“To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude is the beginning of any spiritual life because it it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” — Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
Ten years ago, the sort of loneliness I feel these days would have shot me into a panic. There’s a myriad of reasons as to why that would have been the case, but that was then, this is now, and I wanna talk about now.
I’ve had five friends fall out of my daily life in the last year-and-a-half. (And by “daily life”, I mean living in the same town…randomly dropping by with hugs or hand-me-downs…getting together for playdates, coffee, walks…and having a deep trust between us.) The initial hit happened when one friend left the state and two others deliberately stopped interacting with me. Together, those events effectively catapulted and landed me on a lonely path. I fell hard in the dirt, and it knocked the wind out of me. More recently, two other dear ones moved away. Another jolt.
The leaving of those friends left behind a desolate emptiness in my spirit. And I – like most humans – prefer the feeling of being satiated, even if it’s only temporary. To stave off the emptiness, we pour in sugar, drugs, porn, overscheduled calendars, all manner of material items, other people. Other people. That’s me. I’ve spent most of my life attempting to fill that emptiness with other people.
But this time – this time (why THIS time? I have no idea) – instead of scrambling to fill up the friend queue with newbies as I always have before, I stopped myself. Something told me to hold my horses, and I listened. I decided to try accepting that this was my path for the time being. In Elisabeth Elliott’s book The Path of Loneliness, she writes, “Many times in my life God has asked me to wait when I wanted to move forward….To my pleas for guidance, God’s answer has often been ‘Sit still, my daughter’.” That’s exactly what I sensed. So I made a conscious decision to welcome the loneliness, sit smack-dab in the middle of it, and see what it brought me. Instead of panicking at the loss and expending energy on relationships that might not be meant-to-be, I held steady and waited to see if something Even Better flowed in. I decided to stop raging against the loneliness, and instead let it BE.
Just glancing at the title of Elisabeth Elliott’s book makes me consider that this present path of mine – lonely and however long it may be – has a purpose. No clue what that is. Maybe it’s simply about trusting God/Love. Maybe it’s about learning how to remain calm in uncomfortable circumstances. Maybe it’s about realizing there are good things to be found in this space, to be found only by me. I liken it to taking a walk in the woods. It’s fun to hike with others, and it feels safer in numbers. But there’s beauty and a freedom in walking alone, in you being the one who decides where to wander. When you’re alone (and thus less distracted), you’re more apt to discover the moss-covered rocks in a trickling stream or notice the birch leaves’ musical fluttering overhead. And you realize you actually can walk through the woods…all by yourself.
I used to be terrified of loneliness. As my path diverged from those whom I had loved deeply, I grew afraid. But accepting my lonely walk this past year has been transformative. And now? I’m feeling braver. I see the forest ahead, I step into it’s solitary beauty, and I know there are good things to be discovered by me, and me alone.