In her latest book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, author Olivia Laing describes loneliness as “difficult to confess; difficult too to categorize. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair.” Laing’s words left me gasping, like a sucker punch to the gut.
Loneliness is something I identify with strongly. I experienced stretches growing up where I felt disconnected from the childhood joys of my classmates or when I was painfully aware of a marked difference from my own siblings. As I grew older, I associated this loneliness with specific life events such as my parent’s divorce or being taunted at school because I was the poor kid, the red head, the girl who needed braces, then the girl who had braces. And yet, there are times, now as an adult, that I feel so lonely in my own marriage, in motherhood, or in my parish community, that I think there must be something wrong with me. I must be missing some emotional enzyme, one that allows me to see and accept love from others.
I have imagined this made me a “bad” Christian. I’d hear, in my own mind as well as from well-meaning friends, if I could just give this to God, surrender to Him, I’d be fulfilled. There were times, for a week or even a month, that I experienced a freedom in relating to others in an easy, loving way. And then loneliness would creep back up on me.
In my mid-twenties, after I graduated from college I moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. I remember feeling so lonely that I’d walk up and down the busy shopping district of NW23rd, longing for someone to talk to me. I’d ask smokers for a spare cigarette even though I had severe asthma, simply for the opportunity of striking up a conversation. I once followed someone for 4 blocks because they smelled of fabric softener, the one my high school boyfriend had used, I was so desperate for connection that I didn’t want to feel deserted by a scent memory. Ironically, my loneliness made it more difficult for me to connect with others. I became needy. I reeked of loneliness.
Mother Teresa once said, "The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody." I am not the only one who feels this way. It is a crisis that strikes the foundation of society.
Christ understood loneliness at a depth far greater than that which I have felt. Even after completely surrendering to the will of His Father in Gethsemane, praying “not what I will, but what You will” He is grieved by the lack of support in His sleeping disciples. He tells them His “soul is overwhelmed with sorrow.” In one Gospel account the Father sends an angel from heaven to encourage Christ but his anguish persisted to the point that His sweat was like “blood falling to the ground.” How then would He not understand my own suffering?
Olivia Laing reveals in her book that “loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.” Christ showed His humanity so clearly that night in Gethsemane. Through his suffering, he shows me that knowing loneliness is not a sin, nor is it a sign that I am a “bad” Christian but simply that I too am human.
I have worked in a field where I saw my loneliness magnified, ministering to homeless. Most of whom are alienated from family and isolated from society. In their presence, I notice that the pang of loneliness I have felt since childhood contains a morsel of goodness, it’s called empathy. I see loneliness in the eyes of my neighbor and offer my own self as a remedy. Experiencing this pain, myself allows me to perceive when a good story or a belly laugh is needed or when sometimes just having someone sit near while we eat our sandwiches in silence is all you dare handle.
Olivia Laing’s Lonely City exploring depictions of loneliness in art and in Laing’s own life, begins with a quote from St Paul’s letter to the Romans; “each member belongs to all the others.” (12:5) I took that as an indication that she would weave faith into the discussion but she never did, so I took it as a prompt, a call to action. We are all connected to one another through Christ and are a part of a whole through Him. Though it be difficult to confess to each other, we all know this disease of loneliness exists. We need to care for each other. We need not to be afraid of sitting with someone else’s loneliness. Chances are our very human presence is the remedy we need.