In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen describes the spiritual movement from loneliness to solitude. Loneliness, he says, is a "universal human experience" with deep roots that brings a "pain that is felt where we can hardly allow anyone to enter" and arouses "our basic human fear of being left totally alone with ‘darkness . . . [as our] one companion left' (Psalm 88)." Nouwen contends that while we may desire the free time and space that it takes to look into and understand ourselves, we also fear this freedom, which in turn causes intolerance towards loneliness and makes us looks for solutions outside ourselves.
I have no memory of my parents being together as a married couple. They were unmarried and in their late teens when my older brother was born. They got married, had me a couple of years later, and separated before my first birthday. My dad was my hero, my superman, and I would wait with great anticipation every other weekend when he was supposed to pick my brother and me up. Whatever we did with him on those weekends, whether boring or exciting, he could do no wrong in my eyes because I knew at the core of my being his deep and unconditional love for me. Unfortunately, some of these early moments of joy led to some of my early experiences of pain and loneliness.
I remember one Saturday morning when I was four or five years old, I was eagerly waiting at the front living room window for my dad's arrival, hoping that the next car I saw would be his pulling into the driveway. I can still recall those feeling of excitement as I waited at that window. On this Saturday, however, the moments of waiting seemed to turn to ages, and at one point my mom came in and seemed uncertain whether my dad was coming to get us that day. But I was certain; this was his Saturday. The next car would be his, I was sure of it. As time went on and each car passed by I grew restless and began to waver in my certainty. At some point, my mom finally called my dad and confirmed what I didn't want to hear. He wasn't coming that Saturday. I remember talking to him briefly, but I don't remember his excuse. It didn't matter to me. My young heart was crushed. My dad wasn't going to be there for me that day, and I didn't understand it. Unfortunately, that memory became one of many missed Saturdays with my dad. Loneliness came in a different form in my mom and stepdad's household. While I'm grateful for the many ways they did, in fact, provide for me, from a fairly early age I sensed that all was not well in their marriage. Conflict was a regular occurrence, and peaceful resolution was rare. By the time I was a teenager, they had their hands full, either arguing, devoting time and energy to my little sister who was ten years younger or dealing with my rebellious older brother. I know that we were all trying to love each other and hold things together, but we were all broken people desperately seeking love and validation and unable to give it to each other.
My way of coping with a tension-filled home and dad who struggled to be there was to fly under the radar as much as possible. Stay out of the line of fire. I learned to share as little as possible and to take any harsh, critical words by saying what I needed to say to get out of the situation. The older I got, the more I was checked out at home. While this may have been the easiest way for me to survive, it also brought loneliness, inwardly and outwardly. Emotions began to be hidden and stuffed somewhere deep inside, where I didn't have to feel them. At an early age, I began to escape into a world of fantasy, where I was always special and validated.
As I grew older, my solution lied in the world outside of home and family. I looked for love and validation through superficial friendships and, more importantly, through romantic relationships. That's where I would feel special, and the other would make my loneliness disappear. Unfortunately, I entered into these relationships with what Nouwen calls Messianic expectations, needy and greedy and overly dependent. This only brought more pain as I learned over and over again that no matter how hard the other tried, the deep void that I felt inside could never be filled. The load I brought into these relationships was too much for anyone to handle. The insecurity I tried to hide would only deepen as I grew suspicious and doubtful of the other's love for me and withdrew emotionally, reverting to the fantasy that I could find something or someone better, all the while I waiting for the person I was with to fix things. I was seeking something that no person could provide. What initially looked like the answer eventually turned into a suffocating relationship and, understandably, at some point the other person needed to leave. While at the time I was left feeling hurt, betrayed, and abandoned, I realize now how I was hurting and wounding a lot of people through my loneliness.
Long periods of time when I tried to romanticize the idea of being a recluse were no better. I learned to stay distracted and numb out in other unhealthy ways. In my head, I remained attached to the girlfriend who had left me and was constantly fantasizing about an unrealistic reuniting that I thought would cure my loneliness and pain. To cope during these long periods of reclusiveness I would medicate. For me, this meant constant daydreaming and fantasy, unhealthy amounts of TV, alcohol, and porn. I was lonelier than ever, and the unhealthy coping behaviors brought shame and deepened the insecurities. I knew pain, and a deep void existed below the surface, but I was only aware of it in a hazy way, as I became more and more unknown to myself. God felt far away, as I believed to be loved by him I had to be perfect and my constant failure was a sign that I didn't love him and was unworthy of his love.
I spent the majority of my life trying to run away from loneliness, but Nouwen suggests that when we enter the desert of our loneliness, we have the opportunity to change it by gentle efforts into a garden of solitude and that hidden within our loneliness is an unknown beauty. When we begin to convert our loneliness into solitude, Nouwen believes we create the space where we can start to listen to the inner voice and perhaps there we can heed the advice of poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "‘Do not now seek answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer . . .'"
After a particularly difficult break-up in my early thirties, I reached a point of desperation and knew I needed to do something different. I realized the pain and shame of a lonely and reclusive lifestyle was a slow death and going into another unhealthy relationship with unrealistic expectations was only going to cause more damage to myself and others. Fortunately, this was at a time when I had seen my father go through some years of healthy and transformative recovery work. I reached out to him, and he helped me get in touch with a community of men at his church. For the first time in my life, I discovered what it meant for men to be open, honest, real, and vulnerable with each other. I made some friends who weren't trying to fix me but were willing to share their own stories and brokenness in a way that helped me get in touch with my own story and brokenness. This was a challenging time in my life, and there was a lot of stumbling and grumbling along the way, but this was the beginning of my movement from loneliness to solitude. For the first time in my life being alone didn't own me. Though there are still many questions that remain unanswered and I often still find the inward confusion overwhelming and want to run away from it, the beginning of my solitude has helped me to slowly get in touch with the pain that exists below the surface, through both quiet moments and healthy interactions with others, and to find there some hidden beauty. It is the beauty of discovering my yearning for the loving God who desires to embrace me. As I continue my journey, when I don't run away from my loneliness and allow myself to experience the restlessness, I can pray the words of the following poem by Hafiz:
Don't surrender your loneliness so quickly
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft
My need of God absolutely clear.