At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” entries. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them! Here is #2. In September of 2013 I updated a piece that had been surprisingly well-read for a long time. It was well-read again. Loneliness– our perennial affliction.
Take a look at the famous picture of Buchenwald concentration camp. Many of us have seen the picture. But you may not have known that the famous author Elie Wiesel is actually in the picture. He is circled in red.
In his 1981 novel, Testament, Wiesel creates a character who represents the Jewish intellectuals who were killed by Stalin in 1952. (Stalin’s mass murder outpaced Hitler’s by millions). In the novel, the character is encouraged by his prison guard to write an autobiography, since it might contain further confession of wrongdoing. Although it seems like a hopeless task that none of his loved ones will ever see, the man writes his story in the spirit of the ancient one about the Just Men who came to Sodom:
“Night and day [the Just Man] walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening; he no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst.
One June a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words: ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it is hopeless?’ ‘Yes, I see,’ answered the Just Man. ‘Then why do you go on?’ ‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’
This story has many applications for the many different people who read this blog. We have a lot we need to scream about, lest the madness have the last word. But the application that touches me the most, today, has to do with how lonely some of us are. Apply the story to that influence. We must keep talking back to our gnawing aches, our feelings about being unloved or trapped, our fears of always being isolated, our self-condemnation and devaluing. The loneliness must not be allowed to organize us, to change us into a reaction to it.
Loneliness is a universal experience. I wish I had a universal solution. I just have one fact and two suggestions.
Fact: God is with you. You are not alone. Turn to God who is turning to you in Jesus, who is God-with-us. I know God is not the same as us, so he won’t offer skin and phone calls and someone who can respond to the look on our faces. I’m not going to say sticking with him will fulfill all the desires motivating us right now. But we can experience deep togetherness with God, and experiencing that togetherness often frees us to connect to others. “Be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’” (Heb. 13:5-6)
Suggestion: Let God turn loneliness into solitude. This was Henri Nouwen’s advice. All of us are alone, since we are unique — no one feels, thinks or acts exactly like I do. So we have a lifelong issue about being alone to deal with. Our aloneness can turn to loneliness or solitude. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling desperately to others and resent their absence. Solitude helps us respect the uniqueness of others and create community. Solitude, where we meet with God and discover ourselves, is a cleared-out space inside ourselves, and a quiet place we find outside our busy schedules, to pray, to listen for discernment and to experience grace. When we are lonely, we must turn to God and let loneliness become solitude.
Suggestion: Allow yourself to keep trying. We have to talk back to the loneliness or it gets the last word; it ultimately organizes us. Let’s hold on to the connections we actually have, whether they are what we truly want or need, at the moment. And let’s not denigrate the therapists, church leaders, pastors and other people who care about us, even if they don’t seem like the intimates we desire. Let’s keep working at being a member of the community. The church is a community that is often so diverse, so unique, so fluid, that it takes time to form and effort to keep. Even when it does not meet all our emotional needs, it is still a place where we belong and where we are likely to find some love. Keep building it, not just expecting from it. The world can be a lonely place; we must keep building a community that is lovely, or the world might change us into something it can organize in its own image.
I hope I have not been overly dramatic by using a concentration camp picture to lead into this topic. But I feel the sense of imprisonment some of my friends feel. They are being hemmed in by their loneliness and whatever they try does not seem to help them escape — even when they scream. Don’t give up! God is with you. You belong among God’s people. May you experience more solitude in your aloneness than loneliness.
[This post first appeared in June 2009 when very few people read my blog. I thought I’d give it another go since the issue was very real to me last week].