Yesterday was Valentine’s Day; a day to celebrate love, and happiness, romance, and marriage. But, hijacked by Hallmark and overdone with expectations, many people (both single and married) find it one of the hardest holidays of the year, a day when many are reminded what it means to be lonely.
First, is the loneliness of a single person. Everyone longs for relationship and companionship, and so it is not surprising that we feel lonely when we do not have that special partner. Single people have to struggle between the option of remaining single, and sometimes lonely, while waiting to meet the right person, or settling for a person who may not be right but helps to keep the loneliness at bay.
Then, there are the married lonely. Many of us assume that because someone is married or in a relationship that they do not experience loneliness. This form of loneliness seems especially painful because there is a sense that they have been betrayed. After vows and a promise, there was never supposed to be loneliness again. And yet there is. Maybe the person you come home to each night seems less and less like the person you once knew. Maybe they don’t seem to understand you. Or maybe they don’t seem to care. When two people grow apart and marriage feels like living with a stranger, the loneliness can be overwhelming.
Then there is the loneliness of loss, where you had something and now you don’t. In the wake of such a loss, you feel like you are a shadow of the person you once were. Maybe death, maybe trauma, maybe divorce, or something else, but it is as if half of yourself has been torn out, and it feels like you will never be whole again.
There is the loneliness of youth and of old age, of traveling in foreign lands, or moving to a new city. There is the loneliness of being abandoned by friends, there is the loneliness of intelligence or success or leadership, of being distinguished from the crowd. There is the loneliness of taking a difficult path or standing up for something you believe in.
There are many ways to be lonely. There are many who may feel suffocated by its hold. Many of us may so fear loneliness that we will choose the selfish or self-destructive before ever allowing loneliness to knock on our door.
I have experienced a lot of different forms of loneliness in my life. Both the kind I thought I would die from, and the kind that has been a reassuring companion that I was on the right path, down a healthy road. Given the choice, I would never want to be lonely. But that is not an option we are given in this life. There will always be times when we are lonely because of circumstance or because we make a choice to go somewhere new, try something different, stand up to the crowd, or spend time by ourselves.
But loneliness is not evil. In fact, it can often be a friend. Jesus regularly went off to “lonely places.” It can teach us things about ourselves that we are unwilling to look at when we are happy. It can speak to us of hopes and aspirations that we never realized we had. It can remind us of good things we used to have, and push us to work harder to restore relationships. And it can make us strong enough to do things that we were never able to do before.
I would never tell you that being lonely is easy. It is something that, like anyone else, I continue to struggle with in my own way in my own life. But I think that if there is one thing that I would say about loneliness, it is that when it knocks at our door it is better to invite it in and offer it a chair. When we see it for what it is, neither good nor bad, but simply a companion that visits us from time to time, it is then that we are able to converse with it, learn from it, live with it without letting it consume us, and learn that loneliness does not stay forever and we are not ever truly alone.
The Rev. Abbie Huff serves as a modern-day missionary and leads the Nyack Project in Nyack, NY. http://thenyackproject.com