Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Loneliness

If there is any assertion I hear more often than "I am depressed", it is "I am lonely". The two feelings appear to be interchangeable. At least they feed on each other. Depressed people tell me how lonely they are. Lonely people tell me how depressed they are. One distinction is that depression can be clinical and in need of professional treatment.

Someone observed that no one has ever died of loneliness. I am not so sure about that. I have known people who committed suicide because of unresolved loneliness or unattended depression or both. I take both conditions to be serious, sometimes even dangerous. They drain life of happiness and obscure that essential but elusive feeling of meaning. You may not die of loneliness, but you can feel as if you are going to die of it. Loneliness is a condition about which you can do something. So, let's think about loneliness.

I remember a once-popular song with the line: "Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight". There may be some of you who either have never been lonely or cannot remember being lonely. The capacity to forget sad and lonely times is a fortunate characteristic of the human mind. Loneliness is a universal human feeling that comes to everyone at some time in life. We see loneliness at so many ages and stages in life. There is the little child who has no real live playmates, who creates imaginary friends to fill the lonely void. There is the homesick college student, trying to prove he/she does not have to go home every weekend. There is the widowed person whose children have moved away, trying to find meaning amid slippery recollections of a happier yesterday. Slice into life at almost any age or place, and loneliness will be there in some form - or at least you will see the scar where it has been. Then there is existential loneliness - a part of the reality of just being alive. Loneliness is never more painful than when it is felt while living in close proximity with someone who has ceased to communicate.

Loneliness is difficult to describe. It is a kind of slow-moving internalized tragedy. It is unspectacular disaster. No one has come closer to offering, in a few classic words, some verbal context for understanding loneliness than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem "Day Is Done":

"I see the lights of the village gleam through the rain and the mist, and a feeling of sadness comes o'er me that my soul cannot resist. A feeling of sadness and longing that is not akin to pain, and resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles rain".

Can you feel that?

Some never quite learn that men and women cannot solve one another's loneliness. In his book, "The Third Wave", Alvin Toffler wrote that "loneliness is now so widespread it has become, paradoxically, a shared experience". The poet, Langston Hughes, said what we have all thought: "Sometimes when I'm lonely - don't know why, keep thinking I won't be lonely by and by". No matter how much we share our loneliness with other people, or try to imagine that it is a condition imposed on us by others, our loneliness is ours and we cannot do much about it until we own it. Robert Frost wrote: "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars-on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home - to scare myself with my own desert places".

We never conquer loneliness until we own it and reach beyond the boundaries of ourselves to touch and be touched by others. You are in charge of your loneliness. The experience has led many to search for community by opening their lives to friendship and love from which they have isolated themselves.

In his book "The Wounded Healer", Father Henri Nouwen writes that the more he thinks about loneliness, the more he thinks "that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon - a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding". Many find their most profound creativity has come from their loneliness.

Perhaps we would do better to live into our loneliness rather than run from it or allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods of the quick fix which offers immediate relief. Our loneliness can cause us to empty ourselves of false expectations in which we keep trying to deal with our dilemmas with inappropriate expectations from other people who can never do for us what we must do for ourselves through the work of developing our own spirituality. To empty oneself of false hope is a prerequisite to being filled with faith and hope in the right things. Father Nouwen reminds us of the startling truth that: "The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a special gift".

Do you have the courage and strength to lean into your loneliness, and use it, rather than running from it?

This is the road less traveled.