I was listening to the radio this afternoon, relaxing and preparing myself for leading worship this evening when I heard the tragic news of the death of Gary Speed, the forty two year old manager of the Welsh football team. Gary was a onetime hero of my mine as he was part of the championship winning Leeds United midfield of 1992. It emerged a little later that Gary had taken his own life. This was perhaps even more shocking. Why had this healthy talented and seemingly well balanced man taken his own life? No doubt more will be revealed in the coming weeks, but I suspect no satisfactory explanation will ever be unearthed. Suicide, depression and the aching loneliness that so many of us suffer from has never been adequately understood and it has never been resolved. In fact it would appear that has humanity has progressed materially it has regressed emotionally and spiritually. Loneliness, mental illness and suicide appear to be on the increase. I have been there myself and I have witnessed friends and loved ones going through this living hell too. Haven’t we all. I suspect that there is not a family in the land that has not experienced the shadow of suicide.
Today is Advent Sunday, which marks the beginning of the Christmas season; a time of joy and celebration, a time for family and fun. For most folk Christmas is the happiest time of the year. That said for others it can be the hardest. It can bring all those feelings and emotions that they have been trying to deal with to the surface. For some people Christmas can bring them face to face with their own loneliness. For some people Christmas can be hell.
For many years I struggled with Christmas as I struggled with my own humanity. For me Christmas brought me face to face with the extent of my own loneliness and isolation. This is no longer the case I’ve danced with most of my demons, but I do remember how it felt and I know that so many people still suffer with these feelings. I know this because they tell me. Yes people tell me of their joys and triumphs but they also tell me of their pain and suffering. One of the hardest aspects of ministry is being with people in utter despair. It does keep you humble though, as it shows you the limits of your power. Sometimes all that is left is tears and prayer.
Loneliness is a horrible, horrible thing. It separates us from others; it makes us believe we are the only ones. It saps our vitality. It makes us feel scared, insecure and vulnerable. The isolation and disconnectedness that it fosters leaves us feeling unloved and worse still unlovable, Loneliness is an assault on our humanity and our worth and dignity. It makes us ask the question, do I really belong here? It brings us face to face with the void, with those questions and fears we do not want to entertain; the fear that we are alone and of course the fear of death. It brings to the surface the suspicion that there really is no rhyme or reason to life, no purpose, no meaning.
Loneliness can be terrifying. We do all we can to avoid it. We spend an awful lot of time convincing ourselves that we are not alone. How many times a day do we check our e-mails, our facebook updates, or mobile phones, or convince ourselves that someone has knocked at the door? How often do we think we have heard someone call out our name in the street?
Loneliness appears to manifest itself in three basic forms. I have heard them described as intimate loneliness, social loneliness and loneliness of the spirit, an existential or cosmic loneliness.
The primary cause of intimate loneliness is the loss of a loved one. Such as a partner, lover, parent, friend, sibling or god forbid a child. It is not the only cause though. Many people long for an intimate connection that goes way beyond the closeness of everyday friendships.
Social loneliness occurs when we feel cut off from others, when we feel isolated from the social networks that we need. It stems from a lack of companionship and or community. Modern living is a major source of social loneliness. Modern life provides decreasing opportunity to visit friends and loved ones. We increasingly communicate through technology and less so face to face. We expand far less energy on human social interaction. Our culture sees more people working longer hours. Productivity is increasingly prized, while connecting and interacting with friends is seen as a luxury and not a necessity. When I look at how we live today I am forced to ask the question, is this really progress?
The loneliness of the spirit, this emptiness of the soul this existential or cosmic loneliness is more difficult to understand and or explain. Some describe this as a ‘God sized hole’ or hole in the soul. This makes sense to me. How else can this feeling of being lonely or longing for something, without knowing what it is be explained? How else can we make sense of the feeling of missing someone, we’ve never met, that feeling of loneliness in a crowd, that need for something more? This feeling of being cut off from life and the rest of humanity. This feeling that you don’t quite belong. I have struggled with all of these emotions at times in my life and am occasionally visited by these ghosts today. When they come they are as terrifying as they always were. Thank God they no longer linger.
This hunger, this longing, this deep rooted loneliness that dwells in so many of us cannot be filled by relationships or friends. It seems to be woven into our humanity; it is part of our human nature. But why Oh why do we carry this longing in our souls? Perhaps it is there to stir us to reach beyond the confines of ourselves for that something in the corner of our lives that we cannot quite see; that something that speaks in a voice less than a whisper and yet somehow more than silence. Perhaps it is there to compel us to delve deeper to the core of our very being. Who knows?
Social loneliness is not difficult to explain. We all need social contact and community to survive and flourish. No man is an island. We often only truly know ourselves through our relationships with others. The reasons for intimate loneliness seem very clear. In creating close bonds with people, we create families and communities. This gives our life meaning. It is this common humanity that binds people together. When it goes, or is absent, we mourn its loss. We crave for it once again. But what about the deeper longing of the spirit? Maybe this is a manifestation of our longing for wholeness. Maybe it’s a need to return home and perhaps it can only be filled by a relationship with the larger presence of life. But how can this be achieved?
Well perhaps the first thing we need to do is face the void and not try to flee from it and or fill it with other things. Perhaps one answer is to embrace solitude. Solitude and loneliness are not the same. One can experience solitude without being lonely and yet we can be miserably lonely and yet be surrounded by people. Solitude is a physical state; where as loneliness is an emotional, psychological and spiritual state. The difference between loneliness and solitude can be monumental and yet subtle. They may look alike, but aren’t experienced alike. It’s like seeing a body as naked, rather than a person being a nude. Naked is stripped and vulnerable, naked is lacking clothes; where as a nude is a beautiful bare body, it is art. Loneliness describes all that is lost, when we are alone; solitude describes all that is gained in all is beauty.
Loneliness can be caused by past hurts that can lead us to try to protect ourselves from life. We have all experienced the pain of betrayal and loss. No one likes being hurt, so we become wary. Because of these hurts we build walls, until finally intimacy loses its attraction. Loneliness is the price of feeling safe from emotional hurt. Of course it fails to even do that. We cannot escape the pain that accompanies the joy of life. All we achieve by trying to protect ourselves from pain is to create the suffering within the suffering. This is a worst kind of pain. I know this pain only too well as I experienced it for much of my life. This is a living hell. I thank God each day that it rarely visits me these days and when it does it no longer lingers.
This Advent, this season of hope and joy I will be thinking of those people in my life who suffer each day with that empty aching loneliness, whatever the cause may be. I will think especially of those suffering from the loss of those most dear to their hearts. I will do so though with the full knowledge that I alone cannot take away their pain. I can though be with them, I can walk side by side with them and even occasionally hold them in their pain.
Hold close to you the one’s that you love...because none of us ever really knows what they’ve got until it’s gone.