all day (even on the weekends). These days I work at home, often on the phone, but around no other living presence save my puppy, Irma.
Basically, I’ve been in both extremes: immersion and isolation. And I’ve often felt lonely in both. In fact, it’s one of the defining conditions of my life.
The source of loneliness
When I was in college, I read a book that described our essential loneliness as the need for someone else to share completely in our experiences. Any part of our lives not shared brings a feeling of loneliness — that we’re in it alone. So we long for someone to share our whole lives with, to know us as well as we know ourselves.
It’s an impossible search. That “other” doesn’t really exist, at least not in the form of another human being. Relationships fail because of this dynamic. In fact, it’s likely the leading cause of death of friendships and marriages. We need a partner to be and to know exactly who we are and what we experience. It’s hopeless, really.
But what if it weren’t? The solution, we all know, is communion with God, a presence who knows each of us with infinitely greater understanding and detail than we ourselves are capable. It’s a pretty and poetic thought. But how do we do it? How do we actually connect with God in a way that eases our loneliness?
In the beginning (allegorically, of course), we “walked” with God, right through the Garden of Eden. The story tells us that all things were one and that we didn’t even know our own nakedness. There was nothing to fear, nothing to hide from. We didn’t need to stand stoutly alone and proclaim our own strength and independence.
But there’s this piece of us that wants the power to judge each other, to build fortresses and walls, if only to confirm our superiority. The trouble is that the superior condition delivers loneliness as its most abundant fruit. The knowledge and power of judgment, of separation, is a distant and impotent second.
In my own life, as I nakedly encounter being alone, I find stories like the one in Genesis serve me best. They remind me that I don’t need to be strong as much as I need to be understood. I don’t need things as much as I need family.
A way through loneliness
My neighbor is also a single dad, albeit further down that road than I. We’re both busy with our days. We both like to be in our homes. Sometimes, however, we catch each other at just the right time, me outside with Irma, him returning from errands. We stop and chat. When the weather’s nice, maybe we grill a burger together or share a thought on current affairs. Sometimes it lasts longer than I’d have thought I had time to spare. Then we go our separate ways.
And you know what? I don’t feel so separate anymore. Could the remedy really be right outside my door? Could the author of loneliness be inside my own head?
I know a very few things really well — so well that I can’t find evidence otherwise. One is this: God is so much simpler than we constantly imagine. As such, the One waiting to know us, waiting to scatter our inherent will to loneliness like a bright light, is as available as the air we breathe.
To find this presence, we should look simply. We shouldn’t be searching for evidence of God in grandeur or power — in an earthquake or a furious fire — but in a whisper. It’s such a simple concept, but it carries infinite hope — enough that even I can conquer feeling alone.
I’ve come to be less judgmental of the loneliness, as well. Being an inescapable part of life, it has its purpose -— evolutionary and spiritual. If we are never aware of the poverty that is our own separateness, we would never reach for something greater than ourselves. And if we are to inherit the promises of communion for which we were created, we should first be welcoming of that which leads us there.
So I both look to defeat my loneliness and also to learn from it.