The Experience of Aloneness When one has, through the force of circumstances, to spend a period of time alone and separated from one's usual friends and associates, a vacuum suddenly appears in one's life. The immediate response is to fill it at all costs. There seems to be something wrong in being on one's own. Inasmuch as the image of a successful person presents itself as someone surrounded by friends, the centre of attraction and a figure of influence in the local situation, so the person outside life's immediate hustle and social activity is made to feel inferior if not psychologically disturbed. To admit that one is alone is the beginning of a great personal healing, to persist accepting that state of aloneness is the opening phase of a new dimension of living. To enjoy the silence of aloneness is the way to a deeper knowledge of God. In this respect there is an important difference between aloneness and solitude. Solitude is a state that anyone can attain by an act of free choice. I, as the most sought - after person in the world, can escape from the crowds, as Jesus did in order to pray silently to his Father, and enjoy peace and quietness on my own. This is solitude, and is a prerequisite for an effective prayer life. When I have had my fill of tranquillity, I can resume the active social round once more, refreshed and renewed. The retreat movement, now a well - established part of spiritual development for the laity, is an obvious application of the principle of solitude. In this instance it is usually necessary for the retreatant's attention to be focused on the things of eternal truth by the Holy Spirit whose mouthpiece is the retreat conductor. Only those experienced in the spiritual life can find the Spirit of God within themselves sufficiently arresting to guide them in the adventure of inner silence. Otherwise the attention will wander ludicrously, and the person might as profitably be engaged in the commerce of everyday life as in wasting his time in wordless tumult. By contrast, aloneness is thrust on the person by the circumstances of his life. The bastions of social support have been removed and he enters the nakedness of personal confrontation unshielded by all outer companionship. The result can be terrifying almost to the point of suicide if it is not rapidly relieved. In order to escape the terrible impact of truth that impinges on the naked soul, the person flees from one source of social activity to another, if he is what is generally called a "normal" individual. He strives desperately to sustain the status quo by shallow conviviality or by interesting himself in some group activity, which may be educational, artistic or political. The end of this is not so much the education of the mind as the establishment of new associations that will be able to fill the threatening vacuum and allow the even flow of life to proceed. It is a fearful thing to fall into the void that is one's unfulfilled inner life, almost as terrible as falling into the hands of the living God that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes. Indeed the two experiences touch each other; I will never know God until I know the inner hell of my unredeemed nature and the darkness that lies outside the cosy calm of intellectual assurance which I have until now identified with the whole of my life. There is also a significant difference between aloneness and loneliness. The lonely person is depressed, unhappy and yearning for company. Yet there is something inside himself that seems to separate him from other people. It is, if it could be properly analysed, an inner feeling of inferiority, of unworthiness that robs him of composure and fellowship. One can be lonely even in the centre of a crowd of revellers or in a club of people sharing a common interest. This indicates that the root of loneliness lies far deeper than intellectual incompatibility. In the end we begin to realize that there is One who alone can satisfy the soul - God. Our hearts, as St Augustine reminds us, are restless until they are filled with his rest. Until we know the living God we will know neither ourselves nor our fellows. Shallow conviviality is the great deceiver. It directs our gaze away from the inner reality of dereliction by conjuring up a fantasy of fellowship based on a common interest. Loneliness indicates that the state of living alone has not been properly confronted and assimilated. It also tells us that there are ranges of our inner life that lie unexplored, being as yet shrouded in a dark pall of fear and meaninglessness. The
writer of Psalms 42 and 43, a Levite exiled from the Temple in Jerusalem, complains of his depth of misery and groans in his distress, yet he will wait for God, praising him continually: Why so downcast, my soul Why do you sigh within me? Put your hope in God: I shall praise him yet, My saviour, my God. (JB) This verse, repeated on several occasions in the two psalms, voices the inner longing and unalleviated distress of the lonely soul. But whereas the Psalmist knows from whom healing alone can come, the lonely person is much more likely to search for relief by outer activities than by a courageous inner exploration of his true being in the state of aloneness. Aloneness, unlike loneliness, accepts its situation and looks courageously into the future of a life apart from the immediate proximity of another person. It has its forbidding moments, but is also illumined with hope, the hope of a solid identity established and set firm in a raging sea of outer turmoil and destruction. When one can say through the bitter blows of impersonal outer events, "Here I stand, and no mortal thing will move me from the centre of my being", one has indeed attained the stature of an adult. By comparison, many outwardly successful people who seem to be masters of their professions and emanate great charm, may contain within them a little child who has never grown up and has the childish qualities of exhibitionism, self-centredness and a complete unawareness of the needs of other people. How often do we meet apparently successful people who behave as spoilt children when they are in any way thwarted! By contrast, those who have explored their own depths can accept the vicissitudes of fate with equanimity and remain composed and even-tempered in the face of outer disaster or insult. The constructive use of silence is the key to a transformed character which no longer places itself at the centre of the world but rather sees itself as an expendable commodity for the use of all life. What does it feel like to be left suddenly alone? If aloneness is thrust on one, the first reaction is to escape from it by seeking the company of other people. There is a round of telephone conversations followed by visits and shared entertainments, but soon this source of escape dries up. Other people have their own destiny to fulfil and their private interests take up their attention. One also learns how little in common one has, at least in the depth of one's personality, with one's so-called friends, who in fact are mostly superficial acquaintances. One also realizes how superficial one's own life has been, how it has depended for its sustenance on the support of other people whom one has seldom accepted in their own right apart from the use one can make of them. Whenever we are startled by the superficiality of those whom we once regarded as our friends, the finger of judgement is pointing as much at us as at them. It is our own previous lack of depth that is being starkly revealed. And so the obsessive social round drives gradually to a halt when we have nothing further to offer those around us. The failing company of other people may to some extent be replaced by self-education in the form of reading many books, becoming interested in local political issues or joining societies devoted to learning, art or philanthropic endeavour. By this not only is the attention diverted from the immediate situation of aloneness, but even more important, there is the possibility and hope that new associations will take the place of the relationships of the past that proved so insubstantial when they were put to the test. It is indeed possible for the person who has to live alone to survive socially on this surface froth of encounters with people who share a common interest. But there is no depth, no true fellowship, by which I mean a sharing of the whole person, a mutual giving of selves to the edification of all. Eventually one has to make the journey inwards. To be sure, this is not made voluntarily but is rather thrust on one. It is so forbidding that the dim intimations we have about it in normal consciousness when we are fully engaged in profitable work are speedily set aside by vain thoughts and fantasies about the future. One is reminded of the great rhapsody to wisdom in Job 28:
'Where then does wisdom come from, and where is the source of understanding? No creature on earth can see it, and it is hidden from the birds of the air. Destruction and death say "We know of it only by report." But God understands the way to it, he alone knows its source; for he can see to the ends of the earth and he surveys everything under heaven.'