Saturday, November 7, 2009

Loneliness ... the Grit of the Soul

John O'Donohue in Anam Cara quotes a friend as saying , "loneliness is a black burnt hole, but if you close it up, you close out so much that can be beautiful for you as well."

In an poll, most people surveyed report feeling lonely, especially during the holiday season when only 14% report that they do not feel lonely. If you google loneliness, you find a hundred versions of advice that boils down to "Snap out of it! Get a dog, volunteer, play soft music, exercise, turn on the lights, or invite someone to the movies." Seldom do you find anyone talking about the benefits of loneliness.

But perhaps for our soul, loneliness is like the irritant that stimulates the formation of a pearl in an oyster. Contrary to popular opinion, most pearls are not formed around stray bits of sand, but rather from internal irritants such as particles of food that get lodged in the oyster's tissue and eventually become the pearl sack. Layer after layer of nacre cover this irritant until a luminous pearl is formed. Loneliness is our internal irritant, born at the moment we leave our mother's womb and with us until we draw our last breath. We are each individuals, alone and unique in the world, and with this comes loneliness. But, it is this very loneliness that leads us out into the world, that makes us yearn for relationship with others, that stimulates our desire for understanding ourselves and our compassion for others. Loneliness leads us more fully into the human experience and into a more profound connection with our spirit.

We can distract ourselves from the feelings of loneliness but they are always there under the surface of our busyness and socialness. Maybe, rather than thinking about loneliness as something to be banished or avoided, at least occasionally, we should allow it in and listen to it as a voice from our soul. Out of that darkness, that lonely place deep within, we may hear a new voice calling us deeper and deeper into the world. And if we can understand and befriend our own loneliness, we may find a new freedom to be more completely who we are and to truly appreciate each of our companions on this lonely journey through life.
“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” -- Thomas Wolfe
About this image: Not long after my husband died, I tried to escape the grief by going off on a kayaking trip to Belize with my friend Lynne. It was a beautiful and distracting trip but it rained a lot and this was the view from my cabin. There was something about that solitary chair facing an empty sea, where no one ever sat, that focused all my loneliness into a sharp, biting pain in my chest. For me, this image will always be the essence of loneliness.


  1. Being the extrovert that I am, I have to make a conscious effort sometimes to just be still and "be" with myself. My psyche seems to always seek input, but like you noted, sometimes, when we are most consciously alone, we grow into more enlightened, stronger souls.

  2. Beautiful thoughts; beautiful image. Thank you.

  3. Catching up on my reading, as I was away most of yesterday, in the Shenandoah on an art studio crawl.

    Your image could so go with a couple of my poems. It captures visually and beautifully your words.

    I've always drawn a distinction between loneliness and a-loneness. The one can be unsettling and fear-inducing, the other a path inside to understanding.

  4. Maureen ... I now believe that both can be paths inward ... a-loneness is a more of a chosen path and loneliness and its accompanying pain is a given path that comes with life itself. I no longer think of loneliness as a something to be avoided or a "mental disorder"... it is a guide to spirit, self and compassion for the world. Of course, we're probably saying the same thing and just using the words differently. ;-)