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The Medicine of Loneliness

March 14, 2019

canal journey sepia

*photo by Pam Trachta

The Medicine of Loneliness: A Mythos for our Time

Over this last year of my healing journey, I’ve been opening the door to loneliness when she comes knocking. Yes, I’ve been inviting loneliness in to have a seat at my table, to tell me her stories, to share her searing truths with me.

At times loneliness comes as an ache in the heart that will not let up.  Or, as a feeling of otherness that might strike, out of the blue, in the middle of a gathering with people I love and who love me. Or as a kind of existential burning that rains down when I am standing under the moon, showered by starlight.  Or as a broken open tenderness in my bones as I walk down the supermarket aisles, looking at everyone’s faces—everyone with somewhere to go, things to do, people to be. I too have places to go too, people to be. But it is just in those moments, when the quiet rushes into the field of noise, that loneliness throws her fishing line out and hooks me from behind.  She has a song for me.  She has medicine for me.  She wants to dance.  But this is a bitterroot medicine I want to turn away from, spit out, cast off.  After all, who would want to tango with loneliness?

Spending time in solitude is one thing—it is a wellspring I must drink from for sanity. Yes, solitude—in balance—nourishes.  But loneliness?  Well, that might happen anywhere, at any time. She might slip into the back door of the heart and pummel you with invitations you don’t want to accept. And besides, shame often accompanies loneliness. And all the voices say—whatever you do, just don’t open that pandora’s box. Just… don’t. Quickly, fill it with stimulus or substance or distraction or….something.

Perhaps, we wonder, if we spoke the truth of loneliness, people might misunderstand— they might not see that we also experience a thousand other things—like bliss, connection, communion, beauty, and joy. They might not understand that there is a sweetness to loneliness, like the wind sheer on a lone falcon’s wings. They might think we want them to fix us, save us, feed us, or empty the loneliness from our souls. That’s the catch 22 of loneliness.  We often stay quiet about its presence in the same we stay quiet about grief or fear or death— because the mere acknowledgement reminds us of our fragility and of the elemental forces that change us and act in and upon our lives.

The other day, I sat with a friend on the bank of a river that had been completely shape-shifted by a massive flood a few years ago. Trees uprooted, thousands of tons of rock shifted, the flow re-routed—the river’s story had been entirely rewritten in one night. I could relate. I have had many such floods in my life—the most recent moved through just this last year.  And it has humbled, softened and re-membered me into a never before seen expression of my self.

In the witness of that river and this friend, I spoke to my loneliness—to the shape and color of it, to the taste of it in my mouth, to its scent on my skin. I shared this not from a place of looking back on it from afar, or from the perspective of having figured anything out, or from needing anything, but simply from the place of speaking the truth—that today, in that moment, loneliness was perched on my shoulder.

Whatever I thought might happen, didn’t. The river kept flowing and singing its cadence of high and low notes. The myriad currents flowed together into one single beautiful offering. Nothing was excluded or othered here. I was received with compassion, witnessing, open hands—by my friend and by the land itself. Sometimes we are the ones to offer ourselves this open hand, but in that moment, I felt the relief of being met in this place by anotherwho has also felt loneliness. I felt the possibility and grace this risk opens.

The UK has now established a Ministry of Loneliness[1]—because loneliness has become an epidemic and national health crisis. This could be seen as a kind of mythic meme for our times. In so-called modern western culture, we are collectively wracked with a core loneliness we rarely admit to or address. At the center of our “modern” consumer way of life is a devouring hunger.  More and more “content”, more and more speed, more and more noise and high drama, more and more technology. Such a desperation this loneliness evokes when not met, addressed, tended to.  Our culture of addiction, celebrity rise and fall, consumerism, pornography, and closeted hungers will continue to devour what is most sacred if we are not willing to look into the shadows, to see what we find, to befriend our own discomfort and vulnerability. For it is the adherence to the illusion of extreme autonomy and self-reliance that is part and parcel of the spin towards personal, communal and planetary demise.

Perhaps it is by turning into the medicine of our loneliness that we receive essential aspects of ourselves back—whole chapters in the book of our wild, untamable heart. What if the acknowledgement of our loneliness brings us face to face with the untruths we have been telling ourselves—that we must be invincible, fearless, entirely self-sufficient, without need, and “put together” to be whole or loveable or useful?

We are quite literally wired for connection, relationship, and interrelatedness. We have a mammalian heart. Belonging is our birthright and call.  And the crisis of “loneliness” offers us a chance to turn to each other and say—I am whole, I am sovereign…. and I need youmy community, my beloveds, my planet. I belong to you and you to me. Perhaps from this place of compassionate meeting—we might understand more about the ways we nourish and are nourished. And from a place of deeper resource, we can let some of the hungry ghosts that are creating so much chaos in our world simply….rest.

There is no doubt that part of the ferocity of these intense times invites us to remember that we are on this earth ship together and that our very survival (much less our thriving) is dependent on connecting with and working with and turning to—the apparent other—within and without.

Loneliness knocked on my door and I let her in.  She stayed for a while.  She drank her fill, and I offered her a second cup.  We settled in together and shared a laugh or two. We drank starlight and mused on the mystery of eternity.  And then we got quiet—very quiet. In that stillness I met her gaze, and there, right there, I saw how loneliness and connection are two wings of the same bird called grace.


“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you as few
human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
has made my eyes so soft,

my voice so tender, my need of God
absolutely clear.”


Ministry of Loneliness:


canal journey sepia

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