The Press of Loneliness

Posted on in On Our Radar by Eric Leroy Wilson

Extracting the Gifts


Jesus knows what loneliness feels like. I imagine he is well aware of the sound, the texture, the alkaline taste of aloneness. Loneliness colors much of His time at the Mount of Olives. Darkness constricting the waiting moment. Being swallowed up by the inevitability of what is to come. His closest friends fall asleep in the midst of His deepest sorrow. His most committed followers scatter and leave Him upon His arrest. Jesus gets my loneliness.

I wear my loneliness like an undergarment, unseen yet the closest thing to my skin. And like most clothing, our minds filter out its sensorial presence. But when I allow myself to perceive it, the loneliness is perceived. I think this is the first time I’ve admitted my loneliness. I’m so thick with rich community that it seems almost a travesty to admit its existence. But I’m finally coming to grips with the fact that loneliness is not about having a certain number of key relationships in our life. It’s something more.

I sit with many lonely people in my practice. As I hold space for them in Spiritual Direction, we walk the halls of their hearts. So often what is there is profound loneliness. Most of them are emerging adults surrounded by laughing acquaintances, helicopter parents, and thousands of friends and followers on social media. But in the lightness of our day we sit in the sticky darkness of their loneliness together. And I’m honored to hold vigil with them there. Because journeying into the dark of their aloneness, bearing witness to their grief, serving as wet nurse to their tears offers rich wisdom.

For many, loneliness is a product of this age. While we voraciously crave deep intimacy, we drown in hurry and busyness. These thieves snatch our ability to move into the depth of relationship required for true intimacy. All that remain are superficial associations ill-equipped to feed the hunger of intimacy. Without real intimacy, loneliness persists.

We also hold a social imagination shaped by fear. Politicians use fear to solidify their base. Advertisers use fear to peddle their useless wares. When you grow up with that much fear, walls get higher, locks get stronger, loneliness gets thicker.

This is also a generation weaned on the milk of certainty. Everyone is so damn certain about everything. And with certainty comes animosity toward those certain about the opposing position. We’ve created a world of us versus them for a generation hungry to understand and connect with “them.”

a man walking under an umbrella

This generation is also caught in the comparison trap. Many find their worth by comparing themselves to others. From body types to social media acceptance, comparison is the means for worth but is also the path to superficial community. And the loneliness spreads.

The challenge I offer to myself and others in my practice is to consider keeping company with our loneliness. “Keeping company” was the term my rural relatives gave to the practice of slowing and sitting in one another’s presence. As we keep company, the task (if it is a task) is merely to “be with.” What if we ventured to keep company with our loneliness? What if we learned lonely’s patterns, its various shades, and whether it runs hot or cold in us?

As we keep company with it, could we offer our loneliness peace? The hope is to offer grace-filled awareness to its presence. If courageous enough, maybe we allow loneliness to become our talking partner. There is wisdom to learn from aloneness. Loneliness reveals ourselves to ourselves. It exposes strength as well as weakness. Aloneness tests the measure of our wants and desires. So when it speaks we should listen. But when we listen we have to be aware that loneliness often lies. It lies to keep us close to its side. So we listen to it deeply but always test the veracity of its claims.

The challenge is to allow aloneness to be our thermometer, which gauges how we are. We just can’t allow it to be our thermostat, which controls who we become. Ultimately, the aim of keeping company with our loneliness is to reconcile ourselves with it as well as with all our emotions. We do this to bring our whole selves to offer sacred consent to the Divine. We bring all of who we are to the flow of God’s will so we can in our entirety say yes! I believe this is what Jesus did in the garden when he says, “Not my will be yours be done.”

It makes sense that Jesus experiences loneliness on the Mount of Olives in a place called Gethsemane. Gethsemane means “place where olives are pressed.” Jesus experiences profound loneliness where olives are pressed under huge stones to extract their needful oils. And while I hate my loneliness and despise the hurt it causes those I care for, if we can keep company with loneliness, it can extract some useful things from us as well. The press of loneliness can foster tender hearts, and deeper character, as well as a hunger and thirst for justice. The press of loneliness can pull from us things that can light dark places, heal fresh wounds, and satisfy those desperate to be fed. So I bear this grinding loneliness comforted by two things: Jesus gets the press and can use what that press gets out of us all.

Eric Leroy Wilson is a certified Spiritual Director and Life Coach who serves as associate chaplain at Pepperdine University. Wilson is a poet, award-winning playwright, theatrical director, and author of Faith: The First Seven Lessons. He serves as spiritual director for the National Racial Unity Leadership Summit.

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