No person has ever walked our earth and been free from the pains of loneliness. Rich and poor, wise and ignorant, faith-filled and agnostic, healthy and unhealthy have all alike had to face and struggle with its potentially paralyzing grip. It has granted no immunities. To be human is to be lonely.
To be human, however, is also to respond. The human person has always responded to this pain. The response has varied greatly. Sometimes loneliness has led us to new heights of creativity, and sometimes it has led us to drugs, alcohol, and emotional paralysis; sometimes it has led us to the true encounter of love and authentic sexuality, sometimes it has led us into dehumanizing relationships and destructive sexuality; sometimes it has moved us to a greater depth of openness toward God and others, to fuller life, and sometimes it has led us to jump off bridges, to end life; sometimes it has given us a glimpse of heaven, sometimes it has given us a glimpse of hell; sometimes it has made the human spirit, sometimes it has broken it; always it has affected it. For loneliness is one of the deepest, most universal, and most profound experiences that we have.
Even if you are a relatively happy person, a person who relates easily to others and who has many close friends, you are probably still lonely at times. If you are a very sensitive person, who feels things deeply, you are probably, to some degree, lonely all the time.
However, most of us appear reluctant to admit our loneliness, even to ourselves. All of us seem to have a congenital need to deny that we experience loneliness and that it is, in some way, responsible for many of our feelings, actions, and pursuits. We distance ourselves from it, not admitting to ourselves and to others that we are lonely. We admit that we are lonely only with a feeling of shame and weakness. Also, most of us feel that loneliness is not something that should affect normal, healthy persons. We identify it much more with those that our society considers marginal persons, namely, the elderly, the unwanted, the unlovable, the alienated, and those others who for one reason or another seem divorced from the mainstream of life. We never imagine for a moment that we should be subject to intense feelings of loneliness.
Under the surface, though, we are not easily fooled by our own facade of strength. We hurt, and we live in pain, in loneliness, damned loneliness. Unfortunately, too, the cost of our self-deception is high. We pay a heavy price for not admitting our loneliness, facing it squarely, and grappling with it honestly. Loneliness, as we shall see, is most dangerous when it is not recognized, accepted, and worked through creatively. It is then that it wreaks havoc with our lives. Conversely, too, we shall see that it is a tremendously creative and humanizing force when it is recognized and addressed correctly.
THE HIDDEN FACE OF LONELINESS
Despite our denials of loneliness, evidence for it is everywhere. It does not require professional insight, nor much documentation, to affirm the fact that as a society, and as individuals, we are lonely. All we need to do is to look around ourselves, or deeply inside ourselves, to see evidence of loneliness, staggering, painful evidence. For example, even a quick look at the grim statistics that document the use of alcohol, drugs (both hard and soft), the sale of pornographic materials, and the number of suicides tells us that we are a lonely people, living in pain. In our western world, we consume millions of pounds of tranquilizers and barbiturates annually. At the same time each year, we see an increase in the number of persons who are seeking professional counseling, suffering from nervous strain and mental disorders, getting involved in encounter groups, sensitivity groups, religious fads, newer forms of communal and marital living, and promiscuous sexuality.
Granted, all these things are not necessarily indicative of loneliness; other factors are often present. However, loneliness is certainly a large factor in bringing about many of these phenomena.
We see concomitant phenomena in other areas. Over recent decades, we have seen the motif of loneliness emerging more and more within philosophy, art, literature, psychology, and religious and social thought. The so-called pop arts, modern music, movies, literature, popular magazines, and the like have also focused much on loneliness as one of their major and more interesting themes. The prevalence and popularity of this theme in so much recent thought and art suggest that our hearts tend to resonate when we hear talk of loneliness.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is popular music. Music, like other art forms, becomes popular only when it communicates some human experience. The popularity, therefore, of much of our modern rock music, particularly of the poorer variety, is confusing to people who judge music solely by the quality of its melody, harmony, symmetry, and lyrics. Much of our modern rock music, in comparison to classical music, is weak in all these aspects. Yet millions flock to listen to this music, to buy recordings of it. Why? The reason is quite simply that it speaks to people. In some ways, and at various times in our lives, these grinding guitars and booming drums (complete with a writhing singer) capture more explicitly the confusion, the torment, the pain, and the loneliness of our minds than do the symphonies of Beethoven and other such classics. In many ways, the rock music of our age speaks to our culture in the way the blues spoke to the oppressed and enslaved blacks during their days of enslavement. We like a music when "it fits," when it strikes a chord inside us.
Who more acutely symbolizes the pain of our age than the gyrating, writhing rock singer, screaming into an ultrasensitive microphone, nearly drowned out by guitars and drums, trying desperately to communicate, to penetrate someone's ears and heart--if, in no other way, than at least through the sheer force of sound? His records sell because the gyrating and writhing of his music and his body is not unlike our minds and hearts, which also gyrate and writhe as they struggle to communicate, struggle to make contact, struggle to penetrate, struggle to pierce the riddle that separates us from the minds and hearts of others. We, too, are desperately trying to communicate, in whatever fashion possible!
However, even if there were no poets, no artists, no musicians, no professional commentators to point out our loneliness to us, we would still be acutely aware of being lonely; the voice of our heart, most often making itself heard through pain, is more than sufficient to tell us this.
We are many different persons who make up the human race. Regardless of our differences, and regardless of whatever hand of cards life has dealt us, our hearts all speak the same language, the language of love. Part of the language of love, though, is also the language of pain and loneliness. We yearn for full, all-consuming love and ecstatic union with God or with others. Reality, however, does not always deal in dreams and yearnings. Consequently, we go through life experiencing not just love, but frustration, restlessness, tension, and loneliness, as well. In life, all of us are somewhat frustrated in our deep desire to share our being and our richness with others. We live knowing that others do not fully know and understand us and that others can never fully know and understand us, that they are "out there" and we are "in here." St. Paul calls this living as "through a glass, darkly," a riddle, a veil, a mist of unreality that separates us from God and others, and from what is authentically real (1 Cor. 13:12-13).
Our hearts were not built to live as through a "glass, darkly," but to be in consummate union with God and others. And so, as we try to sort our way through the mist of unreality, the riddle of life, our hearts are lonely and, thus, speak to us of not just love, but also of pain. At times, the pain is not so poignant and we feel close to God and others. At other times, the pain becomes unbearable and we are given a foretaste of hell, realizing that loneliness is the ultimate threat, the final terror that can relativize all else. Mostly, though, the pain is tolerable, but nagging: a dissatisfaction with the quality of our life and our relationships to people, a frustration without an object, a yearning without a particular reference, a nostalgia for past moments and friends, a restlessness that prevents us from relaxing and from being present to the moment, a feeling of alienation, a paranoia, a sense of missing out on something, an inexplicable emptiness.
Too often, though, we run from these feelings of loneliness, thinking that there is something wrong with us. We guard our loneliness from others, keeping it private, like an object of shame. Yet other hearts speak the same language as ours. Carl Rogers, psychologist and well-known therapist, once said:
I have most invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal and hence, most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared and expressed, speak most deeply to others.1
Our experience of loneliness is surely such an experience; perhaps the very one that Rogers had most in mind. Loneliness is not a rare and curious phenomenon. It is at the center of every person's ordinary life experience.
We live as through a glass, darkly, in a mist of unreality that keeps our hearts in the pain of unconsummated love. This is the pain of loneliness. We do a lot of daydreaming about fulfillment and, on days when the pain gets bad, perhaps we cry a little. But mostly we are silent, silent about our loneliness and the deep pulses inside us that make our being tick.
AN INTENSIFYING PROBLEM
The problem of loneliness, obviously, is not a new problem, one unique to our age. The human person has always been lonely. However, it is the belief of many that, today, we in our western world are experiencing loneliness with a much greater intensity than ever before. Why? For several interconnected reasons.
First, because of the amount of leisure time that our culture affords us, we have the luxury of being able to focus on our more interpersonal needs. Until recent generations, perhaps up to our own, people simply had less time and energy to spare for their more psychic and spiritual needs. Most of their time and energy had, by necessity, to be spent in long hours of work, often physical and tiring. Many of our parents and grandparents spent much of their time and energies simply surviving, responding to the harsh dictates of their situation in history, coping with the colossal economic depression of recent past decades, struggling as immigrants to be accepted, to learn a new language, to find a decent job, to build and pay for a home, and to educate their family. They labored, often inhumanly, to move themselves from "rags to riches," economically and socially. This consumed most of their time, energy, and creativity.
Today, mainly because of their work, the whole situation is drastically changed. We, their offspring, are born into the affluence and privilege that they worked so hard to create. We no longer need to spend huge chunks of time, energy, and creativity on many of the issues that absorbed them. As a result, given affluence and leisure time, we almost automatically focus more on our psychic and spiritual needs--or we spend a lot of time and money trying to distract ourselves from having to focus on them. We have the luxury, perhaps never before afforded a people, of being able to experience our loneliness in its utmost depth. Leisure time and affluence, because they have taken away from us the need to struggle to survive physically, have helped to throw us back upon ourselves and forced us to search for deeper meaning, interpersonal and spiritual. It has produced, as some would call it, a "higher psychic temperature." This raising of our psychic temperature has allowed for a certain liberation of psychic and spiritual energy, at least potentially so. However, the energy released by affluence and leisure is generally inchoate, not clearly focused, and usually not even explicitly recognized as a positive energy. It is experienced more as a restlessness, a driving force pushing us into things, a loneliness.
In that sense, we are perhaps more lonely and restless than people of past generations. It is no accident, therefore, that we spend billions of dollars on entertainment, on liquor, on restless travel, and on just about anything that promises to give us some respite from our restlessness.
Adding to the buildup of intensity is the fact, well analyzed by sociologists, of the fragmentation of our society. Nineteenth-century sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies analyzed this most succinctly with his famous distinction between a Gemeinschaft and a Gesellschaft society. Formerly we lived in what was largely a Gemeinschaft, a society characterized by the extended family, little impersonality, little privacy, and little mobility, geographical or social. Today we are for the most part in a Gesellschaft, a society characterized by the nuclear family, impersonality, and much mobility. This switch, while it has in many ways provided us with greater freedom to relate to others as we choose, has at the same time, paradoxically, helped generate and intensify loneliness. How? By undercutting much of the interdependence that was foundational for many of our previous relationships. As we become more of a Gesellschaft, we seek our privacy and freedom with a passion, not wanting any interdependence forced upon us. We want to be free to choose the persons with whom we will relate and the depth to which we will relate. Thus, we seek to make all our primary relationships freely chosen ones. So, at marriage, we break away from our own family to try to create our own private, nuclear family. We seek our own private life, with a private house, a private car, a private office, and, not content with that, we want within our home a private room, a private telephone, a private television, and so on. And, once we have attained that and systematically undercut many of our interdependencies with other people, then we wonder why we are lonely. We live in huge cities, among millions of people, and we relate, in a meaningful way, to very few, partly because in so many areas of our lives there is no longer any need to share with others. We seek our privacy and freedom with a righteous zeal, and often intensify our own loneliness as we attain them.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Restless Heart by Ronald Rolheiser. Copyright © 2004 by Ronald Rolheiser. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.