Living Alone

Chapter 2

The Experience of Aloneness

When one has, through the force of circumstances, to spend a period of time alone and separated from one's usual friends and associates, a vacuum suddenly appears in one's life. The immediate response is to fill it at all costs. There seems to be something wrong in being on one's own. Inasmuch as the image of a successful person presents itself as someone surrounded by friends, the centre of attraction and a figure of influence in the local situation, so the person outside life's immediate hustle and social activity is made to feel inferior if not psychologically disturbed. To admit that one is alone is the beginning of a great personal healing, to persist accepting that state of aloneness is the opening phase of a new dimension of living. To enjoy the silence of aloneness is the way to a deeper knowledge of God.

In this respect there is an important difference between aloneness and solitude. Solitude is a state that anyone can attain by an act of free choice. I, as the most sought - after person in the world, can escape from the crowds, as Jesus did in order to pray silently to his Father, and enjoy peace and quietness on my own. This is solitude, and is a prerequisite for an effective prayer life. When I have had my fill of tranquillity, I can resume the active social round once more, refreshed and renewed. The retreat movement, now a well - established part of spiritual development for the laity, is an obvious application of the principle of solitude. In this instance it is usually necessary for the retreatant's attention to be focused on the things of eternal truth by the Holy Spirit whose mouthpiece is the retreat conductor. Only those experienced in the spiritual life can find the Spirit of God within themselves sufficiently arresting to guide them in the adventure of inner silence. Otherwise the attention will wander ludicrously, and the person might as profitably be engaged in the commerce of everyday life as in wasting his time in wordless tumult.

By contrast, aloneness is thrust on the person by the circumstances of his life. The bastions of social support have been removed and he enters the nakedness of personal confrontation unshielded by all outer companionship. The result can be terrifying almost to the point of suicide if it is not rapidly relieved. In order to escape the terrible impact of truth that impinges on the naked soul, the person flees from one source of social activity to another, if he is what is generally called a "normal" individual. He strives desperately to sustain the status quo by shallow conviviality or by interesting himself in some group activity, which may be educational, artistic or political. The end of this is not so much the education of the mind as the establishment of new associations that will be able to fill the threatening vacuum and allow the even flow of life to proceed. It is a fearful thing to fall into the void that is one's unfulfilled inner life, almost as terrible as falling into the hands of the living God that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes. Indeed the two experiences touch each other; I will never know God until I know the inner hell of my unredeemed nature and the darkness that lies outside the cosy calm of intellectual assurance which I have until now identified with the whole of my life.

There is also a significant difference between aloneness and loneliness. The lonely person is depressed, unhappy and yearning for company. Yet there is something inside himself that seems to separate him from other people. It is, if it could be properly analysed, an inner feeling of inferiority, of unworthiness that robs him of composure and fellowship. One can be lonely even in the centre of a crowd of revellers or in a club of people sharing a common interest. This indicates that the root of loneliness lies far deeper than intellectual incompatibility. In the end we begin to realize that there is One who alone can satisfy the soul - God. Our hearts, as St Augustine reminds us, are restless until they are filled with his rest. Until we know the living God we will know neither ourselves nor our fellows. Shallow conviviality is the great deceiver. It directs our gaze away from the inner reality of dereliction by conjuring up a fantasy of fellowship based on a common interest. Loneliness indicates that the state of living alone has not been properly confronted and assimilated. It also tells us that there are ranges of our inner life that lie unexplored, being as yet shrouded in a dark pall of fear and meaninglessness. The writer of Psalms 42 and 43, a Levite exiled from the Temple in Jerusalem, complains of his depth of misery and groans in his distress, yet he will wait for God, praising him continually:

Why so downcast, my soul
   Why do you sigh within me?
Put your hope in God: I shall praise him yet,
   My saviour, my God.

This verse, repeated on several occasions in the two psalms, voices the inner longing and unalleviated distress of the lonely soul. But whereas the Psalmist knows from whom healing alone can come, the lonely person is much more likely to search for relief by outer activities than by a courageous inner exploration of his true being in the state of aloneness.

Aloneness, unlike loneliness, accepts its situation and looks courageously into the future of a life apart from the immediate proximity of another person. It has its forbidding moments, but is also illumined with hope, the hope of a solid identity established and set firm in a raging sea of outer turmoil and destruction. When one can say through the bitter blows of impersonal outer events, "Here I stand, and no mortal thing will move me from the centre of my being", one has indeed attained the stature of an adult. By comparison, many outwardly successful people who seem to be masters of their professions and emanate great charm, may contain within them a little child who has never grown up and has the childish qualities of exhibitionism, self-centredness and a complete unawareness of the needs of other people. How often do we meet apparently successful people who behave as spoilt children when they are in any way thwarted! By contrast, those who have explored their own depths can accept the vicissitudes of fate with equanimity and remain composed and even-tempered in the face of outer disaster or insult. The constructive use of silence is the key to a transformed character which no longer places itself at the centre of the world but rather sees itself as an expendable commodity for the use of all life.

What does it feel like to be left suddenly alone? If aloneness is thrust on one, the first reaction is to escape from it by seeking the company of other people. There is a round of telephone conversations followed by visits and shared entertainments, but soon this source of escape dries up. Other people have their own destiny to fulfil and their private interests take up their attention. One also learns how little in common one has, at least in the depth of one's personality, with one's so-called friends, who in fact are mostly superficial acquaintances. One also realizes how superficial one's own life has been, how it has depended for its sustenance on the support of other people whom one has seldom accepted in their own right apart from the use one can make of them. Whenever we are startled by the superficiality of those whom we once regarded as our friends, the finger of judgement is pointing as much at us as at them. It is our own previous lack of depth that is being starkly revealed.

And so the obsessive social round drives gradually to a halt when we have nothing further to offer those around us. The failing company of other people may to some extent be replaced by self-education in the form of reading many books, becoming interested in local political issues or joining societies devoted to learning, art or philanthropic endeavour. By this not only is the attention diverted from the immediate situation of aloneness, but even more important, there is the possibility and hope that new associations will take the place of the relationships of the past that proved so insubstantial when they were put to the test. It is indeed possible for the person who has to live alone to survive socially on this surface froth of encounters with people who share a common interest. But there is no depth, no true fellowship, by which I mean a sharing of the whole person, a mutual giving of selves to the edification of all.

Eventually one has to make the journey inwards. To be sure, this is not made voluntarily but is rather thrust on one. It is so forbidding that the dim intimations we have about it in normal consciousness when we are fully engaged in profitable work are speedily set aside by vain thoughts and fantasies about the future. One is reminded of the great rhapsody to wisdom in Job 28:

'Where then does wisdom come from,
and where is the source of understanding?
No creature on earth can see it,
and it is hidden from the birds of the air.
Destruction and death say
"We know of it only by report."
But God understands the way to it,
he alone knows its source;
for he can see to the ends of the earth
and he surveys everything under heaven.'
        (verses 20-24)

We know of this inner realm of the self also by report alone; it is close to death and near to God, who is both our friend and lover and also a devouring fire. When we have to bear our own company for a considerable length of time, the darkness within becomes light visible as we explore the depths of our being.

This experience of aloneness with God - although few who are in the depths of life alone know that it is God who is with them - is the heart of a real retreat. But whereas the retreat has a finite duration and is usually made in the company of other people and in agreeable surroundings, the aloneness of common life has no set boundaries of time, but rather extends terrifyingly into the future, without limits and without end. It seems to point to a life of perpetual loneliness, exclusion from the company of one's fellows and stark purposelessness. In the depths of aloneness all one's fears are unleashed from their abode in the darkness of the unconscious mind and they enter into consciousness, empowered and magnified by the natural egoism of the unredeemed personality - by unredeemed I mean that the person is still a slave to the demand of his ego, which is the dictator within. To be redeemed from the slavery of sin, which is a vital concept of the spiritual life, means to be freed from the domination of the ego and enter into the service of all life under the protective love of God. It is in fact the journey, meaning and end of life.

The emergent fears that crowd into and dominate the awareness of the man who is left alone are all, in one way or another, related to his survival, or to be more precise, what he believes is necessary for his survival. Not too far from the surface of consciousness lie our true attitudes to our fellows. While there may be an outer affability, inwardly there is often a raging vortex of distrust, resentment and hatred against those whom we believe are scheming against us and seeking to destroy our livelihood, if not our life itself. This state of affairs, when consciously expressed, and provided, of course, it has no substance in fact, is called paranoia and is the preserve of the psychiatrist. But all of us have a submerged paranoid focus that is kept well under control, or repressed, while our outer circumstances are favourable. Once the situation changes and we are bereft of the usual human support, our repressed hatreds flare up and dominate us. All those who are apparently happy and well placed in their work are the source of our anguished envy. Soon we see how we have been used by others, taken advantage of and subtly diminished, while they have flourished at our expense. This, it need hardly be said, is a very dangerous psychological state, for it can alienate one increasingly from the small group of people around one who really do care. The sinister cults that batten on lonely, inadequate young people first succeed in separating them from their parents and close friends whom they portray as villains, set on thwarting their full development as independent people. When one is alone and not in contact with one's own inner centre, the most improbable suspicions concerning other people's malign influence on one's well-being start to ring true. Soon one is the victim of gigantic delusions of persecution and abuse so that the most harmless jest assumes the burden of a deadly insult. And so the mind paces around in circles of sterile thought about alleged past insults and the imaginary response one will deliver to the offenders when once one meets them again. Needless to say, if one does meet these associates in the flesh, all is calm and peaceful between oneself and them. The mind creates immense edifices of imaginary encounters and showdowns, but in the life of reality the structure collapses into a void. It is fortunate that this is the rule, otherwise serious damage might be done to those whom one mistakenly suspects of ill will and treachery.

It is easy to see how superficial is the good will we so often profess to those of a colour, race or religion different from our own. When all is going well we can afford to display bonhomie and "tolerance" to those of different backgrounds. But when there is present trouble, the blame is soon projected from ourselves on to the stranger who cannot defend himself in an alien society. It is very important to recognize and understand this experience of latent xenophobia made manifest as the result of being alone. Many people who, quite rightly, speak against intolerance of this type are very unimaginative in their approach. They cannot enter into the depths of deprivation and fear of those who harbour destructive thoughts. Merely denouncing these antisocial attitudes does little good - it merely inflates the high opinion of the one who believes he is free of social prejudices, but who is probably a tainted as the one who gives vent to his distaste. Once one has been through this alarming disclosure of hatred, brought to light in the bleak climate of living alone, one can begin to act much more positively in countering such social evils as racial discrimination and religious intolerance.

The repressed hatreds that float to the surface of their person who is living alone are by no means limited to foreigners and rivals. They are directed also against siblings and parents who are inwardly accused of various wrong attitudes in the past that are believed to be the real cause of the present loneliness. It is all too easy to blame others for one's present unhappiness, especially as there is inevitably some basis of truth in such accusations. None of us is perfect, indeed the harder a parent tries to shield his children from difficulties, the more likely is he to interfere with the process of their growing up into full adulthood.

Unpleasant as all this is, it is far better that it should be exposed in full consciousness than remain partially hidden in the depths of the psyche only to emerge as episodes of hatred and malice when one is hurt or deprived later on. The things of darkness in ourselves have to be acknowledged clearly as our own particular cross to bear. Only then can they be inspected closely and dispassionately and put in their proper place. They are in fact a juvenile excrescence that has not been allowed to grow up into adult stature, so that it remains a split-off sub-personality. All of us contain within our depths tracts of past experience that remain poorly integrated into the full personality and persist instead as split-off portions of the psyche. These tend to invade the conscious realms of the psyche during dark periods of distress, and their influence can be truly demonic. It is often the successful, outgoing person who is especially liable to harbour these infantile residues in his unconscious, and he may have to undergo a radical inner reappraisal before there is real integration of the personality. The reason why this type of person is more liable to be immature in his depths than his more contemplative brother is because, in his striving for physical and intellectual proficiency (that typifies the man more often than the woman) he leaves a part of his psyche behind. He becomes a fully developed adult while remaining still essentially a youth; the outer hard face of the sophisticated grown man hides an emotionally and spiritually immature core that is subtly denied and ignored. In due course this unformed inner core makes its presence felt and then the outer edifice, so grand in appearance and distinguished to behold, collapses to reveal the child who has never grown up that lies concealed within. This inner child comes to consciousness when the outer façade of assurance and prosperity has been demolished by the inroads of disease, bereavement and loss of outer resources. At this juncture one is forced on one's inner resources, all outer support having been dramatically removed, and the dereliction that lies within is almost too terrible to bear. The sooner one does come to terms with it, however, the better is one's chance of starting afresh with a well-established inner centre and a newly fashioned personality.

Living alone exposes not only the depths of anguish and fear within one, but also the fantasy world in which one expends so much time in vain imaginings. These embrace all the qualities and attributes that one secretly covets but which are far from one's actual powers. In the sanctuary of one's own mind one can enjoy the acclaim that one longs for from one's contemporaries and bask in the acceptance that one has not fully known in one's life. And so the painful void of personal darkness is filled with illusory images of success and acknowledgement. This mechanism is one of escape from the threats of the dark, meaningless future, but it soon dissipates like an early morning mist, and leaves a stark landscape of dread to be faced in direct consciousness. Living alone, if it has no other advantage, does at least lead one into a direct exploration of one's mind and all the subterfuges it creates in order to deflect one from a proper confrontation of the reality of life. As the Hindu tradition reminds us, "The mind is the slayer of the real". It rationalizes and destroys spiritual experience if its destructive criticism is heeded too subserviently, and it also clothes the naked reality of the present with childish fears and imaginings. But the mind that acts in this subversive fashion is the reasoning, emotional power of the superficial ego. It is not the deeper understanding of the true self which is in contact with ultimate reality, since it is a part of that reality. Only when the true self is explored and its hidden wisdom tapped can we glimpse our future as people, and indeed envisage the destiny of mankind. In the experience of aloneness we are taken, provided we have the courage and determination to proceed, beyond the childish demands for instant satisfaction that characterize the ego, to the boundless realms of the true, or spiritual, self whose source and end is God. In this respect the ego can be defined as the immediate focus of self-awareness that claims for itself the full identity of the person. By contrast, the spiritual self is the whole range of the personality focused in a point of awareness that transcends the demands of the present. It effects a knowledge of eternal things, seeing the eternal reality in the present moment. The ego, on the other hand, tends to appropriate the present moment for itself, seeking self-satisfaction rather than self-identification with all life. The spiritual self is the centre or core of the person that is in communion with the Spirit of God. When it is articulated as a living reality, it transforms the ego so that this ceases to demand and starts to serve the person and the world. It becomes the instrument of the spiritual self.

In the intercourse of everyday life, we tend to communicate with the ego-filled mind, speaking at people rather than to them. This is because our attention is centred on ourselves, and what we really want of other people is that they should respond to us and share our own interests in life. We are all too seldom aware of others as independent individuals in their own right apart from ourselves and what we can get from them. What is rather speciously called fellowship often has the end result of separating us from our fellow men rather than bringing us closer together. We may find, to be sure, certain intellectual affinities with other people by virtue of a shared interest in, say, politics, art or a profession. But the true communication in depth that comes from the spiritual self - or the soul, as this self shows itself outwardly to us and to others - is actually occluded by the fictions of the mind. How easily I can separate myself from other people - and more disastrously still from my true self - by emitting a smokescreen of intellectual expertise or social polish! This façade passes quite plausibly for my true being to the uninformed. But underneath there lies the unfulfilled child longing for recognition and comfort. Until it is acknowledged there can never be an effective communication with myself; until I can communicate fully with my inner depths, I will not be able to relate properly to anyone else. These truths come closer to understanding through the experience of living alone. The fact is that until one is at home in oneself, one will never be at home in the world. And I can never be fully at home in myself until I am at home with God, who is nearer to me than my own sense of identity. God stands perpetually at the door of my soul and knocks so that he may enter. I am either not available to heed the knocking or else too much involved with the outer world to take notice. Until I am at home to receive the One who alone can fill me with the good things of eternal life, I remain empty even when crammed full of earthly dross, be it money, intellectual proficiency or the company of other people looking as obsessively as I for a way of escaping loneliness and despair.

The experience of living alone for any considerable period of time serves to show one how few inner resources one has on the surface level of existence. If I believe that now at last I will have time to do all the reading that I should like to do but for which I have never had the time or opportunity, I will soon become disillusioned. I will rapidly feel bored and dissatisfied. The accumulation of knowledge is of little value unless it can be put to use in the wider context of life. In other words knowledge, like money, has to circulate if it is to fulfil its purpose. If it is hoarded it turns stale and sours the personality. Likewise it will do me little good to spend my time listening to music or performing on an instrument if I am out of contact with the wider world. Art, even at its most noble and sublime, if it is used merely to keep my mind occupied, will soon lose its lustre and become increasingly dead to me. Literature, music and art find their place in directing me to the source of all wisdom, beauty and integrity, which is God. But that source cannot be found outside the community of living beings. Anyone who loves God as he ought, will discover quite spontaneously that he loves his fellow men also. No sphere of human endeavour that leads to the highest source can be secret or withheld from other people. Only in full participation with life do the benefits and joys of the arts shine out and lead one to a divine encounter. It follows therefore that the cultivation of some hobby or talent, though not without a certain basic value in lightening the dreariness of loneliness, will not succeed in overcoming it. It is therefore inadequate to advise a person suffering the isolation of a life alone to cultivate some diverting accomplishment. At most it takes his mind off the preoccupation with his present situation, but it leaves the fundamental problem unsolved. There has to be an inner change of life before the joys of creativity can be experienced and transmitted to others.

As one moves into the experience of living alone for an indefinite period, so one explores the various ways of escape into satisfaction of the self, only to find that each one is a cul-de-sac. People around one prove fickle and superficial in their affection, the practice of private skills leaves the inner void unfilled, and the workings of the mind lead one to a state that fluctuates between paranoia on the one hand and megalomania on the other, while in fact one moves deeper into a reactive depression as one sees an apparently unending road of loneliness lying ahead. This is the moment of truth: one can choose either life or death, transfiguration or suicide. At last one has come to the heart of the dilemma and also to the way of release from it.

Chapter 3