Loneliness: A Beast? A Burden? A Beast of Burden?

Stephanie Shoot 5Since 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.

About Drexel Rayford

Drexel has been senior pastor of four churches in Kentucky and Virginia, a psychiatric ward chaplain, denominational bureaucrat, and an erstwhile indie singer/songwriter/story-teller and seeker of authentic human vocation. Currently, Drexel is working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center in the capacity of The Support Team Network manager, a hospital-based community partnership aimed at nurturing healing communities for discharged patients. He loves kayaking, road cycling, hiking, and all kinds of photography, but he loves his wife Vicki and blended family of three adult children more. He holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion and a pastoral counseling certificate from the University of Louisville, Department of Psychiatry.
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10 Responses to Loneliness: A Beast? A Burden? A Beast of Burden?

  1. Lynn Treas says:

    This sounds like the beginning of a much-needed-in-society book….and so far the best blog you’ve shared with those of us who are fortunate enough to know where to go when resourcing. Loneliness can abandon me when I use shield and armor to conquer and win over it. After the dust has settled total silence is there for me to build upon my present life….purely silence.
    Thanks for this. LGT

    • Drexel Rayford says:

      Lynn, as a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking very seriously about developing a book on this subject. Thanks for the affirmation!

  2. Dallas Norris says:

    my wife of 44 years went to heaven in April last year.
    I also suffered the loneliness monster
    I have chosen to spend more time studing the Word, get more envolved in the community/church, invited those on mission to visit me once a week to share views, invite friends in for a dinner, visit those that can not get out, post each day on facebook to encourage others, starting a class on griet to help others. I call the change in me “my rebirth”, our Lord has given me a new life. I have encouraged others to view the life changing event as a “rebirth” to become a new person, to look forward to the new life, to put the sadness behind them, to look forward to the new life, new friends, etc.
    Dallas Norris
    January 19, 2015

    • Drexel Rayford says:

      Excellent advice, Dallas. Knowing you, it doesn’t surprise me that you’ve made such a positive adjustment to life without Joan with you physically. I’ve seen your posts and you’re an example to others. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Caffienna says:

    Forced or unanticipated isolation is very different from sweet solitude, or some desired sabatical. It is compromizing and even emotionally paralyzing, much more so for the extravert, I think. There is a way out but time itself doesn’t cure anything…….just makes it different. If anyone can adapt and be groovy, it is you. Thank you for continuing to blog, to stay in touch, for being you vs. some plastic version of the former you. Peace and love my brother.

    • Drexel Rayford says:

      And I thank you for the good words. Indeed, for me, the unanticipated isolation felt mighty unfair, which led to my getting hung up on the “why me?” dynamic. That wasn’t very helpful. Anyway, thanks for the encouragement.

  4. janetdeaton says:

    Just a thought – some of the times when I’ve felt lonely in my life have occurred when I’ve been surrounded by people. I guess feeling lonely can occur when you feel like you’re “not on the same page” as others around you, not just when you’re actually alone. Enjoying the blog!

    • Drexel Rayford says:

      You’re right on target, Janet. In fact, feeling that loneliness within a crowd is perhaps more painful than otherwise. I really resonate with what you’re saying about “not being on the same page.” One way that has happened in my life is when I came to some faith conclusions I knew most of my Baptist tribe would have a hard time accepting. Keeping those kinds of things to yourself can really hurt. And finding someone, or a group of persons, who see things the way you do can feel like coming home.

      Anyway, thank you very much for your insights.

  5. Betty Lowry says:

    Steve Booth suggested that I read your article on loneliness. You definitely hit the nail on the head.I think you are writing about me. I have been dealing with loneliness for the last 8 yrs since losing my spouse. I like that you call it a “beast.” It is something that is difficult to share with family and friends. I appreciate your article and agree that you think about writing a book. How would you share with family and friends? How to encourage one’s Christian friends in being sensitive to the loneliness I am experiencing?

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