“Why do you feel lonely?” my professor asks the girl at the far end of the table, deeply grieved. He speaks with gentleness and listens with the utmost consideration for our well-being. He leans forward in the wheelie chair and clasps his hands.
“I don’t know,” says the girl, caught off-guard, “I just feel lonely sometimes.” She guards her tone, moderating it, and suddenly her blazer and red lipstick seem like armor. I wonder if dressing and applying the color to her lips is as much an emotional girding as a physical one.
I lean forward and peek down the table, trying to read the faces of the other five students, because I feel the same way, and I just assumed everyone else did too.
“Do any of you,” begins my professor, perplexed, “Also feel lonely?”
“Yeah,” I say, because — ironically — I don’t want the other girl to feel alone in this.
He asks me why I feel this way. I tell him I’m not exactly sure either, and as we pack up to leave class I ponder it: even though I have my secrets and emotional barriers, I’ve always felt some deep undercurrent of isolation in the core of my being.
I don’t think this feeling is uncommon. Tim Keller says that “…your insides — the movements and motions of your heart — are so complex and they’re so inward and they’re so hidden that there’s an irreducible, unavoidable solitude about human existence. Nobody will ever completely understand you” (2019). That statement tapped the spot right next to where the loneliness springs up and nestles, somewhere between my solar plexus and my heart. He goes on to say that “If God is not a friend, if God isn’t someone you know personally, if God isn’t someone you have a personal relationship with, if you don’t have, sometimes, a sense of God really with you, putting His love and His truth palpably on your heart, if you don’t have an intimate personal relationship with God, you are utterly alone in the world…Human beings can’t live in that kind of isolation” (2019). Loneliness is a symptom of our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual separation from God, and we can only truly remedy this pathology by seeking Him.
But seeking Him does not always provide a total sense of satisfaction, and the results of searching may not be what we want them to be. The Israelites, despite their dire circumstances, were not happy with manna. It wasn’t the flavor they expected and it didn’t come in the amount they wanted. And! They weren’t allowed to hoard it; God forced His people to rely on Him every day for their food. Maybe loneliness is like physical hunger: the ache drives us to seek God and to search for Him in all aspects of the world, and His presence does not always feel like what we expected. Maybe loneliness itself has a purpose.
In Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, the titular character is deeply lonely, and this drives her to seek something she can’t identify and doesn’t understand. Lila — a thirty-something woman who grew up as an orphaned migrant worker trekking the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression — finds herself in a tiny Iowa town, reckoning with the neglect and trauma of her childhood as she, oddly, befriends the town’s gentle, erudite sixty-something preacher. Lila resides mostly in her head for the majority of the novel, rarely speaking, dwelling on and pushing aside her loneliness. She’s fascinated by the preacher, by his clinging to faith, by his friendliness, and by the gratitude and bitterness she senses wrestling within him:
She had a habit now of putting questions to him in her mind. What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something. Then why won’t you say how you know that? Do you just talk that way because you’re a preacher? This kind of thinking made a change in her loneliness, made it more tolerable for her. And she knew how dangerous that could be. She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same” (pg 34 [text bolded for emphasis])
Lila resists calling her loneliness by its name in an attempt to repress the motivation of her loneliness, which is to drive her towards intimacy, vulnerability, and commitment. But she cannot help it: she finds herself drawn to the preacher because of his attitude of gentle surrender and because she senses the same loneliness in him. They eventually marry. But the ache in her soul doesn’t depart. Instead, it pushes her closer to the preacher, which she resists, because learning to execute acts of love requires her to push through and slowly unlearn the deeply-rooted habits formed by her trauma. Lila’s loneliness impels her to seek love, and she finds and creates a family.
Loneliness can be as much an agent of grace as an abundance of joy. The Lord does not always satisfy us in the ways we desire, but with time and trust, we can gain some small glimpse into His grand narrative.
Keller, Tim. (Host). (2019, July, 29). 277 – The Wounded Spirit [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from Apple Podcasts.
Robinson, M. (2014). Lila. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.