At a church service for Ash Wednesday (almost 40 days ago), responding to a spoken invitation to forego something that would “open space in my life,” I rather impulsively (and inexplicably) decided to give up Facebook for Lent. I then extended the ban to all social media, other than my blog, since I felt otherwise would be cheating. That decision inadvertently kicked off a rather miraculous process, during which over the course of the Lenten season, through contemplative practices, complete with a few wrestling matches with God, I gained some powerful insight.
Prior to Lent, and starting after the holidays, I found myself in an extended funk. I just couldn’t seem to shake the bad mood. In hindsight, I see that I was adjusting to yet another new stage of life, with our son now post-college and truly independent, and mourning the end of our family’s active USNA experience. I was also facing the prospect of several months at home before our next trip. My husband and I really enjoy traveling together, but I find being home for long stretches challenging.
But even more, I was feeling an unmistakable and aching loneliness. I found myself irritated, feeling stuck in a boring house with a taciturn husband (my take, at the time, on the situation). The downside of Empty Nest and Early Retirement seemed to suddenly loom large. I began to look for external targets to blame, the most convenient being my husband. It was his fault, after all, that I was feeling lonely, since he wasn’t being a better companion.
My solution was, as it has always been, to stay busy, and to schedule more time out of the house. None of this activity was necessarily bad; however, the problem was that it was coming from a place of resentfulness and blame.
During the early days of the Lenten season, however, I felt God grab hold of me, smack me upside the head and speak to me, in truly unexpected ways. Mainly because I had made space to hear. Through daily readings from my yoga teacher, to random conversations and emails with friends, to the sermon series at church and my weekly women’s Bible study (we have been studying Exodus), I was hearing a consistent encouragement to walk into the desert, to move toward, and actually embrace, that which I was afraid of. I felt a small but discernible shift beginning inside me.
One Saturday night, early in Lent, my husband and I were home alone together, but engaged in separate activities in different rooms. I suddenly felt an almost overpowering loneliness wash over me. Without access to Facebook or other social media as my go-to tonic, my initial, almost automatic, reaction was to become angry, to look for someone or something to blame for my loneliness, and my poor husband (being the closest in proximity) seemed the most logical choice. I actually became quite uncomfortable. But, rather than continuing to look for ways to avoid my emotions, or pass them off in the form of blame, I thought about the inspiration I’d received, and halted the hot potato blame game and allowed myself to feel whatever I felt.
For the first time, I connected to a wound deep within me. Although frightening, rather than avoid it, I sat with it and simply prayed for healing. This might all sound far-fetched, but I truly felt a definite, and intense, sense of restoration begin inside me.
I recognized that my loneliness is coming from within me, that it is nobody’s fault, that it is part of whom I am, and it will be a process to embrace. I became aware that, although I am not a generally lonesome person, I have struggled at times with loneliness for years, even as a child. But, in claiming this lonesomeness as my own, in engaging it, I felt a sense of freedom – it suddenly didn’t loom so big or scary.
In a sense, in this stage of life, I have found myself in a foreign land, living with more space. I no longer have the hectic job and business travel, parenting responsibilities, care of aging parents, and other activities crowding my world and absorbing my energy. The absence of those distractions creates more opportunity to confront parts of myself that I have feared and avoided for years.
While on a Silent Retreat recently, I reflected and read extensively on the topics of solitude and loneliness, and their role in our life – the American poet Mary Oliver, the Irish author John O’Donahue, and this from April Yamaskaki in her book “Sacred Pauses”:
“Loneliness is such a common human experience that most people…will have felt lonely at one time or another. It’s such a personal experience that you can feel lonely even when you’re with other people. Even while apparently surrounded by others, the psalmist still felt alone: “Look on my right hand and see – there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.” Psalm 142:4.
Even if we do all the “right” things – use the right toothpaste, develop a hobby, join a club or church, form good friendships, marry, and have children and grandchildren – we’ll still be lonely at times.
But in spiritual terms,…we might also say blessed are the lonely – not because it’s good, but loneliness functions as a spur toward God. Blessed are the lonely who are able to look beyond their loneliness. Blessed are the lonely who realize their own need and turn to God. Blessed are the lonely who develop a capacity for solitude.”
During the course of this Lenten season, I have felt a profound change within me. I now understand that the road to engagement and befriending of my loneliness requires acceptance and self-love. This means a gracious tolerance of myself, of my friends, of my circumstances, of my husband and of our differences. Finding companionship both with and without my husband is healthy if coming from a place of respect and genuine loving acceptance. I feel new freedom and delight in my life and marriage emerging from this authenticity. My current balance of activities, which now stems from healthier motivations, feels more joyful and genuine.
With the absence of career, and the addition of more quiet and space, retirement can trigger loneliness
Befriending my loneliness means being comfortable with solitude. It means welcoming this space for God and my own spirituality. It means accepting loneliness as a natural part of life, not to be feared. On this Maundy Thursday, I think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the loneliness he felt as his disciples slept. It also means recognizing that loneliness may be signaling a legitimate need – that it may be necessary to take care of myself in that moment. I believe that self-love, and connecting that to God’s love, is also key to healing my internal wound. As my yoga teacher Lucy said recently, learning to be open to our difficult qualities and accept them as a part of us is the process of loving and accepting ourselves.
Much has been written lately about the high incidence of “gray divorce” and difficulties adjusting emotionally after retirement, and I see how post-retirement can be a vulnerable period. John O’Donahue writes, “As you age, you will have more space to become acquainted with yourself. This solitude can take the form of loneliness, and as you age you can become very lonely.” It can also be frightening to confront those wounds and those parts of ourselves that we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. It is often easier to blame others, especially our spouses, for our discomfort. But, with some intention and contemplation, it can also be a time to make peace with ourselves. For me, this process has spurred a spiritual reawakening that is both exciting and deeply reassuring.
I left the Silent Retreat with a beautiful blessing by John O’Donohue, from his book “To Bless the Space Between Us”:
When the old ghosts come back
To feed on everywhere you felt sure,
Do not strengthen their hunger
By choosing to fear;
Rather, decide to call on your heart
That it may grow clear and free
To welcome home your emptiness
That it may cleanse you
Like the clearest air
You could ever breathe.
Allow your loneliness time
To dissolve the shell of dross
That had closed around you;
Choose in this severe silence
To hear the one true voice
Your rushed life fears;
Cradle yourself like a child
Learning to trust what emerges,
So that gradually
You may come to know
That deep in that black hole
You will find the blue flower
That holds the mystical light
Which will illuminate in you
The glimmer of springtime.
I am grateful I accepted the invitation to make space during Lent. Through my amazing, contemplative journey through the space and darkness, I am blessed to be now seeing the glorious glimmer of springtime.