Healing Loneliness

a sermon by Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton,
September 19,2012

Some years ago I asked for advice about how to approach this topic.  One reply was particularity poignant

Dear Brian,
Considering ‘loneliness’ I wondered if you would like some thoughts from an expert?

Your comment that there is a great gulf between being alone and being lonely (is true). In fact, they aren’t even related. A person can be alone without being lonely; they can be miserably lonely and still not be alone. Alone is a state of the body; lonely is a state of the heart.

Alone is, very often, something that one chooses for oneself. It is peace and quiet, a time for contemplation and introspection, a regrouping of inner resources.

Loneliness is a craving of the spirit for connection. When it happens in conjunction with ‘alone’, the result is devastating. Loneliness comes about because of a need to express to another the joy and wonder at the good things that happen during each day, and to lighten by sharing the burden of the not-so-good things. It is a need to be touched so you know you’re alive and to be acknowledged so you know you’re real. Loneliness is a need for someone to hold special who in turn treats you as if you are special to them. Loneliness is an empty depression of the soul that can’t be alleviated by self-talk (such as ‘get over it’, ‘pull up your socks’, ‘this is temporary – hang in there’).”

I was deeply moved when I read this letter. I am not a man who has spent a lot of time alone, meaning I have spent more of my life in some kind of shared living relationship than out. I don’t think I have lived completely alone for more than six months at a time. Still, loneliness has not been a stranger. As my correspondent noted, alone and lonely are not the same.

There is nothing wrong with being alone. There are many people, especially some older women – not all, who seem to prefer the solitude of living alone. I sometimes wonder if their solitude is not a reward of a sort for the years of devoted mothering and partnering that may have asked them to give more than they easily could. It might be that raising families asks some women to do some deficit spending from their solitude banks, and that the choice to live alone in their senior years is a repayment of that long-standing debt.

I can’t help remembering the observation of a friend who after a year in Greece speculated that the happiest women in the villages always seemed to be the black-kerchiefed widows. There is a heady sense of freedom available to those who live alone. Many prefer it.

But living alone does not mean being lonely. Oh sure, there are lonely moments, just as there are lonely moments for those with partners and families. It may be as our author suggested that alone and lonely are a doubly devastating combination. But I have noticed that those who choose to live alone avoid the crushing effects of loneliness by cultivating a few close friends, keeping in touch with children and grandchildren, becoming active as volunteers or part of a social group and so on.

No, loneliness can affect anyone. Even in relationship, there have been moments, most often late at night, when its demons have plagued my spirit. It felt as if even the parents, friends and lovers who cared about me didn’t really understand who I was or what I wanted. And what was hardest, in retrospect, was that either I could not find the words- or the courage- to tell them about those deepest needs and feelings, or they did not really want to hear them. As my writer says loneliness is ‘craving of the spirit for connection,’ but sometimes people don’t want to connect with us on our timetable or in our preferred way. This can make us feel ‘lonely in a crowd.’ There are few greater hungers in human experience.

Several years ago, Thomas Moore wrote Care of the Soul. Moore is a former priest and current psychotherapist, but his approach to living is different from most therapies. Like our anonymous writer, he argues that the complaints we make, including those about loneliness, are symptoms of soul pain, and that instead of dealing with the symptoms one by one, we should start at the center, at the soul and work outwards. Moore suggests that the desire for community, the desire to end loneliness is soul work of the highest order.

One of the strongest needs of the soul is for community…Soul yearns for attachment, for variety in personality, for intimacy and particularity. So it is these qualities in community the soul seeks out – not like-mindedness and uniformity.

We long for true intimacy, to have another know us and support us and lean on us. We desire a real connection, but it’s so very hard to create and maintain, partly because true intimacy is scary. True intimacy knows few limits, few boundaries, and that gives us pause.

We humans are paradoxical creatures. We say we want life to be a certain way, but aren’t willing to do what we must to make it so. We long for connection and intimacy but demand degrees of independence and privacy.

On the one hand we are communal creatures. We live in a web of interdependence with one another. Few of us are truly self-sufficient. We need work partners and housemates. We need family and friends. We live in communities and share workloads. Most of us even dream of a soul-mate of some sort to whom we can unburden ourselves in times of stress, and with whom we can share ordinariness in times of calm. We are by nature storytellers who must recount our days and our lives in order to make sense of them. For this we need listeners…but listeners who are genuinely interested in us as people.

On the other hand, we are also solitary figures, physically independent of one another and ultimately and finally alone with our thoughts. There is so much that goes on inside each one of us, so much that we could never communicate to another even if we wanted to do so. I suspect I am not alone in wanting to preserve a little of my mystery, to keep my few secrets to myself. I think we all have parts of ourselves we would prefer to keep private.

At some level we are unknowable to others, solitary figures. The sum of our essential selves will never be shared or communicated, only parts of the whole.

The most intimate dimensions of our beings need solitude and the safety of privacy. The most social dimensions of our beings need sharing and contact and even love. It is a difficult balancing act. Loneliness is the result of balancing too far into privacy and independence. Loss of self and identity results from overbalancing into connection. Both possibilities can be frightening. There are some who see the ache of loneliness simply as the price of emotional safety.

It is easy to look at loneliness as something inflicted upon us by a cruel and unfeeling world. If we are alone and lonely, it is easy to fall into the self-pitying feeling that we have been mistreated by the universe, that it is our fate to never meet someone with whom we can bond. But that empty and frustrating feeling may be the fault of our need for solitude and protection working overtime. Many of us have more say in our loneliness than we think.

Thomas Moore suggests that because of our need for some protection, we build walls that block us from participating in true community. He tells a story of a woman who was always busy, always helpful and had many friends, but who in the night often couldn’t sleep because of the racking pain of her loneliness. He believed that she had a highly structured idea of what deep friendships should be, with very carefully devised and overly moralistic standards. Because no one ever quite measured up – could never measure up, really – she never let her guard down. She was so in love with her idea of perfect friendship that she never allowed herself to experience one for fear it would not meet her expectations.

Loneliness is at least partly a function of past hurts and slights. Every person experiences pain or betrayal. Whether it was an abusive parent, a lover who hurt us badly or a friend who betrayed us, we have all experienced these battering rejections and destruction of trust. No one likes being hurt. So we learn wariness and caution. We become a little more careful about our friendships each time we get zinged. Even those of us who seem to form one bad relationship after another build a gradually hardening shell until one day this intimacy stuff loses its attraction. For a while we are fine on our own, maybe even feel free, until the demons find us.

Loneliness is the price of being safe from emotional hurt. It is the tax for living behind walls. Some of us chose to erect those walls. Others had them built for them by natural disaster, sexual abuse, violent crime, illness or deformity. My heart goes out to those who have been forced behind walls by unfeeling or even evil people.

Well, if loneliness is a result of tipping the scales (or having them tipped for us) too far onto the side of privacy and self-protection, how can we restore the balance? How do we become un-lonely? Moore says this is the wrong question. This is soul work , and soul work is not about addressing the symptom, but about attending to our whole selves through attending to the needs of the soul.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a family woman who also loved her solitude said much the same thing when she concluded that the difference between chosen solitude and loneliness lies in self-awareness:

“When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover.”

We first have to make peace with ourselves, learn to like ourselves, befriend ourselves before we can build real and intimate connections with others. This is no small task, but it is an important one.

So what do we do if we are plagued by the demon loneliness? ‘Lonely’ is a continuum of feeling and depression. Sometimes it is an aching in the night that passes with the sunrise. We can often talk ourselves out of that and ease the feelings by going out and being with people.

Thomas Moore writes, “A person oppressed by loneliness can go out in the world and simply start belonging to it, not by joining organizations, but by living through feelings of relatedness – to other people, to nature, to society, and to the world as a whole.”

Our writer acknowledged that some loneliness is a depression beyond our ability to order ourselves to ‘get over it’.

Those more deeply affected may benefit from a healing serv9ice such as this, or by connection with a therapist, life coach or even a minister. That lonely feeling can often hide a fairly easily removed self-built wall. The wall is strong enough that simply being with people can’t bridge it, but having a deeper conversation with a good listener about feelings sometimes can. I have often found talking to a therapist helps. Saying the words, sharing the pain makes me feel not so very alone anymore, and often what comes back helps me regain balance and insight. It may not work for everyone, but it can help a great many. The problem, is that real connection involves emotional risk. As Ficinio wrote, “The one guardian of life is love, but to be loved you must love.” And that is risky. Starting with a listening professional can minimize the risk.

There is one last alternative I would suggest, and it may sound strange coming from a Unitarian Universalist minister. You could try praying. I have spoken of this before. The act of praying might reach the ears of some external god, but that is not so important. The act of praying or meditating reaches deep inside us to a very deep source of strength and wisdom. It can sweep one up and bathe them in healing energy.

That kind of activity is soul work, for it attends to the whole self instead of the symptoms. Meditation and prayer and embracing a healing practice are great gifts to our solitary selves. They can be a self-blessing, an act of acknowledging ourselves as hurting beings without being self-pitying about it. Try it. If you don’t know how, talk to me.

Loneliness is a fact of life. We will each experience it from time to time, and that’s fine. If nothing else it reminds us of our need for connection, and sometimes points out to those of us in relationship that we need to keep that connection in tune. Without the sad we can’t appreciate the happy.

But when loneliness becomes a constant companion, it is calling us to look deeper inside, calling us to work on tearing down the walls that isolate us, whether self-built or outwardly imposed. In order to be loved, we must find ways to love. In order to find engagement, we must find ways to engage. The first step, is to go inside our walls inside ourselves and tend to our soul work. If we do this the soul warms and grows until it expands through and beyond our suffocating walls of loneliness. Then can we start building the bridge towards others.