Loneliness: A Friend in
You don't have to be jilted to experience loneliness. But if you are jilted, as we saw in the last chapter, you experience loneliness as a physical and psychic pain. It leaves you exhausted, despairing of life, yourself, others and maybe of God also.
You don't have to be a teenager to experience loneliness. But adolescence and young adulthood, as everyone knows, are the notorious peak periods when loneliness invades the spirit as surreptitiously as a deadly disease enters the bloodstream. This malignancy seems to thrive inside you, but it saps your energy, paralyses you and leaves you crippled with fear: the fear of becoming a fringe person instead of one of the 'in crowd'; the fear of taking the risk of giving yourself to others or receiving any of the warmth they offer; above all, the fear that you really don't matter to anyone; that you do not have access to the personal resources to 'make it' into adulthood.
Graham Kendrick puts the germs of this dread in a heartrending song:
Scared to be weak, scared to be strong
Scared to be right and scared to be wrong
Scared to death, scared of life
Scared to run, scared to fight
Scared the world might find out what you're like
For you doubt if they'd love you for just who you are
Oh does anybody love you for just who you are? ...
Scared to be you, scared to be loved
Acting the part and frightened to stop
For you doubt if they'd love you for just who you are
Oh does anybody love you for just who you are? . . .
Scared to believe, frightened to doubt
Scared to come in and scared to stay out
For you doubt if they'd love you for just who you are,
Oh does anybody love you for just who you are?
(Breaking of the Dawn)
You don't have to be young to be lonely. You can be becalmed (rendered motionless) by loneliness at any stage of your life, during any phase of your career. Loneliness assaults rich and poor alike, young and old alike, drop-outs and high-fliers alike. But loneliness, as I said, attaches itself like a shadow to the under thirties, and particularly to people falling in and out of love. That is why I propose to devote a whole chapter to loneliness.
The condition called loneliness gives rise to certain questions: What is loneliness? Why do we feel lonely? What can we do when it takes the wind out of our sails? Why does this chapter heading claim it is a friend in disguise?
What is loneliness?
When we understand a certain phenomenon, it helps us to handle it. The first thing we must do, therefore, is to clarify what loneliness is and what it is not.
Billy Graham calls loneliness a problem. In fact, he claims that loneliness is the greatest problem facing mankind today. Mother Teresa of Calcutta also sees it as a heart-hunger and claims that it is easier to relieve material poverty than this poverty of soul. Jesus experienced loneliness as a weight, a whole load of sorrow to be shifted. In Gethsemane, as we shall see later, he demonstrates how this sorrow can be disposed of.
It sometimes seems as though successful people are more susceptible to loneliness than others. Albert Einstein is supposed
to have written to a friend on one occasion, 'It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.' Joan Crawford, the film actress, ended her own life: 'Lonely, bitter, reclusive,' the newspaper story described her. When Barbara Hutton, the multi-millionairess, died, the newspapers announced her death with this headline: 'Hutton spent life fleeing from loneliness'.1
Christian executives and entertainers, writers and preachers, do not escape this same feeling of loneliness. Monday mornings, for example, frequently brought with them the sting of loneliness for the great preachers such as Charles Spurgeon. Martin Luther, it is said, often sobbed himself to sleep like a child. More recently, David Watson, in his bestselling book You are My God, makes no secret of the fact that success, even in a Christian context, brings its own brand of loneliness. Loneliness is the gulf between who you are and who others think you are. It is the gap between what you can realistically do under God and what others expect of you. Loneliness is sitting on a pedestal surrounded by adulating admirers; alone.
Loneliness is a feeling: or, more accurately, a jumble of feelings. It is the feeling that you matter to people, not for who you are, but for what you can do. For some, it goes deeper than that: it is the anxiety that you do not matter at all. If you died tomorrow, no-one would even notice, let alone care. It is a feeling of alienation. It is a feeling of being cut off by others. It is feeling that no-one is even aware of your heart hunger, your need for care, love and support. Loneliness comes through loss, through displacement: the feeling that you have ceased to be important to a particular person or body of people. Loneliness attacks the senses so that you feel isolated from your peers. You seem to be rejected, estranged, abandoned, you believe that nowhere are you fully understood.
We must not ignore this bleak side of the two-sided coin of loneliness. But neither must we forget to flip the coin over; to examine its other face. If we do neglect the friendly face of loneliness, we become self-pitying bores, we lose our attractiveness, we may even lose the few friends we have.
The friendly faces of loneliness
I do not write that observation lightly. As I write this chapter I am just emerging from a particularly painful phase of loneliness. A month ago I caught a mysterious virus. It seemed to drain me of my last ounce of energy and forced me to spend hours on my own. In retrospect, I am glad because it means that what I write here about the friendly face of loneliness is born from the immediacy of experience. Far from being glib or distanced, though I fear that anything written about loneliness does read that way, it is born from the authenticity of the recent bitter-sweet experience.
One lesson I have learned during this fallow time is that loneliness is a language which, like all languages, is capable of conveying messages. The message loneliness wants to etch on our hearts is the message which runs through this entire book. We need to be loved. We need the love of friends. We need the love of God.
I know this is obvious, but just as we take green fields and white lilac for granted until we move from the countryside into a flat in the city's concrete jungle, so we take love for granted until an emptiness yawns somewhere deep down inside us. That gaping inner emptiness can be one of the friendly faces of loneliness if we will listen to its message: Your need for love is urgent.
Most of us work hard at papering over the cracks caused by loneliness. We over-work to beguile the world and ourselves into believing that all is well. We flit from one superficial social engagement to another to give the impression that we are popular, though deep down we know that this is compounding the loneliness problem, not solving it. We clutter ourselves with spiritual paraphernalia and rush from this service to that rally, from this Bible study to that prayer meeting in an attempt to present to the watching world an image which, alas, does not stand the test of time. And the inner bleep of loneliness refuses to be silenced. It brings us face to face with reality: not the personal success-story we project to the world, but the true situation: our inner poverty. Thus loneliness is the friend in disguise who brings us face to face with the truth: Your loneliness is a breakdown of
trust. You have been neglecting to trust God for the present; falling to place your future in his care.
Loneliness sometimes behaves like a friendly wind. It demolishes the fences we erect when we attempt to live self-sufficient lives. It leaves us exposed, not to inflict on us more hurt but to provide an access through which healing and hope may enter.
Why do we feel lonely?
This pathway to healing must always be kept clear because, important as friends are to our well-being, the day will almost certainly come when they let us down; when those who say we matter to them fail to detect our need; when even those closest to us seem too preoccupied with their own affairs to stand alongside us in a time of blackness or despair. On such occasions loneliness can take on terrifying proportions. Jesus experienced the horror of this kind of loneliness and he showed us how to deal with it.
Think for a moment of the events immediately preceding Jesus' anguish in Gethsemane. He had dined with his twelve companions for the last time. He has walked with them through the cypress groves. He has unburdened his soul to his three closest friends, confessing, 'The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me' (Mark 14:34 GNB). He has begged for their support and care. 'Stay here and keep watch' (Mark 13:34 GNB). And the disciples fall asleep.
But Jesus does not rail at the fickleness of friends, nor lament that even the richest friendships are fragile. Instead he turns to the Friend, his Father. In his Father's presence he finds peace, strength and the courage to go on.
Peace, shalom, means, among other things, joy in God, being in tune with him, and rooted in his unfailing love. Jesus triumphed over loneliness by dropping anchor into the haven of God's presence. Just as he did this at the height of his loneliness, in the Garden of Gethsemane, we must learn to do the same at all times. This is what turns the trauma of loneliness into the bliss of solitude.
In other words, like Jesus, we must cultivate an accurate awareness of the inestimable value of friends without exalting
the gift of human friendship. We must hold in tension the twin realizations: that human friendship does offer healing but that on this alone we must not depend. Our dependency must rest on God.
What this means in practice, I believe, is that, when we find ourselves aching with loneliness, maybe even bursting into tears at odd times of the day and for no apparent reason, too fearful to pick up the phone to talk to a friend, instead of being persuaded that nobody cares, we creep into the refuge of the presence of God. In that place of tested security, we expose our fear, give voice to our inability to cope with the disappointment life offers day after day and stay there until it is no longer me revealing my emptiness to God, but rather God who reveals his supportive love to me.
I do not know who 'Elizabeth' is. What I do know is that 'Elizabeth' has experienced just what I am trying to describe. She has expressed it in a poem which never fails to move me.
The enshrouding blackness
engulfs my being.
My mind a whirlpool
towards an eternity of intolerable pain.
I used to reach out
into the black unknown
But my soul was torn from me,
and I hoped no more.
It was like a pit.
My tears the only sound
in the impenetrable darkness.
I remember that pit,
and the fear,
and the hopelessness
of an eternal agony of mind,
and the soulless wandering
in uncharted desert.
Now I find myself at this oasis,
this unlooked-for harbour,
I did not deserve that gracious act
to pluck me from that all-powerful deep.
I had no hope,
but turning back along the path I came,
I see a gracious hand
and a loving smile.
I see a guiding light
and feel a protecting wing.
Nestling in your warmth
my cold heart had thawed.
The blackness of my soul
has blossomed into a million blooms.
My tears have turned to jewels,
and my bitterness to honey.
But I remember the pit.
Keep me, O Lord,
in the refuge of your wings.2
The Friend beyond all
It is not friendship with human friends which affords this security. No. At some time or another, friends will fail us because we will come lower on their lists of priorities than our pressing needs can tolerate. Our friendship with Jesus can truly meet us in this exile. This is the other half of the
messages of this book. As humans we cannot exist without love. We need the love of friends. We also need the consoling friendship of Jesus.
Thomas a Kempis put this in a memorable way:
When Jesus is present all is well and nothing seems difficult. When Jesus is absent all is hard. When Jesus does not speak within, comfort is worthless. Yet if Jesus speaks but a single word, great comfort is felt. Did not Mary ... rise at once from the place in which she was weeping, when Martha said to her, "The Master is here and calls you?" Happy hour is when Jesus calls the spirit from tears to gladness. How dry and hard you are without Jesus: how foolish and empty if you desire anything apart from Jesus..... To be without Jesus is a bitter underworld: and to be with Jesus, a sweet paradise....
You cannot very well live without friends, and if Jesus is not our friend beyond all, you will be exceedingly sad and lonely.... Therefore of all dear ones let Jesus alone be specially loved.3
Friendship with Jesus
Friendship with Jesus is intimacy. It is availability. And it is constancy. Jesus' offer of friendship means that we shall, never, ever, be alone again. We may feel alone but our feelings mislead us. Jesus is at pains to assure us of this fact. Other friends depart. He will not: ' "You will not be left all alone; I will come back to you" ' (John 14:18 GNB). 'God has said, "I will never leave you; I will never abandon you." Let us be bold, then, and say, "The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?" ' (Hebrews 13:5-6 GNB). 'Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. See, I have branded you on the palms of my hands' (Isaiah 4:15-16 JB).
What this means, in effect, is that whenever the storm of loneliness threatens to drown us, we can place our hand in the hand of the God who dwells within: the constant, caring companion Jesus. There will never come a time when his
rescue bid is not on hand. For Jesus' involvement in our lives is likened, in the New Testament, to the commitment of marriage. Jesus is the heavenly bridegroom. We are his bride. He wants us to relate to him in the confidence that his love is faithful, unending, permanent.
Amazing though that dimension of love is, perhaps the most special ingredient of Jesus' love is that in this friendship we return, not simply to a tributary of love, we return to the pure source of all love and of our own existence also. To return to this source is deeply consoling.
We see this in nature. In spring, if you walk through a field where lambs and sheep graze side by side, you will find that the very sight of a person will send the lambs scampering to their mother. They will snuggle into her, suckle and stay close to her side until the danger has passed. The friendship Jesus offers is similar though even more secure. When loneliness bears down on us, he is our hiding place. There is no safer refuge in the universe than sheltering under the shadow of his wings.
Steps out of loneliness
Since the friendship and support Jesus offers is constant, as Christians we need never be lonely. Jesus' day-and-night availability calls us from our loneliness. Even so, as I explained at the beginning of this chapter, many Christians are plagued by loneliness. It therefore seems essential further to explore how the desert of loneliness can be transformed; how aloneness can become the solitude where we are recreated.
If this is to happen, one of the first things we must do is to take the risk of responding to the love of Jesus I have just described. In practice this means exposing our loneliness to God's gaze, committing the pain of our loneliness to him and taking the leap of faith so that we land in the arms of God.
We must also reject the suggestion that aloneness necessarily spells loneliness. We do not have to suffer whenever we are by ourselves. With this realization in the forefront of our mind, we may experiment. Rather than
running away from our own company, we will carve out time when, like Mary of Bethany, we can 'just be' alone with Jesus. I am not talking here about our daily times of quiet with God. I am recommending some added extras: leisure time deliberately earmarked 'Aloneness' when we seek to discover for ourselves that solitude can be creative; where we seek the realization that the space inside us is the dwelling place of the most high God who converts man's emptiness into fullness.
If you take time to do this, you will discover that in prayer you do not simply cry, 'Help!' you will know yourself helped. You will not simply ask: you will receive. You will not simply talk. You will know yourself heard, held together and healed.4
God is always calling us to trust. And, as we have seen, loneliness is the failure to trust. God calls us from this form of loneliness. He asks us to fix our eyes, not on the storm within but on him. You may feel your ability to trust is no bigger than a mustard seed. Never mind. Invest that in the Bank of Heaven. Without such trust it is impossible to please him. Without such trust we become estranged from him. Without such minimal trust we never enjoy the dividends he so generously provides. And remember that true trust exists even when there seem to be no concrete reasons for hope.
Believe facts not feelings
Loneliness, as we have observed, is a feeling: a deep 'gut-feeling', but a feeling nevertheless. The problem with feelings is that they masquerade as facts. If I feel abandoned or rejected or estranged or isolated or cut off, therefore, I am quickly persuaded that someone somewhere has cast me on one side, rejected me or neglected me. This may or may not be true of our human friends. But it certainly is not true of our heavenly Friend. The fact of the matter is that we are not totally abandoned, no matter what our feelings may dictate to the contrary. In fact, we are uniquely loved by God. These facts must be kept in razor-sharp perspective and placed
alongside the fuzziness of our feelings. We must go further and give thanks to God that these are facts.
When we do this, we find our pace quickening. Our hearts will be so full of gratitude, so full of God's love, that we will find ourselves capable of shedding the unrealistic and demanding expectations we had placed on others when we considered that they were responsible for alleviating our loneliness, that they held the key to our deep-seated needs being met. Gradually the realization dawns upon us that that telephone call which we hoped would come is not the full answer to our loneliness problem. Neither is that much-longed-for letter. Neither is the forging of that particular much-fancied friendship. No. These things are peripheral. The solution to the loneliness problem is found only in friendship with Jesus. Look elsewhere and you run headlong into disappointment, if not despair.
Be a good friend
I am not backtracking. I am not cancelling out the earlier chapters of this book where I emphasized our need for human friendship. I am saying that, although we need close one-to-one friendships, we also need an intimate relationship with Jesus; that certain love-needs can be met only in the divine embrace; that loneliness is the friend in disguise who throws us into the arms of Christ.
If you think about it, it makes sense. If you know yourself deeply loved by someone who will never let you down, fail you or phase out of your life, you are rich in resources. This means that you do not spend your life searching for love. You have found it. From the fullness of your inner resources, that inner space where God not only dwells but reigns, you are capable of giving to others.
On several occasions God seems to have underlined, for me, that such self-giving is, in fact, one way out of loneliness. Two such occasions spring to mind.
The first happened several years ago when, exhausted after a draining spell of ministry in the parish, culminating in
a week-end conference where loneliness struck me like a slap in the face, I complained to God and to a friend who is a bishop: 'I'm finished. I just cannot go on like this.'
My friend listened: carefully, caringly. When my bitter saga ceased, he closed his eyes and I knew he was praying. A few minutes later, to my consternation and utter fury, he said: 'I believe you have simply to carry on as you are. Didn't Jesus say, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish the work he gave me to do"? Your work is not finished yet. You must go back and serve others.'
For a couple of hours after that encounter, I remember tramping the hills of Derbyshire, railing at God, telling him it simply was not fair. But I went back, as instructed. Within minutes of my arrival home the 'phone rang. A person in considerable need was asking for help. When they came to see me, I found myself being fed, refreshed, renewed and supported by God. I began to learn that day that you cannot outgive God, neither can you waste love.
In the middle of writing this chapter, a similar thing happened. I have been plagued by loneliness, as I admitted earlier. Halfway through this chapter, the all-too-familiar waves began to sweep over me again. My neighbour, I knew, had just failed her driving test. She was miserable. 'It's terrible being a failure. It claws at your inside somehow.' I decided to pop in to see her. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea. She poured out the problems of her ghastly day: the test, the traffic jams, the dreaded news: 'Failed'. In listening to her woes, my loneliness disappeared. Another lesson was reinforced. Love is not dissipated when it is given away. It is replenished. If you want to find your way out of the maze of loneliness, therefore, you must give love. If you want a good friend, you must be alone.
Enjoy the present
I am not pretending that this route out of loneliness is easy. I am claiming that it is well-tried and possible. In addition to taking the risk of faith, responding to the love of God, keeping
your feet on the rock-solid truth that you are not a castoff, and reaching out to others, you can apply yourself continuously to that art I mentioned earlier: cultivating creative solitude.
One way to do this is to place high value on the present: to refuse to live mainly in the future. Loneliness holds us in a vice-like grip when certain uncertainties pound through our brain relentlessly: 'Will God ever send a marriage partner?" In these days of high unemployment, will there ever be a niche for me? 'How will I detect God's guidance when it does come?' We worry. We chafe. We sink into the slough of loneliness and the richness of 'the now' passes us by. Indeed 'the now' bears no more relevance to our lives than the countryside we zoom past on a journey in a super-fast Intercity train.
This neglect of 'the now' presses on our existential loneliness and accentuates it. When we discover that the present moment is full of potential beauty, full of potential and profound pleasure, the pressure of loneliness is somehow relieved.
If you are reading this chapter because you, yourself, are searching for an exit from loneliness, try an experiment. Choose a favourite record or cassette (or CD). Play it, not as background music but as an unashamed activity: listening is an activity. Sit down. Concentrate fully on the music. Relish it. Enjoy it to the full.
Or choose one of your favourite pictures or posters. Really look at it: the colours, the texture, the hidden depths. Enjoy it. Or take a walk round your garden or a park, stop to smell the flowers. Touch them. Savour their delicate shades. Live each moment to the full like this, and loneliness creeps out of the back door while you are preoccupied with such satisfying pastimes.
I sometimes wonder whether this was what God was encouraging Job to do when he asked a string of questions: 'Has the rain a father? Who begets the dewdrops? What womb brings forth the ice, and gives birth to the frost of heaven, when the
waters grow hard as stone and the surface of the deep congeals? Can you fasten the harness of the Pleiades, or untie Orion's bands? ... Are you the one who makes the horse so brave and covers his neck with flowing hair? Do you make him leap like a grasshopper? (Job 38:28-31; 39:19-20 JB).
I do not know what was in the mind of God. What I do know is that the therapy worked. As God encouraged Job to turn from his own inner confusion to contemplate nature, significant change took place. William Hulme puts it well: 'By turning his attention from his own misery to the marvels of a nature, Job's mind became open to the Spirit of God. Through contemplating the fascinating variety within creation, he became reconciled to the Creator and received peace.'5
Steeped in the world of nature, you find the courage to open parts of yourself which must remain tightly closed in the brashness of the city. Speaking personally, the therapy which worked for Job works for me also. The countryside where God's grandeur flames out6 provides, not just peace, but healing.
Pray the Psalms
I am not advocating a denial of our feelings of loneliness. We may bump into them often. What I am suggesting is that we recognize the inner pangs of loneliness, but rather than capitulating to their demands, we press on. One way to do this is to pray the Psalms. The psalmist experienced these feelings we have described and is therefore capable of identifying with our hidden longings and sighs. But a psalm rarely begins and ends with trouble. It often begins with expressed sorrow, but by the time the psalmist has finished, it is relief, even joy that he is experiencing.
Take Psalm 42, for example. The loneliness of the first three verses gives way to hope. Before the psalm ends hope has spawned confidence, even joy. Turn to this psalm when loneliness clutches at your spirit. Or use Psalm 91 or Psalm 71 or Psalm 22 as a basis for your prayers.
As we take these positive steps from loneliness to the creativeness of solitude we are not unlike children exploring
the Adventure Playground at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. The course begins with a tunnel to crawl through. It continues with all manner of chutes and swings. You will often watch children, grim-faced and fearful, begin the initial tunnel crawl. Those same children will be full of smiles by the time they have completed the assignment.
The promise to us is somewhat similar. 'Your sorrow shall be turned to joy.' This joy is not dependent on emerging from the tunnel, though, as I have emphasized, we must work hard at doing that. No. The joy is dependent on being discovered by Jesus at every stage of the journey. And for those of us who are prone to loneliness, the Bible affords great comfort. It is full of examples of God, not ignoring man's loneliness, but touching him in the middle of it. I think of Elijah who, in the middle of his loneliness, was recommissioned by God. I think of Moses who, in the middle of his loneliness, heard the divine call. I think of Naomi who, in the middle of her loneliness, discovered that she was not forsaken by God, but chosen and blessed by him. And we think, supremely, of Jesus who sought solitude, who showed us that, if we are to be effective for God in the market place, we must find God in the secret space of our own hearts also.
While I have been writing this chapter, a hymn of Charles Wesley's has been running through my mind. You might like to use it when you feel lonely:
Jesu, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll.
While the tempest still is high;
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last!
Other refuge have I none;
Hangs my helpless soul on thee:
Leave, ah! leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on thee is stay'd,
All my help from thee I bring:
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of thy wing!
Notes for chapter nine
1. All four quotations from Nicky Cruz, Lonely but never Alone (Pickering and Inglis, 1981), pp. 69-72.
2. Elizabeth, quoted by David Atkinson in The Message of Ruth: The Wings of Refuge (IVP, 1983). pp. 29-30.
3. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Lakeland, 1979), pp.61-62.
4. For a fuller discussion of how to enter into this kind of stillness with God, see Growing in Freedom by Joyce Huggett (IVP, 1984).
5. William E. Hulme, Creative Loneliness (Lakeland, 1979), p. 46.
6. Gerard Manley Hopkins' phrase.
Chapter Ten || Table of Contents