Thursday, January 5, 2012

"God bless the lonely people"

from www.tightywhitesartsite.blogspot.com
Over the holiday season, I read a list of contributors to a local charity. Some gave in memory of others, but one donor touched me, a man who gave a modest amount along with his wish, "God bless the lonely people".

I thought of the refrain from "Eleanor Rigby",
"All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?"

Assuaging loneliness of those who wish relief is a mitzvah. But some bear their loneliness without the wish of ready rescue.
Because our culture gulps stimulation, loneliness elicits pity. The culture doesn't think much of solitude, either. We like the extroverts, joiners, mixers. Are we elevating those qualities, and imbuing loneliness, a universal human condition, with shame?

The art is in thoughtful response to loneliness, within ourselves or others.

Loneliness is like a vast desert; if you focus only on the hardship and barrenness, you do not see the beauty. And like the desert, if an oasis does not appear eventually, most of us languish.

If loneliness is not shameful, neither is it noble; like pain, loneliness doesn't make one stronger.  It simply makes one more aware of the nooks and crannies of existence, of the boredom born from self-absorption, of the longing for intimacy paradoxically co-existing with the freedom of solitude.

An old friend wrote at Christmas of his ability to shift from  anxious loneliness to peaceful stillness through his meditation practice. Others find respite in the visitor, the congregation, the invitation to mingle. Salespersons know people often shop because they are lonely, even if the shoppers themselves are unaware.

That anonymous donor saw that, when loneliness is coupled with deprivation, every drop of vitality drains from the spirit, and I am grateful to him.

And for a heartfelt endorsement of restorative solitude, I recommend Pico Iyer's essay, "The Joy of Quiet" in The New York Times.



Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you'll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”
― Janet Fitch, White Oleander

21 comments:

Tabitha said...

Such a great post and what a wonderful quote.
I've had major stress in my life over the last year and the other night I commented to my friend that I felt so alone and she hit the roof, I realised then that it had very different connotations for us both, she felt that I wouldn't lean on her enough and to me it's more the fact that we ultimately face everything by ourselves, even if we do have with friends and family around us.

déjà pseu said...

That's an amazing quote, and so very true. I'm one of those introverted types who enjoys being alone, usually. I've learned that trying to push aside loneliness (or any other feeling) usually makes it worse, so when I feel it I acknowledge it, which softens the hard edges of it. Expecting others to fill up those empty bits of ourselves is a recipe for utter disappointment.

Mardel said...

Such a thoughtful and provocative post. The quote at the end is just wonderfully on target.

I can't say anything about the rest of the world but I think that realization that in the end we must face the world by ourselves is one of those dark secrets we try to cover up with pretty things and much business. You can be very social and surrounded by people and you can still be very lonely. I think that is one of the things the last few years taught me. I never minded silence or even being alone for extended periods, but I didn't feel lonely until recent years, and it doesn't really matter how many people reach out to help, you can't avoid the loneliness if you are to grow at all. Eventually you have to face the world yourself.

I think accepting that one faces the world alone makes one a richer person, but to paraphrase Azar Nafisi in a book I just read --understanding doesn't necessarily bring peace -- or even happiness.

Tish Jett said...

Beautifully written, touchingly explored, intelligently explained.

I am never alone and sometimes long for it, while at the same time fearing it. I'm not familiar with it and believe I should be. I would like to know how I would live with it, whether it would terrify me or make me feel content. Curious. It's a subject I don't like to think about really. Maybe I'm a coward.

Happy, happy new year again dear Duchesse.

Rubiatonta said...

I suppose to someone looking in from the outside, I had a lonely Christmas. And yet I didn't experience it at all that way. It was nice not to be over-gifted, over-peopled, over-whelmed. It was what I wanted. (I didn't want to have the flu and be out of commission for so long, but things often don't go the way we expect they will.)

And in the time I've had to think about things over the last weeks, I've come to what I think is a useful distinction -- the key to learning to embrace solitude is to come at it with curiosity about what it can offer, rather than expectations about what we ought to be doing instead, or worries about what we might be missing out on. It's been a much richer experience for me since that I made that shift.

HB said...

Happy New Year!

What a wonderful contemplation. That anonymous donor strikes a chord with me. Each of us is so very different in this. I crave solitude and seek to have a little in each day. I don't know any other way of exploring the texture of my inner landscape and developing an understanding of the world around me. There are times when it brings discomfort but I'd rather wish for solitude than feel an unsatisfied hunger of searching for others to fill a need that they can't.

Susan said...

As a person who requires a lot of alone time, I think I know the difference between solitude and being lonely. I've been both, but surrounding myself with people is not always the answer

Great post Duchesse.

Anonymous said...

A very thought-provoking post, and somehow appropriate to this time of year. I have always been more likely to feel lonely in the company of unsympathetic others than when alone, and I think that Fitch is right to point to disappointed expectations of being understood as key. I believe it is crucial to become one's own best companion, though--as you point out--lack of security, comfort, and beauty can make that very difficult. Maybe the difference between solitude and loneliness is simply that one state is voluntary, the other not.

C.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that bothers me is the apparent presumption that these "lonely people" are looking for others to fill a need in them - a need that can't be filled by people.

What about those of us that are lonely because there literally isn't anyone there? There is no family, there are no friends, there is just us. It doesn't come down to a misguided attempt to fill a specific need with a specific person, it's a desire for what other people have: companionship, camaraderie. I, for one, don't expect any one person to fill all of my needs, but when one literally has no one... well, that's different.

Jessica D'Amico said...

Thank you for a great post, ending quote, and suggested article read.

I spent the holiday season and new year's alone for the first time since I was born. After my parents and husband were off on tripsa and I had recently lost my dear maternal grandmother, no less.

But I chose to convert a potentially miserable time into a quiet, restorative, and also sometimes active soujourn. Cheers to the lonely people.

Duchesse said...

Tabitha: It is a natural impulse for a friend to want to help by offering relief, support, advice- even simply distraction. Whether we lean on a friend should be our choice, and it is also kind of her to be there when needed.

pseu: I have learned that being alone does not equal feeling lonely any more than being with others insures against it. Like you, being increasingly comfortable with solitude helps me weather the times when I do feel lonely.

Mardel: I like that quote; relecting on it, for me, understanding adds a certain depth to the sadness that imbues loneliness.

Tish: Others have made the distinction between solitude and loneliness. One can be alone, but not lonely- so should you be alone, your experiences might shift from time to time. The loneliest I have felt is with one person.

Rubi: There is pressure for people to not be alone at Christmas (or or other holidays) and it really depends on the person- whether they would feel bereft or, like you, enjoy the peace. Hope you are feeling 100% again.

HB: When I meet someone who spends absolutely no time alone, has deliberately programmed every second to be busy, I move a bit away... it is not a judgment but a discomfort with someone who does not stop to reflect.

Susan: I have felt acutely lonely in groups, especially when I am expected to mingle. Sometimes I've even fled!

C.: Solitude is not always voluntary, either, but does not carry a (negative) emotional charge. Few persons say, "I'm taking a few days off; I need some loneliness". That is a beautiful phrase, "becoming one's own best companion". Not easy, and offers much hope.

Anonymous @ 2:20: Thank you for expressing this aspect of loneliness- when there is, in fact, no one there. There are many life circumstances that take a person away from their circle of family, friends or acquaintances, and finding new people to be with can be an effort. I believe it is one worth making, even if it feels awkward.

Jessica D'Amico: Spent a Christmas like yours and will never forget it- veered between reveling in the peace and counting the hours till someone, anyone, showed up. And doesn't your home feel immense and echo-y?

Jessica D'Amico said...

haha so true!

materfamilias said...

Over the many years that Paul and I lived in different cities (he worked in Ottawa for 3-4 years and we took turns visiting every 2 or 3 weeks; then he was in Vancouver during the week/home on weekends, for almost 7 years), people continually wanted to commiserate with me, especially, assuming that I must be really lonely on my own. In fact, I've had much more difficulty adjusting to sharing my weekday space again. I learned to relish my time on my own. I don't do well if I can't find regular quiet time, some solitude to stretch out in. Luckily, my husband understands this about me very well and we've found ways to give each other the space we need.

I really appreciate this post -- we have some misconceptions, collectively, about the space between loneliness and solitude -- and also about the most useful ways to address true loneliness. I'll have to read Iyer's essay now . . .

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: Retirement (even of one in a couple) is an adjustment, as you described, but maybe not as difficult for you, with your prior experience when Pater was away so much. I know two women who are struggling with having their partners underfoot, and hope the spouses develop some other interests rather than shadowing my friends.

Susan Tiner said...

I love this post Duchesse and really like that quote at the end.

Mardel's comment made me feel sad. I know it's true that we have to face the world ourselves but find it sad that we do.

I'm one of those retired women with a man at home a lot, in fact he's on sabbatical now for the entire semester so these days it's 24/7. It can be difficult sometimes, especially when I am craving solitude, but every time I even think of being annoyed I remember Mardel, remember to be grateful for every moment of presence. It could vanish in a flash.

It does help that Martin tends to like to spend a lot of time outside in the gardens whereas my projects are indoors. A little separation makes a huge difference.

LPC said...

This is the second time in one day I've seen that quote. I've had ample opportunity to be alone in the last several years. I've come to the conclusion that I like to live in quiet, with another nearby. So not extroverted, but not as appreciate of solitude as I was once.

Duchesse said...

LPC: To be alone is different from being lonely, and though most of us yearn for some degree of solitude, I wonder how many of us can bear loneliness, for long.

Susan Tiner: As the old joke goes, "For better or worse, but not for lunch."

Janet said...

What a thought-provoking post and quote. There is a vast difference between being alone and being lonely; I think two of the the loneliest places are in a crowd or in an unhappy relationship.

Interestingly, in today NYT Dominique Browning puts forward her ideas on why men cannot abide being alone and most single women are fine with it.

Duchesse said...

Janet: I agree. Just read the Browning piece too; for anyone interested, here's the link:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/fashion/why-men-cant-stand-to-be-alone-after-a-breakup-or-a-divorce.html?_r=1&ref=fashion

laurieann said...

When I was a little girl (an only child) my mother used to say 'learn to love books and you will never be lonely.' While that isn't 100% true it does go a long way for me. Often in life I could find a far better companion between the pages of a good book than in the the company surrounding me.

Something I have noticed as I age is that like me, more and more women are comfortable being alone without feeling lonely. Solitude becomes an absolute gift. But those that still have difficulty with it really struggle and it is sad to witness.

Duchesse said...

laurieann: As C.S. Lewis said, "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
They are treasured friends.