Several years ago, I was counseling a young man whose struggles with loneliness seemed to be the reverse of the norm. Instead of trying to escape it, he worried about losing it. He was in his early twenties, in love with a wonderful young woman, but was conflicted about marrying her because he feared that getting married might interfere with his loneliness and, in his words, make him “a shallower person with less to give to God and the world.”
“I walk into a room,” he said, “and automatically look around for a sad face, for someone whose look suggests that there’s more to life than partying and the latest celebrity news.” There’s a danger in simplistically identifying heaviness with depth, but that wasn’t true for him.
“Two images do battle within me,” he said. “When I was fifteen, my dad died. We lived in the country and he had a heart attack. We bundled him into the car and my mother was with him in the back seat, holding him as I was driving the car, fifteen years old, and scared. He died on the way to the hospital, but he died in my mother’s arms. Sad as this was, there was something of beauty in it. I have always felt that this is the way I would like to die, held by someone I love. But, while that image draws me strongly to marriage, I also look at how Jesus died, alone, abandoned, inside of no one’s arms, in an embrace only of something beyond, and I’m drawn to that too. There’s nobility in that which I don’t want to let go of. That too can be a good way to die.”
He feared losing his loneliness even as he healthily yearned for intimacy. He couldn’t fully explain why he was attracted to the loneliness of Jesus on the cross, except that he sensed that this was somehow a noble thing, something of depth, and something that would give him depth and nobility.
Others have been at this place before him, Jesus among them. For example, as a young man, Soren Kierkegaard renounced marriage for the same reason my young friend feared it. Rightly or wrongly, he felt that what he had to give to the world was rooted inside the pain of his own loneliness and could only issue forth from that center and, if he was less lonely, he would have less to give. Was he right?
The fruitfulness of his life, namely, the many people (Henri Nouwen among them) who drew healing and strength from his writing, attests to the truth of his intuition. By their fruits you shall know them! Kierkegaard is the patron saint of the lonely. But, like my young friend, he was also conflicted by what this did to him. Too few people understood and this immersed him in “the sadness of having understood something true – and then seeing oneself misunderstood.” He confessed too that he lived the curse “of never to be allowed to let anyone deeply and inwardly join themselves to me.” Thomas Merton, commenting on the same thing, once said that the absence of married intimacy in his life constituted “a fault in my chastity.” This kind of depth comes at a price.
Why, despite such an obvious downside, are the Kierkegaards of our world drawn to loneliness in the belief that it holds the key to depth, empathy, and wisdom? What does loneliness do for us?
What loneliness does for us, especially very intense loneliness, is destabilize the ego and make it too fragile to sustain us in the normal way. What happens then is that we begin to unravel, feel ourselves become unglued, become aware of our smallness, and know in the roots of our being that we need to connect to something larger than ourselves to survive. But that’s a very painful experience and we tend to flee from it.
However, and this is a great paradox, this experience of intense loneliness is one of the privileged ways of finding the deep answer to our quest for identity and meaning. Because it destabilizes the ego and disorients us, loneliness puts us in touch with what lays below the ego, namely, the soul, our deepest self. The image and likeness of God lies in there, as do our most noble and divine energies. That’s the truth behind the belief that in loneliness there is depth.
And so the lesson is this, whether married or single: Don’t run from loneliness. Don’t see it as your enemy. Don’t look for another person to cure your loneliness. See loneliness as a privileged avenue to depth and empathy.
Here’s the advice of the ancient Persian poet, Hafiz:
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My need of God
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.