Living with and beyond Loneliness

I have been speaking lately of attuning to our heart space, our true home, our authentic self. And I suggested that this path may lead through and beneath a whole variety of feelings, some of which may be initially disturbing. I also suggested that attention to breathing, and other forms of meditation, reflection, reading, and listening to beautiful music may also be helpful. Such solitude is distinct from the loneliness that afflicts so many people today.

In thinking of this topic, I am drawn to another story, which I have perhaps mentioned frequently, the story of Rapunzel. Among other things, the story tells of the prince who climbs the tower with the aid of Rapunzel’s hair, only to find himself on this occasion confronted by the witch. She tells him that he will never see her again. In his despair, he leaps out of the tower. He does not die, but falls among thorns which pierce his eyes and blind him. He then wanders about, lonely and lost, and barely surviving on roots and edible plants.

These images suggest that when we lose someone close to us, the loneliness that follows can take away our vision and leave us utterly lost and in survival mode. Such blinding loneliness can also come from lack of meaningful contact as well as from loss.

Earlier in the story, we are given a portrait of Rapunzel, alone in the tower, who sings out of her loneliness. The beauty of her singing rings out throughout the forest and reaches and attracts the young prince. The image suggests that in the solitude, even if lonely, a person is able to return to the core of themselves. What emerges from that core is beautiful, illustrated by the music of her voice. This image suggests, in turn, that the core of the person is beautiful. The place within that has never been wounded is beautiful. We are more than any hurts received or even inflicted.

It is not an outer image, not a projection of the defensive ego, that is able to reach another and build community, but it is who we are and the expression of who we are. Perhaps all too often relationships remain an exchange of outer images and not a sharing of persons. A genuine communication in depth, in the words of Erich Fromm, “is possible only if each person experiences himself or herself from the centre of their being.” Such communication does not take a way the loneliness that is part of the human condition, but shares that loneliness. It takes away the debilitating forms of loneliness that corrodes the soul. As medieval mystic Mechtilde of Magdeburg puts it: “When my loneliness becomes too great, I take it to my friends.”

The loneliness that comes from loss or separation, from transitional periods in our lives, from enforced isolation, or lack of connection, can be alleviated by even slight contacts. Recent studies have shown that even a brief contact, if sincere, can enhance our experience of life. Such gestures may include a brief comment to a stranger in a bank, a supermarket, or a waiting line, or a small kindness to someone.

Dr. Ben-Shahar comments that the greatest threat to happiness is loneliness, which has become nearly epidemic in our time. As a corrective, the Dalai Lama observes that if you want both yourself and others to be happy, practice compassion. I have suggested before compassion may be understood as a respectful, and never condescending response to another person who is experiencing some kind of pain or suffering. I have also suggested that to do so requires a sense of our own worth, so that we may approach another as they are and not in terms of a need or a threat. Compassion also requires a sense of our own vulnerability, so that we can identity or see ourselves with another who is in pain.

Clark Moustakis, who has written extensively on the loneliness that is part of the human condition. I might add that the recognition and acceptance and being with of this inescapable loneliness can lead to a creative solitude. In Moustakas words, it can “bring into awareness new dimensions of self, new beauty, new power for human compassion, and a reverence for the precious nature of each breathing moment.” Persons may then “discover life, who they are, what they really want, the meaning of their existence, the true nature of their relations with others. … Loneliness paves the way to healing, to true compassion, to intimate bonds with all living creatures and all aspects of nature and the universe.”

Blaise Pascal, a 17th century scholar has written: “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In her book, Bitter-Sweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Susan Cain, writes: “Bittersweet is about the recognition of the both/and of life–that light and dark, birth and death, bitter and sweet, are forever paired. We need both to accept that reality and also in some way transcend it. This is our inmost longing which can be seen as a longing for home.” We need to transform the sorrows of life into something that nourishes the soul, otherwise we will inflict them on others. She concludes: “This idea–of transforming pain into creativity, transcendence, and love–is the heart of this book.”

In other words, a certain painfulness is an inescapable part of every life. Happiness and a meaningful life do not demand a lack of suffering. They do require an overcoming of unnecessary isolation, self-pity, self-rejection, comparison with others, and inflicting pain on others. They also require clinging to a sense of self-worth even if not felt, and developing compassion for self and others. It involves not denying the pain of life, but not identifying with it, yet seeking to learn and grow from it. We may perhaps entrust it to caring and trustworthy others. And we may ourselves be the caring and trustworthy person to whom another may entrust their own sorrow. I really appreciate the words of Henri Nouwen that the true friend is not the person with the answers, but the one who sticks it ou with you when there are no answers.

May you more and more feel at home to and accept and cherish your core self. And may you be more and more present and a home to those who, in some way, great or small, share your life.
Norman King