“Loneliness is not the experience of what one lacks, but rather the experience of what one is. In a culture deeply entrenched in the rhetoric of autonomy and rights, the song of God’s lonely man so often goes unvoiced and unheeded. It is ironic how much of our freedom we expend on power — on conquering death, disease, and decay, all the while concealing from each other our carefully buried loneliness, which if shared, would deepen our understanding of each other.” – from The Philosophical Society webpage
My undergraduate and Masters theses were on loneliness. Generally we think of two types: social and emotional loneliness. Social loneliness is when you are without reliable relationships – people to share interests with, on whom you could rely if your car broke down, etc. Emotional loneliness stems from feeling like you have no meaningful connection or relationships – spouse, partner, feelings of distance from family.
But, there is another type of loneliness, that is more recognized in theology and philosophy, and has emerged in psychology as well: existential loneliness. This loneliness is described as spiritual loneliness. It is a deep feeling of loneliness, or a sense of longing that cannot be fulfilled through social solutions.
“We might discover that no matter how good our personal relationships are, we still feel ’empty’ and ‘lonesome’. If so, perhaps we are really struggling with our Existential Malaise disguised as a complex of problems in personal relationships.” – James Leonard Park, essay on Loneliness of Spirit
The characteristics of Interpersonal Loneliness are : 1. Human isolation, separation, lack of relationship; 2. Results from being alone; social cause; 3. Comes and goes with the rise and fall of relationships; 4. Limited to the interpersonal dimension of life; and 5. Solved by communication, sharing, closeness, love.
In contrast, the characteristics of Existential Loneliness are: 1. Incompleteness of being, lack of wholeness; 2. Primordial incompleteness of self; inward source; 3. Permanent lack of completeness, even within love; 4. Taints every aspect of life; cannot be isolated, and 5. Cannot be overcome by love; incompleteness, unfulfillment continues. (Personality Cafe).
From around the age of 13, I recall experiencing this sense of longing. In the absence of strong and safe familial relationships that may have provided the fulfillment for interpersonal loneliness, I suspect that I have pursued the resolution of both existential and interpersonal loneliness most of my life. And like many, I have probably confused both of them as the root cause of my experience at different times.
In her 1984 essay, Kelley Kelsey makes the powerful statement:
“The courage to be oneself emerges from accepting one’s fear of nonbeing. By our acceptance of the fear of nonbeing, which confronts us in our fear of loneliness, we are able to overcome our fear of becoming who we are. Implicit in the acceptance of our fear of nonbeing is our acceptance of our inability to be that person without help. Lacking the confidence to become who we are, we place our confidence in the One who calls us forth. The fear of nonbeing in our loneliness anxiety is overshadowed by the love that calls us into being, through the loneliness, to the self who dwells in God. This self can have the courage to be only when it experiences itself as known and loved by the One who both calls it and empowers it to be.”
It is not surprising that I, and probably many others, find ourselves most at peace and harmony with the divine when we are engaging in some creative process. This can be art, or it can be the creation in unity with our Divine selves. Kelsey says “As co-creators and as carriers of a divine spark, we have a responsibility to join in the work of divinization of the world. The work begins with us. We “must build — starting with the most natural territory of our own self — a work, an opus, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth.”‘(10)Even as we build our own souls we are collaborating in the building of the earth, the completion of ourselves and the world. All that is a part of our life enters into this “work” — throughout our lives we are and have been in the process of making our souls and building the world. This work can begin in earnest with our conscious response to the personal task of transformation. Our loneliness and longing remind us that we are not yet all that we are meant to be.” In the creative process, drawing on our unity with the Divine, I believe we begin to taste the resolution of existential loneliness. It is no surprise then, that my life has been filled with some form of art – whether that is my stained glass work, the meditation I find in making Ukrainian Easter Eggs, or my recent exploration into charcoal sketching.
While relationships are not the solution for existential loneliness, some relationships serve as a means for moving through our existential experiences. “Many couples today may be highly effective at communication but yet tremendously lonely in their relationship because it never goes beyond being effective. While communication skills may be necessary for intimacy and connection, they are not sufficient. What is needed for relationships which are meaningful and deeply satisfying is to learn or discover a way of being in relationship…Relationships are the deepest and most profound source of meaning for our lives. Existential and humanistic perspectives provide some of the most profound frameworks for understanding this profound power.” – Louis Hoffman
As a society, we (me) are used to finding the solution to stop feeling this way. And, as is the lesson in most spiritual traditions, “the key is to stop fighting this feeling as a sign that something is wrong, and instead, embrace it as a precious homing device that is ever trying to guide us ‘home.’ It’s like we’re explorers on another planet, and though we may get absorbed in our adventures, in our pockets, we have a device that is ever ready to lead us home when we’re ready.” – Julia Melges-Brenner
“This deep loneliness inspires introspection and spiritual exploration, so without this feeling of incompleteness, we can become entirely absorbed in superficial, temporal concerns. Existential loneliness thus moves us to lose interest in the mundane business of daily life and transcend everyday concerns to search for something more meaningful.
By working with our existential loneliness, we begin to dance with the Universe. We ask for signs and receive them, wonder over the meaning of our experiences, open up to new ways of perceiving life, and explore new spiritual practices. We are then blessed with moving dreams; spiritual powers; otherworldly adventures; and moments of healing, grace, peace and ecstasy.
So though our first impulse is to run away from spiritual suffering, it is what ultimately leads us to new growth and awareness. When we stop fearing this deep longing and instead embrace it, everything flips around. Then instead of fleeing our existential fear, we move through it and discover that this seeming void is actually the heart of bliss we have been longing for all along.” – Julia Melges-Brenner
I take deep comfort in having the lessons of “you are already whole – this is just a sign post for revealing it more fully” confirmed in exploring existential loneliness. I can sense moments of Divine unity, and the longing for that unity drives my every moment. I look at every experience, every interaction, every thought as a message from the universe, as my own communion with the Divine. I am deeply grateful for each sign post, and I celebrate knowing the truth of my Oneness with All.