In the last few weeks I have heard a lot of my clients speak about feeling lonely. This is not that unusual in spring, a time that traditionally stands for change and transition as well as for love and connection. However, the frequency and depth of that feeling made me think about loneliness, and I found I wasn’t the only one. Loneliness has been on the thoughts of many great men and women.
Loneliness is a difficult feeling. On the one hand it has been praised as necessary and life-affirming by many a philosopher or theologian. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said: “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; … if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” On the other hand, loneliness has been described as feeling utterly disconnected and barren. The painter Vincent Van Gogh explained it thus: “One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul, and yet no one ever comes to sit by it.” So, what is loneliness really – and what does it have to do with change and transition?
Originally the word loneliness was derived from the word alone and that in turn meant all in one. So, being lonely then meant being all-in-one. That doesn’t sound so bad. Indeed, it sounds somewhat healthy. It also explains why so many great thinkers have put such high hopes on being alone. After all, the goal of most philosophies and religions has been to create an experience of the all in one.
But not everyone strives for great transcended experiences and down here, in our earthly lives, we humans are creatures of the herd. We like to be with others: we crave contact, love, and touch, and we often use others as the barometer to the rightness of our own actions and convictions. Without others we may get closer to God or the all-in-one – but we feel distant from our brothers and sisters on earth. Thus loneliness always has a bitter taste to it.
The theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich said that “Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” With this differentiation, loneliness now has become the ugly step-sister of that glorious feeling of solitude that many of us still cherish. It has become the dark side of all-in-one-ness, the side where being all-in-one does not mean we are complete and whole, but that there may be no one else out there who completes us, who fits perfectly into the mosaic that is us.
That often is the trouble with getting closer to that place of inner completeness, inner wholeness: once we are whole, we are good with ourselves – or at least much better than we used to be – but we are different. We may be more life-affirming, more self-affirming, more confident, or hold better boundaries. We may be less clingy and fearful. We may have more compassion and understanding for the short-comings of others as we are getting more tolerant of the short-comings within ourselves. All this means that we are different, and being different means that we are not as others – and we ourselves – are used to us. With that often comes a big change in how we relate to others – and that often results in changes in our social environment.
Not everyone likes it when we change – even if the change is to the better. People may feel as if they are expected to change, too, or they may feel uncomfortable having an example of “change is possible” in front of them. We, the changing ones, may also feel uncomfortable. Now that we are more confident it doesn’t feel all that great anymore to be out with the girls and gossip. Our journey may have brought us to the realization that there is more to life than work, relationship, and consumerism and so we may feel an urge to explore different areas of our souls and selves. The old friends may not be able to follow.
One of the complaints I heard very frequently these past months was something like this: “I am different. I don’t want to talk about TV and fashion. I want to explore. I have a different view on life and the universe and I want to talk about these things without having to explain and justify every concept.” These experiences make us feel even more lonely and since solitude often has been a natural part of the journey that brought us to this point, the urge to share and rejoice in a group of understanding others is even bigger – and the resulting loneliness if we don’t find those people is even deeper felt. The good news is, though, that there are many people who have been on that journey. It may be a question of finding them, but they are out there. Courses and workshops on creativity and spirituality may help you find other like-minded souls, and nature is a great match maker in that respect, too.
But what about romantic or intimate relationships? A friend of mine said not long ago that the worst loneliness she ever felt was that of being alone in her partnership. Many of my clients feel similarly: they don’t want to be lonely in their relationships but they often feel desperately lonely without one. Inner transformation can leave us in this place, too. As complete as we may feel inside – and for most people I know that is always a relative feeling for as long as we are on the journey – we still are yearning for the loving partner, the person for whom our heart always opens, and who is there with us, not matter what.
It always pains me to realize how many of us are still looking for that “one true love” and how much pain we are inflicting on ourselves for that quest. I am not saying that true love does not exist. It does, I have seen it. However, I do believe that true love is only possible because both partners are able and willing to make compromises without compromising themselves. In other words, both partners have to be able to be alone with themselves so that they don’t feel that they are giving up something just in order to fit in with their partner. If they rest within themselves, they can give up most of their lives without losing themselves. As both partners have to be able and willing to do that, this is not an easy place to come to. More than that, even when found, there is no guarantee that things will stay like that forever. People change, life changes. We may be going on another growth spurt and our partner may not be able or willing to come along – or vice versa.
I do believe that the only way never to feel lonely is to stop living. Loneliness is a part of being human. It is the experience of being both, an individual with a connection to God and a soul that is undying and a member of the human race who is bound to social life and a deep need to belong. It is what keeps us alive and moving forward. Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat and Nobel Price laureate, felt that “loneliness may may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” It is that feeling of not belonging, of not being at one with it all, that may stop us altogether or spur us on to further growth and greater deeds. It isn’t an easy road to walk but it is generally a rewarding one.
At the end of that road I believe two things happen: For one, we finally realize that we have never really been alone at all. We have always had the world of soul and spirit around us; we always were amongst friends, even when we didn’t know and didn’t see them; and we always were moving towards – and inside – the light of hope. Secondly, we realize that we won’t escape loneliness as long as we are alive because at the end of the day we are alone in our experiences and our truths. The German singer-songwriter Reinhard Mey has a song titled Allein (Alone) which describes this very well. A line in the chorus translates like this: “Alone. We are alone. We come in and we go out – all alone. We may be loved and surrounded by much affection, but at the crossroads of life we are always alone.” He goes on to describe a life that was filled with love and light and good friends; and yet, he says: “The dearer the friend, the worse the insight that we have to take the last step on our path alone. No matter how much we cling to each other, in the end we are all facing the same lonely bench in the same cold hallway.”*
So here is my thought: if loneliness is unavoidable and if it is a stepping stone on the path to true inner connection, then why not embrace it? It is spring and I look at all those little flowers that are fighting their way through the darkness of the soil into the sunlight and into life. They just spent three or four months in total isolation and darkness. If plants could be alone, that would certainly qualify. But nonetheless, they fight, they grow, they unfold and they emerge in clumps of others just like them. Their deep, dark loneliness is followed by a celebration of life and companionship and a summer of growth. However, at the end there is another period of death and isolation. Plants use that time to gather life-energy and strength to bring forth their best flowers and fruit during their next summer. What, if we would do the same: use our loneliness to bring forth that something that is worth living for – and risking another period of loneliness at the end?!?
To end with another quote: “To transform the emptiness of loneliness, to the fullness of aloneness. Ah, that is the secret of life.” Sunita Khosla
*Reinhard Mey, Allein: “Allein, wir sind allein. Wir kommen und wir gehen ganz allein. Wir mögen noch so sehr geliebt, von Zuneigung umgeben sein, die Kreuzwege des Lebens gehen wir immer ganz allein. […] Je teurer der Gefährte desto bitterer der Schluss, daß ich den letzten Schritt des Wegs alleine gehen muss. So sehr wir uns auch aneinander klammern, uns bleibt nur die gleiche leere Bank auf einem kalten leeren Flur.”