Since divorce ruptured my life, I’ve learned a great deal about loneliness. In fact, I may be on the way to becoming an expert on the subject, although a rather reluctant one. Many times over the last year or so I’ve had the occasion to reflect on something Henlee Barnette said to a group of us chaplain residents at the University of Louisville back in the early 1980’s. Henlee expressed the conviction that loneliness remains the biggest unrecognized mental illness our current society suffers. Now, I don’t know if it’s fair to call loneliness a “mental illness,” but it sure is mental, and it gets physical to the point of feeling ill, so I’ll not quibble with Henlee’s terminology. I’ve also come to the conviction that millions of people share the syndrome of loneliness. As Sting sang in his song, “Message in a Bottle,” “. . . seems I’m not alone in being alone.”
So . . . I’m going to share what I’m learning about loneliness and invite you, dear blog reader, to respond with your own reflections.
Sometimes, feelings of loneliness become physically palpable. At one point after I moved to Birmingham and my furniture hadn’t arrived yet, I sat down against the wall in my empty condo and felt sobs wrack through my body. I found myself actually hitting my hand against my thigh as if slapping the feeling away, as if a little beast lurked just outside my arm length. My loneliness felt like a beast with a sinister mind of its own. It could pop up unexpectedly, taking advantage of my finding a photograph, or hearing a piece of music, or smelling an aroma. The loneliness beast would stampede through my consciousness and create a major distraction.
Of course, I could also predict that I’d encounter that beast when I’d go home after work, lurking in the empty condo, ready to suffocate any sense of joy I’d found during the day.
I don’t like being lonely. Consequently, I’ve done some pondering as to the best way to handle this beast. I’ve tried a few approaches.
First option – let the beast be. Ignore it. I’ve rejected this approach because any beast left alone will do damage. It might eventually go away, but while it’s around, it could gnaw your leg off. I’m not going to talk much more about this option, because the very act of writing about it proves I’m not ignoring it.
Second option – attack and kill the beast. That’s better, but there are dangers in this approach, too. For example, if we attack this beast without giving it some disciplined thought, we end up doing some less-than-helpful things. We might go out to bars just to avoid the quiet of the apartment, or watch mindless TV simply to avoid the silence. In some cases, in order to kill the beast, people get into ill-advised relationships, or go out shopping (and pile up debt) just to be around people. We might go to inappropriate websites in a desperate attempt to find company, a sex partner, or spouse. In many cases, and I’ve noted this in myself, our addictive tendencies increase as we seek means of injecting pleasure into our lives. Substance abuse or process abuse (e.g. gambling, shopping, or pornography) which we thought would help us kill the beast, actually become tools the beast uses to chew us up.
Third option – tame the beast. This is my choice. I’m becoming more convinced that loneliness can be transformed into a beast of burden. Loneliness can actually become an occasion for growth, renewal, and transformation if we develop the capacity to “ride the hump of a question mark,” as Ernest Campbell said some years ago. If we tame this loneliness beast, as a beast of burden it can actually take us somewhere beautiful.
So, as I make these posts on Taming the Loneliness Beast, I’m going to talk about how loneliness can:
- Distort thinking
- Increase narcissism
- Suppress physical health
- Inflame fantasies of flight
- Increase bunker mentality
I’ll also reflect on how loneliness can give us the opportunity to grow. It can open an internal space in which you can move around and explore yourself. You can survey the “house” of your soul, so to speak, and assess what you’re made of, clear out the outmoded “furniture,” and determine what you want and need to keep. You can plan and conduct a renovation so that instead of the five downers above, you have:
- A broader and clearer perspective
- The capacity for deep and meaningful friendship
- A healthier and more vigorous body
- Become more grounded in the present
- Become more engaged in your community
A last thought: it’s good to learn how to harness the force of loneliness because if my experience is anything like yours, you’ll find that it never entirely goes away.