Monday, February 18

The Cure for Loneliness

Have you ever been in a crowd - maybe at a party or even at church - and felt completely alone? Do you ever feel like holidays are a whirlwind of activity and people and yet leave you feeling empty and wishing for something more?

Last week we celebrated Valentine's Day. For many, Valentine's Day is a day for romance and love and chocolate. For others, it is S.A.D. or "Singleness Awareness Day." Instead of being a day filled with warm, fuzzy feelings, it's a day of loneliness and isolation.

Loneliness is something we all experience at times. It's something we try hard to avoid. We often feel if we're with people it will help. And so we seek romantic relationships thinking the one will be with us forever and take away the pain of loneliness. Or we try to connect with friends thinking if we find people we can share life with we'll feel a sense of belonging and the loneliness will fade. For others busyness, work, sports, drugs, religion, alcohol or any number of other things become the antidote to the feelings of loneliness that plague them.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes:
There is much mental suffering in our world. But some of it is suffering for the wrong reason because it is born out of the false expectation that we are called to take each other's loneliness away. When our loneliness drives us away from ourselves into the arms of our companions in life, we are, in fact, driving ourselves into excruciating relationships, tiring friendships and suffocating embraces...No friend or lover, no  husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness...As long as our loneliness brings us together with the hope that together we no longer will be alone, we castigate each other with our unfulfilled and unrealistic desires for oneness, inner tranquility and the uninterrupted experience of communion (30-31).
Read: Psalm 139:7-18
7   Where can I go from you Spirit?
       Where can I flee from your presence?
8   If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
       if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9   If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
       if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
       your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
       and the light become night around me,"
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
       the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
       you knit me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
       your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
       when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
       all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of
       them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
       How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
       they would outnumber the grains of sand -
       when I awake, I am still with you.

So what is the cure for loneliness? If marriage or friendships or work or some other thing I choose to fill my time still leaves me with this gnawing hole and a seemingly insatiable appetite for something more, what will fill that void?

The answer might surprise you. Nouwen writes, "This difficult road is the road of conversion, the conversion from loneliness into solitude. Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude" (34).

Nouwen suggests that spending time alone in solitude allows us to discover that when we are alone, we are not really alone. There is someone who knows us because He made us; someone whom we cannot flee; someone who is closer than a brother. And that Someone, who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves; loves us with a never-ending love.

If we will enter into the place of solitude - a place of inner solitude, not necessarily physical solitude - and create space for our Heavenly Father to meet us there, we will begin to find the satisfaction our hearts crave. We will begin to be transformed. We will leave behind loneliness and discover a peace and a presence that satisfy our deepest longings.

And from that place of deep connection, we will have something different to offer those around us. Instead of fearful responses to people around us; instead of posturing or manipulation...we will be able to respond with love and compassion. We will be able to be silent when before we would have been compelled to speak and draw attention to ourselves. We will find ourselves being transformed into new people with so much more to offer to those around us because we will be filled with so much more of God's loving presence.

Solitude can be a scary thing. When we seek to be alone with God and simply be in his presence our minds race with a million thoughts of things we ought to be doing. Perhaps in those instances we need to hear Jesus' words to Mary that only one thing is needed just then...and ask for the courage to sit at our Savior's feet to enjoy the better thing.

Find a quiet spot, as free from distractions as possible. Take a few deep breaths. Invite God to come and make you aware of his presence. Sit quietly for a few minutes enjoying the silence, solitude and presence of your Father who loves you.

Set an alarm for anywhere from five to twenty or thirty minutes depending on how much time you have and how comfortable you are with time in silence and solitude. Start small and build up the time. There is no agenda. Simply be in God's presence. It's ok if your mind wanders. When you become aware of this use a prayerful word or phrase to draw your mind back.

When your time is finished, thank God for his loving presence and ask him to help you sense it throughout the day. It is often a good time to read a passage in the Bible at that point as your heart and mind are already turned toward God.

The blessing of spending time in solitude like this is rarely discovered in the moment. Rather the fruit is born as you go through your day and you find yourself responding to people differently. Where you were previously driven to say or do something, now you have the resources to be quiet. Things that might have stirred up angry responses don't seem to push your buttons. In fact, you may not even be aware that anything is different until someone else comments on it!

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