I had the best conversation with a good friend the other day about existential loneliness (as one does in a busy coffeeshop on a sunny afternoon). By that, we meant a certain pang that both of us experience from time to time, regardless of the fullness of our lives and the closeness of our relationships.
It’s a sense that we can never be completely “gotten” by another. That our way of seeing, our brand of suffering, and the choices that lie before us are ultimately ours alone, born of our individual history, formation, temperament, beliefs, context, etc. (Heads up: few things activate my inner eyeroll faster than the well-meaning assertion I KNOW JUST HOW YOU FEEL.)
No matter how rich my relationships, there is still the sense of being on a path that is my own, that no one else is or can be on with me in just the same way. And sometimes it gets lonely in here. It’s a feeling that’s different from simple solitude, which is something that I often crave.
Brene Brown believes that the shame that drives so much of our behavior and anxiety is rooted in the fear that we aren’t worthy of love and connection. As a corollary, when we find ourselves feeling the weight of aloneness/loneliness, it can be easy to connect it to a sense that there must be something [shamefully] wrong with us, that we don’t belong in some fundamental way. We’ve been found out.
But here’s the cool thing. Let’s call it a paradox. Whatever our unique brand of existential loneliness/aloneness looks like, there are a lot of us who feel some version of it. So, in a respect, WE’RE IN IT TOGETHER. We’re a community of loners.
And knowing that, when you find yourself there, you can try this. The wonderful Buddhist nun Pema Chodron talks about the practice of tonglen. She says that when we are suffering and have no medicine for ourselves, one of the paths out can be to send love to everyone else who is going through their version of the same thing. From the Christian path, we could connect it to the widow’s mite—giving even from our own need and brokenness. That act opens our hearts and can evoke a sense of solidarity through compassion. If you believe in the power of prayer (whether you assign to it a supernatural or energetic basis), it feels like you’re taking effective action. Whenever I have remembered this practice, it has never failed to help me feel less alone and less helpless.
Finally, we may not know exactly what each other is going through, but we can get closer to the mark. We can listen. Creating safe space for others to speak of their particular loneliness and sadness is such a boon, to the giver and receiver. Perhaps even more important than grasping the other person perfectly is the implicit statement of our receptive presence: You’re worth being heard. You’re worth making time for. That in itself is powerful medicine and contradiction for the shame-pain of isolation. And, in turn, receiving another’s suffering can reassure us that our own is not so unusual.
Let us be together in our aloneness.