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. – Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
My own recent travels through the rough terrain of loneliness has been an eye opening, and heart wrenching experience. Nouwen’s words shook me to the core at first. Of course we’re called to take one another’s loneliness away! Isn’t that the point of relationships, be they relationships with lovers or friends? When one is with another person, shouldn’t that be about alleviating their loneliness?
I had to dwell on this thought for awhile, but eventually, I came to believe Nouwen is right. I’ve lived my whole life looking to get rid of my loneliness, or to take away someone else’s loneliness. We do it in relationships all the time. We rush into relationships that aren’t right for us, and we know it, yet the other person represents a way to end our loneliness. So, we rush into their arms, ready to give up our loneliness and take theirs away. Those relationships, at least the ones I have experienced, are all about suffering. In the end, you discover that you can’t end the other person’s loneliness just by being with them. Often we’re angry and confused, too, over why our loneliness persists, even when we’re with our new lover or friend. These relationships tend to end in bitterness and often hatred for one another because we haven’t lived up to each other’s expectations. We’re together, but we remain lonely.
Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out, has been my travel guide through the landscape of loneliness. He has taught me that to truly be alive, I must be at home in my loneliness. By befriending the very thing that leads me to despair, I transform my loneliness into a home called solitude. Making peace with loneliness isn’t easy and it’s often a frustrating process. But, I’ve reached those moments of solitude in my work to make loneliness a home and in those moments I’ve experienced the true presence of God. I’m beginning to feel that powerful transformation of my loneliness into solitude.
Certainly I still want the presence of another human being in my life, but this time it’s different. Instead of wanting to take away their loneliness, or have them take away mine, I want us to explore each other’s loneliness and discover the beauty that resides there. Being able to be open to another person’s despair, without feeling that you must rescue that person from that place, is the heart of true hospitality, according to Nouwen.
Are you trying to take someone’s loneliness away? Are you looking for someone to take away your loneliness? Nouwen knows, and I now know, that will only lead to unnecessary suffering — for you and the person you find. Examine your motives carefully. Examine your loneliness carefully. Before you enter a relationship you must make a home out of your loneliness. Truly seek to turn it into a solitude that you welcome rather than a despair you must run from. The work is not easy, but, believe me, the blessings are abundant.
Loneliness in Relationships
Somewhere in the book “Intimate Connections,” David Burns says:
Believing that you need a partner before you can be happy is one of the major causes of loneliness.[I would say this is probably the major cause]
Ken Keyes says:
Develop a relationship with yourself before getting deeply involved with anyone else.
Normally when we feel lonely we think that we have an unmet need to be with someone or to be more connected with people. But it might be helping you feel more depressed to think of it this way, so here are some other ways of looking at loneliness.
You could, for example, look at it as an indication that you have an unmet need to feel content by yourself.
Or as an indication you don’t have a good relationship with yourself yet. You could have a few chats with your amygdala, as I have done on many occasions, and develop a better relationship with “her.” (I call mine Amy.) This has helped me because I look at the relationship between Amy and I as the most important relationship I will have, and the only one which will stay with me till I die.
You could also look at your feelings of loneliness as a call to action to work on your self-acceptance, self-esteem, etc.
Or as a sign that you are not involved enough with pursuing your own goals. Or maybe the goals you are pursuing aren’t fulfilling enough — maybe you know on some level that they are not important enough in terms humanity.
For me, when I am busy working on my own goals, I rarely feel lonely, even though I am almost always alone.
When you are lonely before you meet someone you run a high risk of becoming too dependent on them to fill your unmet emotional needs.
Scott Peck reminds us:
When you require another individual for your survival, you are a parasite on that individual.
Road Less Traveled, p 98