The Paradoxes of Loneliness from Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human
Depression isolates and introverts. It’s a brutally vicious circle. And so when one occasionally gets swept up by outbreaks of energy, they are often focused on desperately trying to make connections beyond oneself. It might be music; it might be a conversation with someone who gets it with minimal explanation; it might be words on a page. I love that line from Shadowlands, William Nicholson’s TV play (turned into a stage play and then feature film) about C. S. Lewis’s grief for his late wife Joy (though bear in mind that the film really misses a lot of the theological nuance of the play, inevitably):
We read to know that we’re not alone.
So it is always amazing to read a book which identifies and articulates something that resonates. I certainly found that when I read Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human over Christmas. There were the odd things in it that jarred a little, but the sweep, generosity and of course humanity of the book are truly inspiring. I heard Vanier years ago when he visited Oxford – and his l’Arche legacy is extraordinary.
The corrosiveness of loneliness
As he ranges over issues of human nature from his experience of communities of disabled and intellectually damaged people, he has some remarkable insights. The first chapter explores loneliness in all its facets. For those who live in L’Arche very often feel the pain of isolation more deeply than any of us.
We only become aware of loneliness at times when we cannot perform or when imagination seems to fail us… Loneliness can feel like death.
And yet, here’s the dilemma:
Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfil the needs of the human heart. (p7)
This of course then touched me deeply:
It is the loneliness we find in those who fall into depression, who have lost the sense of meaning in their lives, who are asking the question born of despair. What is left? … I once visited a psychiatric hospital that was a kind of warehouse of human misery. hundreds of children with severe disabilities were lying, neglected, on their cots. There was a deadly silence. Not one of them was crying. When they realize that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone may hear us. (p9)
For someone who has walked much of their life with God, the spiritual cost of depression is similar – it corrodes the hope of being heard… But what Vanier notices in those who have endured the most terrible afflictions before joining L’Arche communities is that their experience reflects what all of us can go through.
Loneliness seems to be an essentially human experience. It is not just about being alone. Loneliness is not the same thing as solitude. We can be alone yet happy, because we know that we are part of a family, a community, even the universe itself. Loneliness is a feeling of not being part of anything, of being cut off. It is a feeling of being unworthy, of not being able to cope in the face of a universe that seems to work against us.
Loneliness is a feeling of being guilty. Of what? Of existing? Of being judged? By whom? We do not know. Loneliness is a taste of death. (p33)
The dilemma of loneliness
I find that on real black dog days, I can’t bear the very thing that I long for: others. It’s ridiculous really. But I want to hide in large part because I can’t bear the effect my situation has on those nearby. But as one simultaneously craves connection, it is the fear (and indeed memory) that one will not find it that intensifies the need to recoil and ‘hedgehog’ (yes, hedgehog really ought to be a verb – so there, now consider it ‘verbed’).
This touches on a real paradox: as humans, we crave belonging, we need the connectedness to others that brings security, but this connectedness can prevent the natural movement and evolution that we need in our lives. It can also get in the way of creativity and stifle the natural loneliness that pushes us to discover something new, that pushes us closer to God. … It is in the group that we discover what we have in common. It is as individuals that we discover a personal relationship with God. We must find a way to balance our two opposite impulses. (p18)
To a certain extend we lose control in our own lives when we are open to others. Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also a dangerous thing. Beautiful because it is a new form of liberation; it brings a new joy because we are no longer alone. We are close even if we are far away. Dangerous because letting down our inner barriers means that we can be easily hurt. Communion makes us vulnerable. (p29)
Which is why TRUST and TRUSTWORTHINESS are perhaps the most precious gifts of life. It is devastating when they are lost or eroded; it is truly beautiful when they are fostered and deepened. This happens again and again at L’Arche, because the VERY people that the world discards because they’re apparently too weak or stupid or ugly or useless or broken are seen to offer amazing trust if given the chance (simply because “the image of the ideal human as powerful and capable disenfranchises the old, the sick, the less-abled.” p45)
To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. (p22)
Weakness becomes a place of chaos and confusion if in our weakness we are not wanted; it becomes a place of peace and joy if we are accepted, listened to, appreciated, and loved. (p39)
So I love Vanier’s description of Antonio, a 20-year-old man so weakened by disease and sickness that he couldn’t walk, speak or use his hands, but he “had an incredible smile and beautiful shining eyes. There was no anger or depression in him.” But everyone adored him in the community. Why?
Antonio could not love by being generous, by giving things to people or doing things for them; he himself was too needy. He lived a love of trust. In this way, he touched many people’s hearts. When one loves with trust, one does not give things, one gives oneself and, so, calls forth a communion of hearts. … Often, [assistants] would tell me … in words to this effect: “Antonio has changed my life. he led me out of a society of competition where one has to be strong and aggressive into a world of tenderness and mutuality, where each person, strong or weak, can exercise their gifts.” (p91)
But the final point to draw out on this theme is the potential for this pain to be a gift, a path to something better.
Loneliness is the fundamental force that urges mystics to a deeper union with God. For such people, loneliness has become intolerable but, instead of slipping into apathy or anger, they use the energy of loneliness to seek God. It pushes them towards the absolute. (p8)
This is the hardest thing when one has exhausted (and felt exhausted by) one’s cries and so feel reduced to the silence of orphaned infants… and yet the most necessary thing. It is that which I long for my fellow believers to grasp sometimes – for once one has grasped it, platitudes get consigned to the cesspit where they belong.
So on the way, we all need help. This puts it brilliantly.
Accompaniment is necessary at every stage of our lives, but particularly in moments of crisis when we feel lost, engulfed in grief or in feelings of inadequacy. The accompanier is there to give support, to reassure, to confirm, and to open new doors. The accompanier is not there to judge us to tell us what to do, but to reveal what is most beautiful and valuable in us, as well as to point towards the meaning of our inner pain. In this way, an accompanier helps us advance to greater freedom by helping us to be reconciled to our past and to accept ourselves as we our, with our gifts and our limits. (p129)
So if you want to help and support someone in this situation, accompany them on the road. That’s all it needs. You don’t need a degree our counselling training. You just need a sense of your own brokenness.
Nowhere to be found…
Here is a new song from my mate Nathan Tasker, that I’ve grown to love, from his latest album. It thrusts us into the dark, dark pit he and his wife Cassie were plunged into when they lost two babies and Cassie’s father in a very short space of time. And the bridge section is overwhelming, but articulates that pain of the orphaned infants. But check out stunning twice of the last verse. When he played it at All Souls during his all too brief visit to London before Christmas, I simply couldn’t hold the tears back because the specifics of their story had become, wondrously, the universal experience of so many stories.