The diner was noisy and overcrowded. A friend and I finally found a booth next to the counter where three men sat, talking.
One was loud, his voice booming above the clamor of rattling plates, forks and knives as bus boys cleaned up tables.
He was perhaps in his late 60s, scruffily dressed, and he made his boisterous presence known.
“So there was my son, hurt and in a heap on the football field and my wife said, ‘That’s your fault. I didn’t want him playing this game.’ That was years ago when the kid was in high school. He’s got a high-falutin job in California and I never see him. And you know Rosemary died last year.”
The other two men lowered their heads. “Sorry, Jack,” they said and sipped their coffee.
Jack went on about the Super Bowl, asked the waitress behind the counter what team she was betting on and shared more of his life with the rest of us nearby, whether we wanted to hear it or not. He was retired, Vietnam war vet, and Eagles fan, depending.
Then Jack stood up, said goodbye to his friends, and left.
My heart went out to him as he walked unsteadily out the door.
“He’s drunk,” my friend said.
Perhaps. But it didn’t matter to me. I saw a man who had a grown son living elsewhere, who had lost his wife and who was returning, most likely, to an empty home. Lonely. At least here, in this diner, he was visible. He was connecting with others. He had a place to belong.
At heart, I believe we are all lonely. It’s inevitable and part of the human experience.
I know I have been lonely in my life more times than I care to remember, especially when I’ve moved for jobs in new cities where I didn’t know a soul. Being shy and introspective didn’t make connection with others any easier.
Along the way, however, I’ve learned a few things about this human experience and one is that “being alone” and “loneliness” are not the same.
Many times I enjoy being alone, without others. I like to spend quality “me” time doing things I enjoy. In fact, solitude often draws me closer to my spiritual center and to God. And when alone, I’ve learned to be comfortable with my own company, to treat myself with compassion.
Being lonely, however, is when I have that unsettling inner gnawing at my soul, a feeling of disconnection from others, an emptiness and emotional hunger that wants to be filled with any diversion as to avoid that pain.
Today, loneliness seems rampant. It seems we’d rather do anything other than face our loneliness. So we distract ourselves with Facebook, Twitter, TV or “whatever” it may be rather than face loneliness and ask what it has to teach us.
The late Henri Nouwen, spiritual writer and theologian, writes:
“When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch…and when we are left all alone by ourselves, we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.”
So what do we do?
Perhaps we can transform our loneliness into solitude, a time to sense our oneness with God or all of creation. I’m sure many of us have stood in awe at a glorious sunrise, crashing waves, an unexpected rainbow, a majestic mountain range. We are all part of that glory so we are never truly alone.
If that doesn’t work, perhaps we might consider reaching out to others and helping them in their struggles. Offering a listening heart and hand to those in need is not such a bad idea during the times we feel lonely. And in the end, life has a strange way of giving back what we put out.
And sometimes, as uncomfortable as it may feel, we can simply “be” with that loneliness. We may choose to listen to what it has to teach us and know that as part of this human journey we share in that experience of loneliness — ironically — together.
In fact, loneliness and many other feelings we call negative can be great teachers, if we allow. Psychotherapist and spiritual counselor Matt Licata writes:
“Your sadness, your loneliness, your fear, and your anxiety are not mistakes. They are not obstacles on your path. They are the path. The freedom you are longing for is not found in the eradication of these, but in the information they carry. You need not transcend anything here, but be willing to become deeply intimate with your lived, embodied experience. …Nothing is missing, nothing is out of place, nothing need be sent away.”
Then again, we may choose to be like Jack, and head to the nearest diner. Shout and boom to the world that we are here. And for a few seconds, like him, we may distract ourselves from the pain of loneliness. Perhaps that, too, can be a part of the path and if we are open, part of the learning.
After all, we each have a bit of Jack in us. May we learn to bless that loneliness in our being. May we know we are never truly alone.