“Sitting in the subway, I am surrounded by silent people hidden behind their newspapers or staring away in the world of their own fantasies. Nobody speaks with a stranger, and a patrolling policeman keeps reminding me that people are not out to help each other. But when my eyes wander over the walls of the train covered with invitations to buy more or new products, I see young, beautiful people enjoying each other in a gentle embrace, playful men and women smiling at each other in fast sailboats, proud explorers on horseback encouraging each other to take brave risks, fearless children dancing on a sunny beach, and charming girls always ready to serve me in airplanes and ocean liners. While the subway train runs from one dark tunnel into the other and I am nervously aware where I keep my money, the words and images decorating my fearful world speak about love, gentleness, tenderness and about a joyful togetherness of spontaneous people.”
These are words Henri Nouwen wrote down during a visit to New York City once. It’s interesting what you notice when you have no one to talk to. I once found myself counting the ceiling tiles in a room (492) just because I had nothing else to do and no one to talk to in order to pass the time. I think Nouwen’s observation, though, is better than mine. He notices something very peculiar. All the advertisements in the subway showed people interacting in glorious relationships while all the people in the subway were doing their best to live in their own little worlds with as little interaction as possible with the people around them. He goes on to draw some interesting conclusions. He says, “Loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today.”
Nouwen became “acutely aware” of how our Western society heightens our awareness of our loneliness to a high degree. Everyone faces loneliness and yet we are constantly bombarded with images of the opposite of loneliness. It makes you think that advertisers would be a lot more effective if they tried to connect with their audience on the level of reality rather than fantasy. By the way, I find it interesting that Nouwen wrote these words back in the 70’s. In the past 10 years we’ve experienced a surge of “reality” programs that, in my opinion, do nothing more than twist reality back into fantasy. Nouwen’s words are every bit as true today as they were thirty years ago.
So here’s my thought: if loneliness is truly a universal condition, then everyone we come in contact with can be connected with on that level. I can talk to you about loneliness because I know you’ve experienced it, too. The problem is, if Nouwen is right, that most of us don’t want to admit our struggles. And if someone is willing to share out of their own loneliness, they will find an unwilling, but very attentive audience. On the outside they will have trouble expressing this reality while, on the inside, they are resonating on the exact same frequency.
This has some implications. Everyone has holes in their lives that need to be filled. When they’re not filled, they experience loneliness. When they experience loneliness, they try to find something (anything) to fill that loneliness. On a Gospel level, we realize that everyone has a hole that is meant to be filled by God. I’ve seen a lot of different things used to fill that void (money, drugs, pornography, etc.) and yet the only thing that can fill that hole is God. All human beings are meant to have God in their lives. Do you feel lonely? I understand what you’re going through. I’d be glad to share what’s filled that hole in my life.
I’d love to sit here and write about how God is all you’ll ever need to defeat loneliness in your life but the truth is that God didn’t make us that way. I knew Jesus for many years before I got married. I had a lonely hole in my life that was waiting to filled (longing to be filled) for many years and God chose NOT to fill that hole for me. I asked Him to do just that (many times) and He chose NOT to. I just had to wait for the right woman at the right time. And then the hole was filled. Yes, God filled that hole – just not with Himself. It’s not that He couldn’t have filled that hole but He created that hole in me for a reason. That hole was reserved for my wife.
There are other holes, too. My family fills a hole that God created in me. My friends fill holes God created in me. Is it possible that there could be a purpose for all this loneliness we feel? I think that’s what Nouwen is getting at. On the highest level, loneliness is meant to cause us to long for solitude where we can spend time with God alone. I know that’s what Nouwen is getting at because he’s already said so in the first chapter of the book. I think I see what he’s getting at and I think he may be right. Perhaps loneliness isn’t meant to be a burden so much as a gift that leads us to fulfill our very purpose in life.