My junior year in college had been a good year, but I felt a bit sad as the end of the term drew near. Several close friends would be graduating and moving away. Although we would keep in touch, I sensed the separation would change our relationship, and I mourned the loss. As I reflected further, I discovered a more powerful movement within me — a profound sense of loneliness that I would come to call aloneness.
This awareness of aloneness has resurfaced on several occasions throughout my life. Instead of a loss triggering the experience, however, I recognized aloneness through my service to others as a physician, in my personal life, or in parish ministry. While I continued to work hard at offering others emotional support, I realized that I did not and would not receive the same from others.
So what do I mean by aloneness? It’s a realization that we don’t possess anyone, and no one possesses us. While others may depend on us, we cannot completely depend on them. Even the best of friends will fail us through no fault of their own because of their preoccupation with life’s demands or inability to pick up on our needs. Not only that, life events can separate us at any moment.
While loneliness and aloneness are similar, they’re not the same. Loneliness is a longing for companionship. We’re social beings, and we need others in our lives. But while loneliness can evaporate in a crowded room, aloneness can intensify. There is a part of us that wants to give our lives into the care of another who really knows and cares for us. It’s like having an unfillable hole inside of us.
The truth is, no person can fill this hole. Only God is present in all places and circumstances. Only He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He cares for us despite our faults. Only God can fulfill our longing for union and presence. We depend on Him, and He alone is utterly dependable.
At times we get glimpses of this union through encounters with our spouse or friends. We naturally want close friends who are like us and care about us. This puts us on the lookout for the elusive true friend. Perhaps we’ve been blessed to have someone like this in our life for a season, and rarely, for a lifetime. But they cannot satisfy the deep longing that only God can fill, and it is unreasonable to expect that of them.
I believe most of us don’t think about this sort of thing or recognize it within ourselves. Whether conscious of it or not, we still try to reckon with aloneness. Here are some of the not-so-healthy approaches we use.
Self-pity. We feel sorry for ourselves, wishing we had friends or maybe that one true friend. Perhaps we recently lost a spouse or had a family member pass away. Besides the sense of loss and longing for our loved one, we can lapse into self-pity.
Substitution. We find other ways to avoid the emptiness. Perhaps it’s staying so busy we don’t have time to think of anything else. Some try to fill the need with possessions or experiences. We accumulate hundreds of “friends” through social networking. Some latch onto one person in a co-dependent relationship, persisting even when that person hurts them because an abusive relationship can seem preferable to having none at all.
Emotional distancing. One strategy for lessening the pain is to pull back emotionally. This approach “protects” us from the pain of rejection or disappointment. This is especially true when our relationships are superficial, as these contacts can accentuate the feeling of aloneness.
Acting out. Instead of struggling with aloneness on the inside, some people turn the conflict outward in the form of anger or hostility. They lash out in frustration and blame others for not giving them what they desire.
Fortunately, we do have healthier options.
Be aware of what you’re feeling and doing. Think about what’s driving your behavior. Watch out for unhealthy responses. This takes prayer and reflection. Sometimes we need someone else to help us see the truth.
There are different ways to pray. In the beginning, we might talk at God through recited prayers and to Him in conversational prayer. But if we’re to connect with God at a deeper level, we’ll need to start listening. We call this form of prayer mediation. Lectio divina is one way we can encounter God through sacred Scripture. Over time we should also learn to just be with God.
Form intentional friendships.
Don’t wait for the perfect friend to come along. Take the initiative and be a friend to someone else, becoming what you want others to be for you. We can only do this if we let go of the expectation of others to give us what God alone can provide. At the same time, we can become an expression of God’s love and presence to others.
Learn to recognize God’s presence.
God is present with us always, but we are so preoccupied with life we rarely take time to recognize Him. It’s not a matter of trying to feel God’s presence. If He gives you that gift, then give thanks, but you cannot force it. On the other hand, we can always acknowledge God’s presence through creation and in others. God is present within us through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit whom we receive through Baptism. Catholics know the greatest experience of Presence through the Holy Eucharist.
Express gratitude for every person in your life as a gift.
Acknowledging aloneness at first can seem depressing. That is until we realize how every person we encounter is a gift. No one owes us anything, for all we have has been given to us. Every encounter, even the briefest and most insignificant, then becomes an occasion for celebration.