“… And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.”
– From Beannacht by John O’Donohue
Loneliness, Do Your Best
John O’ Donahue, the late Irish poet and philosopher, once told the story of when he was studying in Germany and was incredibly homesick. Throughout his stay, O’ Donahue tried his best to avoid his feelings of homesickness by making himself as busy as possible.
Then, one day, he got the flu. Having no other choice but to rest, O’Donahue walked into his room and decided to confront the feelings of loneliness he was running away from ever since he arrived. He locked his door, sat in a chair, and told loneliness directly:
“Do your best.”
Then, O’ Donahue felt what he described as a “wave of held back forsakenness” that he had been repressing for months–or maybe even years. In that moment, he felt like the most neglected being in the whole universe.
But once the feeling had moved through him, it was done.
From that day onward, O’Donahue was never afraid of being alone ever again.
What Is Loneliness?
It’s nearly impossible to describe what loneliness feels like. But as a writer, it’s my job to try. So here I go:
Loneliness feels like being a single, hollowed-out elephant tusk strewn across a desert floor.
For me, loneliness comes in waves, and yes, often times it comes to me when I write.
I heard it explained somewhere that there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. I tend to agree with this notion.
Being “alone” describes a physical detachment from other human beings–it means that literally, no one else is around. Being alone isn’t difficult to manage if you’re reasonably healthy. You can be alone and still feel fine. You might not even notice it.
On the other hand, feelings of loneliness are just that: feelings. And feelings have nothing to do with whether you’re physically surrounded by people or not. (For instance, you can be in a crowded supermarket and still feel very lonely.)
Nevertheless, feelings of loneliness can be very uncomfortable and scary.
Why else would some people avoid feelings of loneliness like the plague?
My History With Loneliness
I remember being in college and being amazed at how many of my classmates would go from one relationship to the next, as if they were going for seconds or thirds at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and not from one intimate human connection to the next.
I remember telling a friend that I felt terrible that I couldn’t do what most of my classmates did.
At the time, I had only a few serious relationships, and long periods of time would pass between one serious relationship and the next. I believed there was something “strange” about me that made me choose to spend months, and sometimes even years, without a partner.
Then my friend pointed out that those classmates that went from relationship to relationship, without a break, were doing so because of the fear of being alone–or, more specifically, they were afraid of feeling lonely. My friend was implying that this type of pattern was unhealthy.
I disagreed with my friend at the time: I still thought that I was the one with the unhealthy behavior.
But today, I am not so sure.
Me Vs. Loneliness
Recently, my fear of loneliness was getting to me.
It was no wonder why: more and more of my family and friends were getting married or finding partners. Around me, the ranks of those who were single were quickly dwindling
I don’t have any children either. So most of the time, I tend to fly solo.
Then, of course, there’s no time when my aloneness is more evident than when I sit down at my laptop and type. And when I’m alone, it’s easy for the feelings of loneliness to creep in. These feelings puncture little holes in my writing process that make it that much harder to trudge along.
Usually, I manage pretty well, but recently, these little holes of loneliness were getting deeper and wider, until finally the loneliness was getting so big that I decided to lock the door of my room, sit myself down on my chair, and take O’Donahue’s lead.
As I sat there, I stared directly at the hollowed-out, dry, expansive loneliness in front of me and said:
“Do your best.”
Then I waited for a response.
It wasn’t a split-second before an awful feeling came over me, as if my gut muscles were being tugged on and flattened out.
I was scared at first. But after several moments of the loneliness overcoming my body, I realized something.
I wasn’t dead. I was okay.
After a while, that awful feeling subsided, and I felt at peace.
Then I asked myself:
“Why are people so afraid of loneliness? Why do we spend so much time running away from being alone? Running from relationship to relationship, without a break? Why do we run around and try to make sure we’re constantly surrounded by people who we have a close, emotional connection to and avoid loneliness like it’s a disease? What are we so afraid is going to happen if we just walk into our room alone, lock the door, sit down, and do nothing expect ask loneliness to do its best?”
I didn’t find the answers to those questions that day. But what I did realize was that my feelings of loneliness were nothing to be afraid of; and that the only way to overcome those feelings was to confront them head on.
After all, loneliness is part of the human condition, and no matter how fast we try to run away from loneliness, sooner or later, it’s gonna catch up to us. So why not lock the door right now, sit your butt down, and just get it over with already?
How do you deal with feelings of loneliness when you write? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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