I was sitting with a friend who has recently separated from her husband of twenty-nine years. I’ll call her Bonnie. After six months of separation, Bonnie was telling me how difficult she is finding the loneliness.
Being an introvert with a chronic illness I don’t often have the energy or inclination to do a lot of socializing and I’ve assumed that this is why loneliness sometimes arises for me. But, Bonnie is one of the most extroverted people I know. She has a plethora of close friends, an extensive community, supportive family members and an extraordinary ability to reach out to connect with others. She runs her own successful business and is a generous, resourceful woman. I get tired just hearing about Bonnie’s week of social contacts, work with others and staying in touch with friends.
But, despite all this, I hear how genuinely lonely she is. As she told me about a business contract that had not work out as she’d hoped and her need to take this into consideration around future plans, I had an insight into the kind of ordinary loneliness that even extraordinary people experience. Because for many of us, the hardest loneliness is not a lack of support around the Big Challenges- the sudden serious illnesses or death of a family member, the loss of home or livelihood. In moments of acute crisis many of us are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends, family, and sometimes even caring strangers offering concern and support.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we do not experience loneliness.
As Bonnie is discovering, if you live alone it’s often about the ordinary daily challenges- the adjustment of plans to logistical changes and cancelations; the nervousness about unexpected expenses; the minor illnesses that just make you feel crappy; the insignificant irritations like traffic jams, line-ups and bureaucracy. It’s about carrying the daily uncertainties alone.
When you live with someone you often share these small daily challenges. Someone is there to listen to your tiny tales of woe, calm you down, commiserate, make you to laugh, give you a hug or just let you rant. You’re not in it alone. Your fortunes, your health, your moods and your circumstances, your small joys, disappointments and fears are intimately shared with someone else. And theirs are shared with you. And this can make the burden feel a little lighter when the day feels a little too long and the world seems just a little too overflowing with crazy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been married. I know that just because you live with someone doesn’t mean they will always be there at the end of the day in the way you would like them to be- or in any way at all. Sometimes we can be acutely lonely when we are with someone. But for most of us, if we've stayed with someone for any length of time, it was because there was a some degree of comfort and comfortableness in the way we shared the tasks of daily living with a fellow human being. Even when we might have been in disagreement about The Big Things or the deeply intimate things, many of us continued to find companionship in sharing laundry and car repairs, good meals and bad television.
And it’s weird when no one else is there, when there is no companionship at the end of the day unless you arrange it- and even then, eventually you will be going home alone. Again, don’t get me wrong. It is often with great relief that I come back to my tiny apartment that fits like a nest around me, where everything is exactly as I left it and there is silence and blessed solitude. What I missed when I was married was often my own company.
But I also know what Bonnie is talking about when she speaks of the loneliness, of feeling a kind of ache, a sadness and weariness, at being on her own with the daily concerns and challenges of a human life.
I don’t have a solution. Certainly my experience of a sacred Presence that is greater than but also within me is a reminder that I am always participating in an inter-dependent wholeness. But I don’t think even an impossibly constant sense of the Mystery would shield us from moments of the loneliness.
So lately, when loneliness arises, I just sit with it. I ask myself, What is this thing I call loneliness? Where does it live in my body? What is its colour, its texture, its taste? I turn my attention to it and explore. I remind myself that this is bearable, this will not kill me so I do not need to run from it.
The loneliness does not instantly disappear but my fear of it dissipates, and it. . . softens. I can be with it, befriend it, know that it is part of being human particularly when we do not have companionship in the small things of daily life. As I stop trying to move away from it, it often slowly dissolves, the way mist on the lake in the early morning dissolves in sunlight. It becomes, after all, just a ripple of loneliness. Not death, not agony, not an indicator of sinister news about my being. Just a ripple of loneliness, a little discomfort. Observing and allowing it, the loneliness becomes just one more thing arising in awareness, like the feel of my beating heart, the temperature of the air on my skin, the sound of the city going to sleep around me, my inhale filling me and my exhale leaving my body.
Loneliness becomes just one of the many experiences of being human. And I am grateful for even this.