Even if we come from strong families and have ample social bonds, we still have moments when we feel excluded, misunderstood and involuntarily cut off.
The problem of loneliness, obviously, is not a new problem or one unique to our age. But, some sociologists tell us that it is, at best, an intensifying problem. Others go so far as to label loneliness the epidemic of this age. The so called “breakdown of the family,” our continuous struggle to maintain community amidst a global pandemic, our constant mobility, more automation and less human interaction in our day to day errands, and our pervasive modern media that presents unrealistic ideals of love and intimacy – all these cultural factors push us, as a society, into a new place of reckoning with our loneliness.
We all have different coping mechanisms, some of us choose to ignore of our feelings of loneliness by getting really busy, sending lots of emails, watching lots of TV, nightly shopping sprees or submerging ourselves into our work or home improvement projects. Other times, we can’t ignore the pain and we become sad, finding ourselves at times on the verge of despair.
We all recognize from our own experience the destructive potential of loneliness, but, surprisingly, many of our tradition’s greatest theologians see our universal human tendency towards loneliness also as a great opportunity for spiritual growth. Fr. Ron Rolheiser suggests in his well-researched book The Restless Heart that, spiritually speaking, loneliness itself is not necessarily an unhealthy emotion but rather something that we would be wise in giving some special attention.
St. Thomas Aquinas defines human loneliness as our “innate thirst for oneness, with God, others and nature.” He bids us to look sensitively and through the eyes of faith to see that our loneliness is our God-designed thirst for love and community…our longing for right relationships…a desire to be part of the intimate oneness of creation as God originally intended…a readiness and hunger to receive and give love in response to the darkness that sometimes envelopes us. St Thomas states that this oneness is the very end for which we were made.
From such a perspective, loneliness is a valuable and necessary force in our lives because it keeps us searching and will not let us comfortably isolate or settle for the things that are fleeting and will never truly gratify us such as fame, wealth, success, and pleasure.
So, on our better days, our loneliness helps keep us focused on the end for which God made us. If we listen to our inner longings we will be drawn deeper into the divine dream that God has written within the very structures of our heart, mind, and body. Loneliness is, in a sense, God’s imprint in us, constantly telling us where we should be going; towards love, pulling us out of our protective shells to build the relationships that form the backbone of the kingdom that Jesus preached.
We are never going to be fully satisfied this side of the grave, but we are given glimpses of the divine in our lives in those that love us, accept us, welcome us, redeem us, forgive us, and give us hope. Our challenge is to respond to our thirst and discomfort not with bitterness or hardness of heart, but rather with an openness and acceptance to where God is leading us in our sometimes painful longing and loneliness.
- Much of this short reflection is taken from Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s book The Restless Heart