Summer 1984, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 100-108.

Kelley Kelsey:
      The Gift of Loneliness

Loneliness accepted becomes a gift leading one from a life dominated by tears to the discovery of one's true self and finally to the heart of longing and the love of God.

Mrs. Kelsey, a resident of South Bend, Indiana, provides spiritual direction privately and at The Solitude of St. Joseph at Notre Dame. Her articles have appeared in various religious and spiritual publications.

THE structure of modern life brings us into contact with many people. We are occupied with many activities, professionally, socially, politically. And yet, perhaps never before have we experienced such loneliness, alienation, and separation. Mobility, proximity, and opportunity are no assurance of access to, or real connection with, other human beings. Surrounded by people and activities, we often find ourselves desperately alone. We are often unable to reach out to another because of our fear of rejection, or our fear of the responsibility of relationship. Intimacy terrifies us just as much as does being alone.

In his book Loneliness, Clark Moustakas speaks of two kinds of loneliness: the loneliness of the human condition ("existential loneliness") and the loneliness that we experience as a result of our fear of loneliness ("loneliness anxiety").(1) The loneliness and tension which are a part of the human condition can be creative; the loneliness which is a result of fear usually cripples our human potential. We might say that existential loneliness is a genuine part of the human condition over which we have no control; but loneliness anxiety is something we have chosen, albeit unconsciously, and over which we can exercise some control simply by being aware of our fear. Loneliness anxiety only encourages us to develop a life-style that supports our fear (and fosters neurosis) and that further alienates us from ourselves and from others.

The nuclear cloud which hangs over us today is another threat which adds to our fear. There is the very real possibility that at any moment we could experience the annihilation of nuclear war. The fact that we have become something of a rootless society is another disquieting phenomenon of our time. Our work often demands that we be mobile and ready to move at a moment's notice; new opportunities and challenges are often reserved for the adventurous spirit. This new "freedom" has left us without solid grounding in, or commitment to, a place or a community. We are becoming more aware of the price of this freedom and success; we are experiencing estrangement from many old friends and much of our family. Life-styles have been changed dramatically by an age that rushes headlong into tomorrow -- into the next century -- leaving us breathless, anxious, suffering from future shock. Our work, our play, our contacts with others have become impersonal, often lacking the human warmth and support we found yesterday within family and primary groups. This is especially true for older people who have lived through revolutionary changes in society within this century. These changes have often served to deepen insecurities and contribute to our loneliness.

In order to overcome or escape our loneliness, we often throw ourselves compulsively and anxiously into an endless round of activity. Or our fear drives us to withdraw from human exchange. Either way, we are reacting to life out of fear and anxiety, which leaves us less open and responsive to what life offers. Our fear shapes our attitude and expectation and only serves to attract that which we wish to avoid.


If we can recognize and accept the real loneliness of the human condition -- that, ultimately, we are each alone -- we can then begin to free ourselves from the fear of loneliness that chews away at our human potential. "Each of us travels alone. No one else can always keep us safe."(2) If we can accept the pain of being human, of being self-aware, then perhaps we, like Jacob, might claim a blessing from our struggle. We will not then squander precious human resources trying to evade and escape the loneliness which has in it the seed of new life. In the pain of all human experience there is the call to conversion. The grandest schemes for avoidance and escape will not make us unalone, but they will distract us from our grandest human task: cooperation with the ongoing process of conversion.

In accepting loneliness as a part of the human condition and abandoning the frenetic search for someone or something to make us unalone, we can then be open to the message within our existential pain. Patient and prayerful waiting and listening are necessary, also courage and honesty with ourselves. But it is the only way to freedom from domination by fear. The alternative is to choose to remain unaware of what life asks of us (and irresponsible), but then we shall remain unfree and our life determined by our anxiety. "There is no solution to loneliness but to accept it, face it, live with it, and let it be. All it requires is the right to emerge in genuine form."(3) "The cure for loneliness lies in facing it and understanding it."(4) This acceptance and understanding is necessary if we are to live creative lives, if we are to be free and open to the opportunities for further growth and development. Before we can take this step toward understanding, we have to let go the fallacious idea that pain has nothing to teach us, that life should be always comfortable and pleasurable. If we are serious about our human task, we become aware of the invitation in the pain that enters our life, an invitation that invites us to be more than we are. "Where there is no pain there is no growth."(5) The pain of loneliness is such an invitation and opportunity.

Some of the greatest literature, art, and music that the world has known has been conceived in moments of profound loneliness, loneliness that has been accepted and allowed to speak. Such creation cannot happen through denial. And such creation is usually a lonely and solitary experience. It is like birthing -- we have to go with the labor pains; no one else can do it for us. The creation that might result from our bearing the tension of our pain may bring delight to many, but the process of bringing it forth is a lonely one. Out of loneliness grows the contented aloneness that opens up to us our own creative depths. It is not in driven busyness that we find that "more" that we long for. It is in the recollection of aloneness that we discover deep within ourselves that which supports us when we have nothing or no one to take away our loneliness. It is here that we come in touch with the life that connects us with ourselves, with others, and with God.

The fear of loneliness can keep us from coming in touch with the life beyond loneliness, the life of aloneness and solitude. It is indeed easy to be seduced by the temper of our time, which is to stay constantly busy and on the move. By staying busy, by taking on more and more jobs, we can avoid the confrontation of loneliness; we look to our jobs and roles to tell us who we are and to provide us with self-validation. But the affirmation and approval of the world cannot provide us with self-validation. This comes from beyond ourselves, and yet it is located in our own depths. Our true identity is known only by the One who created us. Self-validation can come only from getting in touch with that truth which we are.

Part of our fear of loneliness is our fear of losing our self, or our sense of who we are, if we are cut off from those things which provide us with a sense of identity. This fear of loss of self is related to our fear of death, which is in truth a fear of life (see Ernest Becker's Denial of Death). This fear has an insidious way of leaving its mark on all that we do or think. Because there is the fear of losing our sense of self if we suspend our activity, we shun the aloneness and non-activity of solitude. This only serves to strengthen our belief that we already know who we are. By our own definition we limit that self whose milieu is more one of infinitude. But this self known by the Father can be discovered only by first confronting the fears and insecurities which allow us to be less than we are. It is in solitude that we begin to see more clearly that image of ourselves that is fashioned more according to the demands of our ego; it is in solitude that we begin to glimpse a new image with possibilities beyond anything we have known. This journey from the old to the new carries us through a desert place. But this desert is the anteroom to joy. In this lonely place we are confronted by our own darkness, but we also meet there the One who knows our true name. Our triumph over loneliness will not come by refusing to be alone, avoiding solitude. "Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude."(6) And those who can bear solitude will discover joy. Solitude is the handmaid of the interior life. Without quiet and aloneness, it is not possible to develop an interior life. And without an interior life, and an awareness of Something beyond self which calls us into being, there is nothing to speak to us but our own emptiness and loneliness.


It is not surprising that we have a fear of loneliness; the self that most of us are with when we are alone is indeed not very good company -- a self impoverished and without holy joy. The great void that confronts us when we are cut off from those things which help to shore up a flagging sense of self speaks to us of missing parts of our self, areas which we have not yet discovered and appropriated. Our loneliness speaks to us of unlived life, potential within us that we are not living out. The responsibility to become more fully the person our loneliness invites us to be is a sacred one. The pain in our loneliness is transformed when we become aware that we are invited to be partners with God in the completion of our own creation. God asks our cooperation in our own completion, and our "attentiveness to the shape of this inbuilt task"(7) is nothing short of prayer. We have no task more sacred than to consent to wait in the void of our loneliness until grace breaks through (as Simone Weil suggests). Only then can our "inbuilt task" begin to unfold. Only by accepting the loneliness of the moment as sacrament and gift can we know God's will, which is the peace, the joy, and the love that we long for. Essential to this creative moment is our being able to see our self as the gift of God to us. Only then can we begin to relate to our self.

Kierkegaard speaks of relating to one's own self by willing to be oneself. This is a heroic task. Can we have the courage and willingness to become who we are meant to become without a -- sense of gratitude which recognizes self as gift? William M. Thompson sees our development as spiritual beings as being directly related to our capacity for gratitude.(8) But perhaps before we can recognize and accept self as gift, and say yes to the personal task of becoming, we must be able to recognize and accept the gift and opportunity in our loneliness -- and even in our despair. Our willingness to cooperate in God's work of creation that we are depends much upon our consciousness of gift. In accepting self as gift (as well as the longings of the human condition) and accepting the task of becoming that self that beckons to us beyond the loneliness, we come into relation to others, to our self, and "to the Power which constituted it."(9)

The courage to be oneself emerges from accepting one's fear of nonbeing. By our acceptance of the fear of nonbeing, which confronts us in our fear of loneliness, we are able to overcome our fear of becoming who we are. Implicit in the acceptance of our fear of nonbeing is our acceptance of our inability to be that person without help. Lacking the confidence to become who we are, we place our confidence in the One who calls us forth. The fear of nonbeing in our loneliness anxiety is overshadowed by the love that calls us into being, through the loneliness, to the self who dwells in God. This self can have the courage to be only when it experiences itself as known and loved by the One who both calls it and empowers it to be.

As co-creators and as carriers of a divine spark, we have a responsibility to join in the work of divinization of the world. The work begins with us. We "must build -- starting with the most natural territory of our own self -- a work, an opus, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth."'(10)Even as we build our own souls we are collaborating in the building of the earth, the completion of ourselves and the world. All that is a part of our life enters into this "work" -- throughout our lives we are and have been in the process of making our souls and building the world. This work can begin in earnest with our conscious response to the personal task of transformation. Our loneliness and longing remind us that we are not yet all that we are meant to be.

Seen from this perspective, it would seem that loneliness is indeed a gift; it proffers us the opportunity to recognize our own incompleteness and the invitation to accept our part in this work of creation. Ernest Becker speaks of loneliness as an "evolutionary achievement." In "The Spectrum of Loneliness," he observes that loneliness is distinctive in evolution; human loneliness is unique because "it develops out of a non-physical, non-instinctive sphere."(11) Existence poses for each individual a question that must be answered. And we cannot find the answer within ourselves wholly. "One cannot explain or justify one's own existence."(12) That answer can come only from "some kind of 'beyond.'"

Becker goes on to discuss the varieties of loneliness, including the "loneliness of individuation." He asks: "What kind of social forms can we begin to imagine, in which the loneliness of individuation could be considered a desirable developmental goal in one's personal life -- in place of the frantic driveness of cultural and national achievement . . .?"(13)


The middle years of life often usher in a deep loneliness, sometimes turning our world upside down. This pain of passage invites us to step back and examine our life, to take a look at where we have been and reflect on where we are going. The goals of outer achievement of the first half of life are no longer adequate for the new age that is dawning. The needs of the second half of life are interior ones; our goals must change with the new rhythm of life. It is the time of self-appropriation, of individuation, of becoming who We are. And it is a lonely experience. It is a time of great change. "We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie."(14)

If we have no understanding of the passages of life and what the "mid-life crisis" asks of us, there can be much misery and waste of human potential. It is a time when our focus must move from doing to being, from achievement and making a name for ourselves to becoming and building our souls. Until we have understood this and said yes to our inbuilt task, we shall continue to experience meaningless suffering. Our chief concern cannot be to escape and avoid the pain of this passage, but to say yes to the way that leads through death to wholeness and new life. If we refuse to accept the pain which is a part of growth, we can be sure that no transformation can take place. "The roots of all our neuroses lie here, in the conflict between the longing for growth and freedom and our incapacity or refusal to pay the price in suffering of the kind which challenges the supremacy of the ego's demands."(15)

The loneliness of mid-life and the loneliness of individuation offer us the opportunity to assent to the death of ego demands so that we might recognize the only real claim on us: to become loving people. The crisis of mid-life is the turning point which marks the end of our first journey, but it is the beginning of the "second journey." (For a discussion of spirituality beyond mid-life, see Second Journey by Gerald O'Collins.) We are asked to let go of the old so that the new might emerge; only our willingness to allow the old to pass opens the way for the birth of the new. This is always a lonely and painful process, but it is "the truth of the universe." There is no new life without a dying, "without repeated deaths of old attitudes, of superficial desires, and finally of every claim of the ego to dominance."(16)

There are no short cuts to becoming whole persons; there is no growth without pain. Refusal to give our conscious assent to the process gains us not life but death, for they who would save their lives will lose them. We do not gain life by refusing the pain of spiritual becoming. "Spiritual suffering is overcome not by alleviation but by penetration."(17) "Only when we have learned the particular lesson that our travail is here to teach us can we put away the past pain . . . ."(18) Then we can get on with what life is asking of us. When we, like Dante, find ourselves in mid-life in the middle of a dark wood, we can know that before us has been placed the choice between life and death, between blessing and curse. If we choose life, paradiso awaits beyond the hell of our death experience; if we refuse the death that leads to the resurrection experience, then we are forever trapped in the pain and darkness of our own inferno.

The movement from death into new life depends upon us. The choice is ours, to accept the genuine pain of the human condition and move on toward the new life which it promises, or to accept the paralysis and death of our fear and anxiety. Our yes opens the way to a spiritual adventure that leads more deeply into God. As we give ourselves to this new journey, we discover that our loneliness is being transformed. We are no longer held captive by our fears; we experience the freedom of being in the hands of the living God. The loneliness and the longing have led us upon a way where God is our companion. Our experience is something like that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; our dead hearts have been set aflame with a new fire. The loneliness has changed "from a languishing into a love . . . ."(19)

Our willingness to walk alone and to accept the task of the last half of life enables us to discover the heart in our loneliness, the love that leads to God. We are no longer incapacitated by our fears but discover within ourselves a new strength, a new life. Our willingness to put our feet upon a path that leads into the unknown is "enabling and empowering."(20) We discover that our loneliness was indeed gift. It led us from an existence dominated by fear to a life grounded in joy; it opened us to a journey into the heart of longing whose destination was Love.

  1. Clark E. Moustakas, Loneliness (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1961).
  2. Gail Sheehy, Passages (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), p. 196.
  3. Moustakas, Loneliness, p. 48.
  4. Eric P. Mosse, M.D., The Conquest of Loneliness (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 10.
  5. Martin Israel, The Pain that Heals: The Place of Suffering in the Growth of the Person (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 148.
  6. Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Paul Scribner's Sons, 1963), p. 21.
  7. David B. Burrell, C.S.C., Exercises in Religious Understanding (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), p. 168.
  8. William M. Thompson, Christ and Consciousness: Exploring Christ's Contribution to Human Consciousness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), p. 1.
  9. S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (New York: Doubleday, 1954), p. 147.
  10. Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968), pp. 60-61.
  11. Ernest Becker, "The Spectrum of Loneliness," Humanitas: Journal of the Institute of Man, 10 (November 1974): 237.
  12. Ibid., p. 239.
  13. Ibid., p. 246.
  14. C.G. Jung, Psychological Reflections (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p.138.
  15. Helen M. Luke, "Suffering," Parabola: Myth and the Quest for Meaning, 8, no. 1 (Winter 1983).
  16. Helen M. Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose (Pecos, N.M.: Dove Publications, 1975), p. 2.
  17. Israel, Pain that Heals, p. 180.
  18. Ibid., p. 185.
  19. John S. Dunne, The Reasons of the Heart (New York: Macmillan, 1978), p. 7. 20 Ibid., p. 115.