The world’s greatest tragedy is unwantedness; the world’s greatest disease is loneliness. (Mother Theresa) One of my favorite movies in recent years is the Jack Nicholson film, What About Schmidt? Its a subtly comedic and incredibly touching story about a recently retired and widowed man who faces an unknown future. Schmidt is full of years, expected to have his stuff together, but he is awkward in almost all his social relationships. Simply put, he is unable to really connect to people, although he tries. And so we watch an alternately angry and despairing man, a lonely man.
It is important to name this condition of loneliness, a condition which is very much different from being alone. Who of us hasn’t felt the loneliness of being in a crowd? Loneliness can inflict married people, busy people, and people who have lots of social contact. Loneliness is the feeling of isolation, the sense of disconnection.
God wants it to be different. Marriage and family, friendship and community, these are gifts to us. But despite all the possible ways we have to connect, a gap can still exist inside of us. And this is because loneliness, in essence, is a spiritual condition. At the heart of loneliness is our homesickness for God, what the writer Frederick Buechner has called: “a longing for a long time from a long way off to belong”.
Loneliness strikes all kinds of people. It strikes those we think have it all together. James Houston, my former professor at Regent College in Vancouver, tells of sitting next to a very beautiful girl at the seminary, and saying “you must be very lonely”. “How do you know me?” she said. My professor replied, “Well, because men would look at you as an object of desire, and women would be jealous of you.” We might be surprised who is struck with this lonely condition.
There are many ways we try to solve the ache: we medicate ourselves, we over-eat, we over-spend, we become sexually irresponsible. All of these behaviors are attempts to fill what has gone missing inside of us, the absence we feel but can’t really diagnose. So we need the humility to admit our condition, name it, and acknowledge it to God.
Perhaps there is wisdom from the monastery that can help us here. For over 1600 years, the Benedictines have rehearsed a practice that is deeply transformative for personal life. They daily chant the psalms, repeating the entire corpus monthly. The psalms are prayers full of life’s emotions: anger, sadness, confusion, hope, joy – and loneliness: “Turn to me and have mercy on me, because I am lonely and hurting.” (Psalm 25:16)
In daily repeating the psalms, the Benedictines continually present their humanity before God. The psalms bring to light what human beings lack and need – that part of us that is “lonely and hurting”. In this way, loneliness becomes a shared human experience and not a cut-off and hidden thing, which is often the real power of loneliness. Instead, the daily repetition of the psalms make prayer a shared human experience. We move ourselves from the lonely “I” towards the connected “we”. We begin to see that the experience of being human is not ours alone to bear, but ours to experience in company. And in the heart of that company is God, who mystically enters into the lonely space we cannot fill.
There are certainly complexities to this issue that I have not here discussed. I don’t want to be one to give cheap advice. I simply want to say what I tend to say often and repeatedly: to be prayerful is the most connected way of living there is. To be prayerful is the best of all practices when facing loneliness. Prayer makes true community possible.
Find the movie What About Schmidt and watch it with a keen eye. It ends beautifully with a very simple realization by this lonely man. Schmidt realizes that if he simply would reach out toward someone who really needed his help, he could find a way to move forward.
I recommend the movie. And I recommend the practice of praying the psalms.
Postscript: This past weekend was our annual Lent Retreat at Mount Saint Francis in Cochrane. We do this every year on the first weekend in March, in keeping with the season of Lent. Its always a special time, but this year I found to be particularly sweet for me. I am still carrying the glow of it. We immersed ourselves (again) in the life of the Biblical Psalms, learning how they meet us in deeply personal ways. Perhaps next year you might consider joining us.