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Exploring the Continent of Loneliness

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

James M. Houston

If you have seen the film The March of the Penguins, you can visualize the extraordinary instinctual behaviour of penguins in the most hostile of environments, the ice-bound

continent of Antarctica. Their march has been recorded as follows: some seventy kilometres to their breeding grounds, their mutual care of the one egg, the march back of the females to the sea to be replenished, their return to feed the hatched chicks, then the need of the males to take the same march to the sea and back for their replenishment of food. All this is a march of over 350 kilometres, just for the purpose of the reproduction of one chick for each couple of penguins. Yet we do not use the category of “loneliness” for all these efforts of penguins in the isolated continent of Antarctica. For animals live instinctual lives, not fully conscious as human beings are. They have very limited thinking, and very limited desires. What enlarges human consciousness so much more is that we both “think” and “desire” so greatly. It is inner thought and desire which isolate human beings so much from each other, like a vast interior “continent,” which can often be metaphorically “frozen.” Indeed, philosophers can speak of the unutterable and the unbreakable isolation of human consciousness.

The metaphor of “a continental condition” contrasts with that of being “oceanic.” For even a “continent” has limits to be mapped; it is not boundless and therefore chaotic, like “the sea” as interpreted in biblical imagery. Then indeed, only Christ can walk on “the

sea”; it is beyond human control. Vast as the exploration of loneliness may be, we are still able as moral agents to face its challenges. But in the Eastern religions of pantheism, there is the absorption of “the one in the many,” as if the human being

is drowned in an infinite ocean. This cosmology makes such an exploration of loneliness meaningless. For there can be no legitimacy to desire, nor to think as a unique individual (ipse), which are what makes loneliness such a powerful and basic reality of the Western human condition, despite our sharing “sameness” (idem) as human beings.

Contemporary Features of “the Lonely Crowd”

In contrast to so many aspects of the human condition that have been extensively studied, loneliness has received relatively little attention until now. Perhaps the first significant study was that of David Riesman in 1953.1 It seemed prophetic of the impending loneliness that technology would produce through urbanization and other cultural forces of the modern world. More restively in recent years, churches too are being afflicted by the crowd mentality of feeling aloneness among its members, perhaps in reaction to our move away from modernity as featured by “mass culture” and our entrance into a more intensely individualistic culture with the “Electronic Revolution.” Christians then, like the rest of society, do not like to be “programmed,” in what portends to be a “community.” To pun famous lines of the poet T.S. Eliot:

Where is the friendship I have lost in


Where is the mutuality I have lost in


The cycle of the church’s calendar,

Takes me further from God and nearer to “success.”

Within the broader dimensions of the secular world, we see the innumerable consequences of the alienation of the human spirit. To defend against it, we have multi-billion-dollar industries of therapy, dating services, entertainment, drug addiction, pornography, and much else. Too many marriages are panaceas for loneliness, and then fail for this reason. So we may state it as a principle that “a marriage started in loneliness easily ends in the loneliness of not being known.”

The fear of loneliness can inhibit solitude, driving us into a continual motion of busyness, of impulsive behaviour, and of irresponsible sexual behaviour. Indeed, pornography is a clear index of loneliness in society. Wounded loneliness can desensitize people by making them embittered, wholly self-centred, hardened, and even criminal in the quest for revenge. We have probably little idea how much loneliness there is within our criminal sector of the population.

We must also recognize the great significance of being unforgiving in wounded loneliness. This does not only isolate us from each other, but from ourselves inwardly as well. For those who cannot forgive themselves tend to deepen their own sense of worthlessness, which isolates them and inhibits connectedness with other people. At the same time, a bitter spirit toward others also intensifies loneliness.

Loneliness is frequently identified with a sense of personal failure, so it is denied perhaps, or at least viewed as something that would be painfully exposed. It is

also multiple in its aspects, and therefore a “slippery” connotation, with many ramifications. Thus to assert loneliness has become a premise for the need of the study of psychiatry. This indicates how basic and wide-ranging its pathological manifestations are within us all. It reflects also on how intrinsically social we are as human beings to feel the converse adversity of feeling “alone.” We know well the illnesses associated with

loneliness, such as depression, hostility, alcoholism and other forms of addiction, poor

self-esteem, psychosomatic illnesses, as well as the pathologies of paranoia and

schizophrenia, and most tragic of all, suicide.

In our contemporary world, the more we live technically, the more we exaggerate all these expressions of being “the lonely individual.” We may shudder indeed, at the

prospects around the corner of entering into a “robotic society” as Japan appears to

be the first to face that by 2015/2020.

In contrast to all these contemporary expressions of loneliness, previous cultures

provided more shelter from loneliness, such as extended family life, kinship or tribal

bonds, roles of patronage, mutual obligations, interdependence due to sharing of limited tools, and so on. Thus we can still map geographically, by coefficients of loneliness, its differing intensities. Perhaps Japan and North America today exhibit the

most intense forms of loneliness, whereas rural Africa has the least. Urbanization explains much, but today, the global spread of electronics makes problems of loneliness

more ambiguous and more complex than ever. For if Charles Dickens saw that he was living in the best of times, as well as the worst of times, whatever future prognostications we can make, that is surely the most certain: the future will become increasingly more ambiguous. So this now challenges us to examine and to explain the features of loneliness, both positively as well as negatively.

Within the broader dimensions of the secular

world, we see the innumerable consequences of

the alienation of the human spirit. To defend against

it, we have multi-billion dollar industries of therapy,

dating services, entertainment, drug addiction, pornography, and much else.

To Be Alone May Not Mean Being Lonely

In 1972, Clark Moustakas was one of the first writers to distinguish two categories: of being “alone” and being anxiously “alone.” The former is the objective reality of being without others, without company; the latter is what he called “the anxiety of loneliness.”3 The latter puts up many defenses that attempt to eliminate loneliness, or by constantly seeking remedies. In the Western world this has become a multi-billion-dollar industry of many professional activities: the whole music industry, film-going, therapy and counselling services, addiction treatment centres, old age retirement homes, suicide hot-lines and prevention centres, spa-clubs, matchmating services, art classes for self-esteem, self-help books, and so on.

Yet visiting a retreat centre, perhaps a monastery, or a health spa for spiritual or physical renewal are positive ways of needing to be alone. Artists, musicians, writers, all know the importance of being alone to further their creativity. As the former Archbishop of Westminster Basil Hume used to say, “no one can afford to live in the market-place of life, who does not spend time in the desert.” Gaining insights for reflective conversation, or depth of character, or for communion with God, all require that we cultivate interiority of character. Indeed, only those who can cultivate solitude in creative ways can overcome loneliness. So not only is there a “basic existential loneliness” for all of us,

but there is also “the anxiety of loneliness,” which is a defence against feeling socially


We can all become “peopled-out.” Interactive social exhaustion can shallow our lives, and make us superficial and unreliable. Words become cheap when they are unreflective and incessant. The Desert Fathers exemplified for us the value of solitude and silence. They did this to “know themselves,” cultivating the “double knowledge” of “knowing God” and “knowing themselves in his sight.”

Then they could progress to experience “vomiting the false self.” In such ways, we too can begin to cultivate more self-understanding, as we reflect upon and face more honestly our own inner lives. This is how we gain wisdom in the cultivation of more self-understanding under God.

Conversely, we can intensify our loneliness when we do not know how to appreciate and to live with our own inner solitary condition. Perhaps we are afraid “to be with our selves” because we lack the humility or the moral courage to face ourselves, or indeed do not wish to know ourselves more truthfully. Then inner, personal loneliness can be much worse than having to cope with social loneliness.

So we need to trace the differing human categories of “loneliness.” Basic factors that tend to promote human loneliness are our very abilities to think, to desire, and to seek power. Indeed, we observe that to be human is intrinsically to experience diverse forms of loneliness. But why do we call it “the continent of loneliness”? Or why do we ever want to map it out? Perhaps it is because we live in a therapeutic culture that publicizes as never before such emotional disorders as “attention deficit.”

For to enlarge self-consciousness is to exaggerate the dimensions of loneliness we

may experience. Worse still is the terrifying record of the past century. For in our times, a “black hole” has appeared on our cultural radar screen, in the ghastly inhumanity to other human beings, of the Holocaust; it will not disappear! At Budapest a few years ago I met a Christian psychiatrist who specializes in autism in children.

She began to share with me her story, as a Jew, both of whose parents perished in the gas chambers during the Holocaust. “Oh yes,” I responded, “will you not then be exploring this continent of loneliness for the rest of your life?” “Indeed, I am in constant exploration,” was her response. She was bereft as a small child in being an orphan, telling me, “that’s my name, Loneliness; I have no other name.” Then she added, “the fact I became a Christian only intensifies what the meaning of the Holocaust must mean for me, isolated within my own people, as well as from the rest of the human race. For I suffer also the guilt of being alive, when all of my immediate family perished without a trace.

I shall never fully end in this world what that journey means to me, across that vast continent within my inner life.” She then began to write to me of the utter emotional

exhaustion that each letter caused her to experience, in describing her journey of

remembrance. Yes, she knew, more than most of us, what it means to explore that

continent of loneliness.

Here we shall explore five aspects of human loneliness:

1. Personal experiences of loneliness that help us map out categories and causes

2. The existential condition of our “fallen nature”

3. The rational and philosophical exploration of our isolated consciousness as a “thinking self”

4. Desire and loneliness

5. Contemplation as the “divine end” of loneliness

Personal Experiences of Loneliness

As soon as we begin to reflect on the question “how lonely am I?” we recognize it has a context, and indeed a narrative, or a series of narratives. The following are some I have personally encountered.


The first time I ever publicly addressed a group on loneliness was in 1976, at the home of Mrs. Mary Rockefeller in New York, at a weekly women’s Bible study she shared with a group of her friends. As very wealthy ladies, they all shared the distrust of many who claimed to be their “friends,” when wealth created such a barrier of distrust. Years later, I met again a member of the group in a very different setting. “Oh, you are the speaker that spoke on loneliness,” she remarked, and encouraged me to explore this topic further, which I have now done, half a century later!


Soon after 1976, I spoke with a very beautiful Australian student at our college, and commented that she must be very lonely. “How do you know me so well, when we have only just met?” she responded. “Because beauty isolates you,” I replied. “Men will misunderstand your desire for friendship as the desire for sex, and women will be jealous of your looks.” A similar story was told me by a handsome Brazilian student whose mother had fussed over her “beautiful boy” ever since he was a child. “I never felt that my mother knew who I was,” he told me, “since she was only concerned about my outward appearance.”


A third feature of loneliness is illustrated by a brilliant surgeon who responded

positively to a sermon on loneliness that I had given in a local church in Vancouver. Over forty years later, this friend commented to me that this was an address he had never forgotten, for it had helped him to understand his own laconic behaviour. His academic brilliance bored him, making him feel indifferent about his career. Why? As a precocious child, this had rapidly separated him from his family. He never felt that those nearest and dearest to him really knew him, and their admiration of his outward successes

seemed only to intensify his loneliness.


A fourth occasion was in Washington, DC, when my friend and I were in line, waiting security clearance to enter the White House for a Christian gathering of some of its staff. “The security police must have been given very high authority to let you in,” I joked. For my friend had been a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s in Mississippi, where the F.B.I. had determined the chaos was at its worst. Having attempted to lay a bomb at the home of a Jewish banker, this man and his companion were gunned down by F.B.I. agents. His friend was killed, and he was sentenced to thirty-five years, with three years in solitary confinement.4 He still carries an inner capacity for loneliness—

far greater than most of us—which is sensed even in the way he talks slowly, as from inner caverns within his soul.

Fear of Failure

My fifth example comes from a recent email from one of our alumni, who wrote to complain of his lonely, inward sense of paralysis.

Nothing has indeed happened in terms of growth and maturing since I was at Regent, so I am becoming aware of some major obstacles to permanent change and growth. I have come to realize that I have no burning passion, nor any sense of purpose in my life. Things have to be “necessary” in order for me to feel it is okay to do it. For I fear failure, I only highlight failures, I only see failures. And the best way to avoid failure is to do nothing—except that, too, is a failure. So I become a very lonely observer of life—and often a very critical one—seeing my self as the only one who truly knows. (How I can perceive of myself as being a failure and always right at the same time is beyond me!) Now in middle life, I feel the pressure building inside of me, like the pressure on a dam increases as the snow melts in the spring, after the intense cold of a very long winter. In my loneliness, I have bottled up so much over the years, which adds to the pressure and generates so much anger, bitterness, and cynicism inside of me. It spills over and penetrates so much of what I do. I feel I waste so much time not doing anything because somehow lack the context that can give purpose to my actions. I may want to read a book—but which one should I read? Why? What purpose do I have? So I read a lot of detective novels.

There is so much to unpack in my friend’s lonely life, surrounded as he is with a beautiful family and a loving wife who is a Christian psychotherapist, all so ironic for my friend, locked up in his own prison cell of inner loneliness.

Nostalgic Loneliness

As an immigrant from Oxford, England, to Vancouver, Canada, in 1970, I vividly remember the need to repress “the loneliness of nostalgia.” I forbade myself the luxury of thinking about the green lawn of an Oxford college that my “new friends” would never share. The Portuguese immigrant in Brazil still uses the term marinan to communicate his sigh for his own beloved seacoast where his forebears lived. Yet such nostalgic loneliness is now widely expressive of a society increasingly mobile, intensified by air travel, tourism, and multiple relocations of jobs.

Professional Loneliness

This results from increasing specialization, so that families and friends can never quite share in such pursuits. However, while job satisfaction used to be considered a value in itself, now interpersonal life has intensified, so there is a much higher expectation to conquer social isolation within one’s profession. Prominent public figures can achieve this at the cost of their inner “widowhood” of their spouses, never able to share much of their working day, which so preoccupies them. With all the diversification of sports, hobbies, and entertainment, there is also “the loneliness of interests” not shared even with spouses or within one’s own family.

Family Brokenness

Yet perhaps the most poignant form of loneliness is that induced by the breakup of family bonds. A seventeen-year-old girl, forced to leave home, recounted that all her belongings were thrown from her bedroom window into the yard below. She said, “I have never felt so utterly alone as when I had to pick up all my dresses and things from the ground and drive off without a ‘goodbye’ to my parents.”

Being Prophetic

My final example is about the cost of being honest within professional or religious life.

This I have shared a little about in Joyous Exiles.5 I never set out to have a so-called “prophetic ministry.” But people have kept telling me that is their impression. They imply that when you stand against being “a party man,” or against “popular consensus,” or when you see the surrealism of much public Christian life, or when you explore the underground of conventional life, and when doing so is politically inexpedient, then you will tend to become unpopular or even ostracized. The writings of a Hebrew prophet, or a more modern one like Søren Kierkegaard, should not be a daily diet, but only taken occasionally as a medicine pill, I have been advised! Having a “personal” rather than an “institutional” identity does make you stand apart from the crowd, which is happily engaged in unreflective consensus.

All of these diverse incidents and experiences illustrate that to be lonely is to be human, perhaps even when trying to be a more genuine human being, or a more honest Christian. Indeed, sharing our feelings and experiences of loneliness may be analogous to taking an imprint of our fingerprint; it expresses who we really are. It recites our relational narrative. It is as if all of us have two names, one that is inwardly alone (ipse) and one that is socially related (idem). It illustrates the basic observation at the beginning of our creation: “The Lord God said, ‘it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’” (Gen. 2:18). Created in the image of God, we have inherited a relational nature.

Our Existential Condition of “Fallen Nature”

When Adam and Eve were seduced to believe “you shall be as gods,” their envy, rivalry, and rebellion against their Creator alienated them. “Where are you?” was God’s questioning of their separation. The subsequent expulsion from God’s presence is perhaps what condemns all of us, since then, as sinners, each to have our own isolated consciousness. Certainly, the first consequence was for our first parents, within their inner isolation, to now each blame the other for its occurrence. Likewise, their sons became alien to each other, Cain killing his brother in further envy.

Ever since, the pagan heroic culture, now being revived in our contemporary Western society, is prompted by the envy of having no bounds between the divine and the human. So each isolated monad wants to be given godlike powers over the other. Each lonely self wants to be different, not to contribute to the well-being of others, but to gain god-like qualities for the kingdom of the autonomous Self. Simon Gordon, in his book Lonely in America, has put it succinctly: “To be alone is to be different, to be different is to be alone, and to be in this interior circle is to be lonely. To be lonely is to have failed.”6

Secular philosophers thus give us the bleakest imaginable analysis of loneliness, for God is deliberately excluded from their realm of human relevance. They cite Shakespeare’s King Lear as the paramount exemplar of loneliness, since Shakespeare deliberately excluded any reference to God in his play. It was so frightening that there is only one recorded play of it, during his lifetime, on December 26, 1606, when it was given at the court. For King Lear’s world is about “things,” objects that are parceled out by the

king to his three daughters, in a hostile, impersonal world of Nature. So Lear asks his

daughters, “which of you shall say I love you most?” The eldest daughter, Gonerill,

replies sycophantically, that she loves him “more than words can wield the matter,”

and Lear responds by showing her on a map the areas he will distribute to her. The second daughter, Regan, then claims that her only joy in life is to love her father, so she too is given her third of the realm. But Cordelia, his favourite, youngest daughter, refuses to answer in the manner of her sycophant sisters, stating: “Nothing, my lord.”7

As David Wildberm has noted, the phrase “nothing” on Cordelia’s lips implies her profound honesty.8 For it is not a rejection of her father’s love, but rather it expresses her transparent truthfulness, to affirm that love is not a “thing,” nor can love be merely an “object” to discuss and to rationalize. Rather, it is a profoundly connected relationship, which alone can overcome loneliness. But her father wholly misunderstands her response. So he adds, “Speak again,” to which Cordelia elaborates: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.”9

Then King Lear condemns himself by his actions and thoughts, to suffer the ultimate loneliness of madness, in making all of his human relationships into the alchemy of “things.” Cordelia’s distress is that she is incapable of relating to her father how profound her love really is, to the point that he naively accepts his other scheming daughters’ falsity, instead of trusting the true feelings of Cordelia’s unutterable love. In his own alienation, he is incapable of seeing her heart, of knowing her feelings, and of appropriating them within his own heart. This literary example is not extreme. Increasingly in our culture, families have never experienced love—whether in friendships, or in marriage, or in their family life. For all tokens of “love” are communicated by “things,” whether a banquet of food, expensive jewelry, or a good education.

So, today, many secular writers are writing about the categories of loneliness in the human condition. The novelist and writer Thomas Wolfe, having lived such an emotionally turbulent life, has articulated what we may all feel deeply within our own

hearts. In his moving essay, “God’s Lonely Man” in The Hills Beyond, Wolf says:

The whole conviction of my life rests now upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and a few other solitary people, is actually the central and inevitable feature of human existence. All the hideous doubt and despair, all the confusion of the soul that a lonely man must know, is bolstered by no other knowledge than that which he can gather for himself, by his own eyes and brain, sustained and cheered by himself. He has no creed, but faith in himself, and often that faith deserts him, leaving him aching and filled with impotence. And then it seems to him his life has come to nothing, ruined, lost and broken, and past redemption, so that morning bright, with its promise of new beginnings, will never come upon the earth again, as it once did.10

Here we are dealing with somebody who has no hope, and therefore whose isolation is that of the despair of an atheist. He states, then, that loneliness is not a shallow feature of our social condition. Rather, loneliness is constitutional to what it means to be a human being, and it stems from our ability to exercise self-reflection and self-transcendence.

The Isolated Consciousness of the “Thinking Self”

But our therapeutic culture tends to be like Lear, in teaching us to exercise self-examination in a clinical manner. Likewise, philosophers who have studied loneliness—actually only very recently—do the same thing. For they objectify rationally what can only be experienced relationally. So they conclude that to be self-conscious is to be utterly alone. They prefer the philosophical certainty of unbridgeable loneliness, to the experiential risks of love reaching out over the void. So the solipsist (=solus, alone; ipse, oneself; literally “alone with oneself”) is an extreme form of being “the thinker.” Or the

“sceptic”—engaged in distrust, in looking, considering, questioning critically—also tends to live in the lonely environment of the mind.

Taken further, writers like D.C. Dennett, in Consciousness Explained (1991), and Susan Blackmore, in Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005), merely equate the sense of the self with brain actions. Our feeling of being a self is itself mirage-like, and if you don’t take your selfidentity very seriously, you will not suffer loneliness too much either. It sounds very close to Zen Buddhism, except that it is supposed to be up-to-date neurology. Susan Blackmore assures us that at first this is difficult to take, for “it means that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same ‘me’ who seemed to exist a moment before, or last week, or last year. This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice.”11 Given such extreme solipsism, one wonders why such writers ever bother to author books at all!

As Kierkegaard put it, “the thinker is an absentee person,” implying that in being a “person,” one has more social obligations than a “thinker” realizes he or she has. A

scholarly friend of mine once looked up from his desk to see his wife collapse on the floor in front of him with a heart attack. “Jean,” he asked, “what are you doing lying on the floor?” We call such lonely spouses, “scholars’ widows.”

When King Lear raised his hands to look at them, he wondered if they really belonged to him. At least the radical doubt of René Descartes did not cause him to question whether he was existing in his own selfconsciousness. But Lear was an absurdist rather than a

rationalist, in interpreting res cogitans as a kind of machine of the “thinking thing.” Here Cordelia proved a better philosopher. The contemporary, popular neurologist Antonio R.

Damasio has interpreted Descartes’ Error in his book about emotions, reason, and the human brain, as making the mind bodiless.12 But perhaps it is actually the opposite error, of making the mind too embodied. This has the effect of suppressing the poignancy of loneliness, as if one is only a brain machine.

Loneliness for Lear was also the loss of personal identity, as he asks:

Does any here know me? This is not


Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus?

Where are his eyes? ...

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

So the literary critic Harold Bloom reacts by confessing: “The experience of reading King Lear is altogether uncanny. We are at once estranged and uncomfortably at home; for me, at least, no other solitary experience is at all like it.”14

Loneliness for C.S. Lewis has been autobiographically outlined in his last novel, Till We Have Faces, where the lack of recognition of one’s true identity or of having “a face” by which to be really recognized, results in having only a mask or series of masks to hide behind. In the Common Room culture of an Oxford College, this was only too familiar

to Lewis. The moral is that only the selflessness of true love grows a face, to shine and to be known transparently. In contrast, our alienation from others needs to be hidden by a mask, the prosopon, which is, significantly, the origin of the Greek tragedy. It is an ironic origin, for what it meant to be “a person” in the Greek culture was merely to be the bearer of a mask in the drama.15

Heidegger sees “being-in-the-world” as always a struggle against loneliness, and as being against death also. For death is the final form of loneliness. Death then, is the absolute end of daily loneliness, making it absolute, complete, and final. According to Camus in his novel The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), the rationalistic sense of absurdity is expressive of the absoluteness of loneliness. He would then link it with suicide as the attempt to reach a final resolution. Few of us like to face too much reality, and certainly not to gaze into the abyss, as such extreme forms of loneliness can become. Yet the rejection of God has to be the absolute reality of loneliness. As the present Pope, Benedict XVI, has recently said: “where God is absent, hell appears.” For that is the meaning of hell: absolute loneliness. Peter Kreeft has put it similarly, “hell is total loneliness.” Both writers are reflecting on Dante’s Inferno, where close to the entrance to hell is ironically a comfortable academic community of scholars. As Dante is conducted in his tour of the Inferno, there is a progression of more intense expressions of loneliness until its end point, which is the abyss of a frozen lake where Satan lies in its depths wholly ice-bound.

Desire and Loneliness

If we dare not “think” too much, in order to avoid the loneliness of solipsism, then we find we also dare not “desire” too much, to avoid the loneliness of personal disappointment. At least that is what I found myself doing at Christmas time, as a small child. With my birthday at the end of November and Christmas round the corner, it was a time for intensified desiring, for two presents, not just one! I learned to remind myself, don’t desire too specifically, keep it vague! So the fairy child in W.B. Yeats’s play, The Land

of Heart’s Desire, sings sadly, “the lonely of heart is withered away.” For if desire is not understood, then it is not just “desire” which “withers away,” but “the heart” too. And the deepest desires we have are to be understood, to be known and to know, to be loved and to love.

René Girard has explored how human desire is the basic drive we have in relating with others. But it isolates us also, because it confuses desire with envy. Desire is always reflection on desire, leading then to an aggravation of its own self-enveloped symptoms. It does not have the ability to reach out selflessly, but “it is founded on the double bind … so that desire gains nothing by getting to know itself better and better. On the contrary, the more this knowledge is extended and deepened, the more capable the subject becomes of causing his own unhappiness, since he carries to a further stage the consequences of the founding contradiction—the more he tightens the double bind.”16 Just as we can think in isolation, we can also desire so enviously. Thus envy is the dominating mask of desire. It distorts relationships into alienation. For then we see what others desire, and in mimesis we desire too. Then we are trapped into miming others, instead of relating with others by allowing them possession of their own desires.

Desire, then, is a labyrinth of pathways, with many blind alleys and dead ends, where we become isolated and stranded in bitterness and other negative emotions: the estranged members of a family, the broken marriage, the alienated single man or woman, the social failure, and many, many more human examples of pathos. Just as “thought” can become too intense without relationships, so too “desire” can be a destructive end

in itself. The real purpose of desire is to cease from desiring, as the end of the journey is arrival at the destination. In his novel, Charles Williams narrates about a stone called The End of Desire, as like the philosopher’s stone of alchemy. It provides the ability to fulfill whatever articulated wish its possessor desires. The result is social chaos, for the stone turns everything into boundlessness. At the end of the story, only a simple man

who is transformed by the courage of selfless action, and a devout woman who is willing to endure suffering, are “capable of receiving under those conditions the End of Desire.”17

As Bernard Shaw observed, “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”18 We are frustrated when we don’t receive it, and then we are disappointed when we do. All these disappointments intensify our inner loneliness, for we cannot share envy without shame, and we cannot express unrealistic desires without folly.

Yet we can “let go” of possessive fantasies of loneliness, when we free ourselves from unrealistic reveries and false desires. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced in the prison camp before he died, “we can have abundant life, even though many wishes remain unfulfilled.”19 For as Augustine expressed in his famous statement: “God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.”20 That is to say, God is the end of both knowing and of desiring.

The Contemplation of God as the End of Loneliness

For atheists like Sartre, self-definition implies “I am what I have.”21 Thus to let go of “having,” as Jesus challenged the Rich Young Ruler to give up everything he possessed, threatens us with ultimate loneliness, of being “nothing.” This is death. But if “being” is not confusedly identified with “knowing” and “desiring,” then it changes our identity and relationships radically. As James S. Dunne observes, “It is as though my own being is given me when I give away all I have, and so it is that I receive. I exchange ‘having’ for ‘being,’ and when I do, I come to understand abundant life.”22 For what has changed are all one’s relationships, with oneself, with other people, and with the world. It is like the epiphany experience of Moses at the burning bush, when all the individual fears, inward inadequacy, and social timidity of Moses became enflamed and radically transformed, in his divine encounter with the “I Am What I Am” (Ex. 3:14). For at that point, Moses’s identity as “I am as I have or desire to be” was burnt up as ashes, in the presence of the “I Am” himself. Then as the apostle himself experienced too, “by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect” (1 Cor.15:10). It is significantly in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the apostle can affirm this as his own “burning bush” experience. For the death of the old “self” is certainly implied in Paul’s renunciation, as indeed in Moses’ encounter with Yahweh.

Ultimately, then, “loneliness” is a Godshaped vacuum within us, which only God can fill. As George MacDonald has noted, “In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God alone can enter.”23 Reflecting that inner chamber of the heart is the “new name” Christ’s presence gives to us, just as Simon became Peter, and as Saul became Paul. Then when we allow “Immanuel” to be always with us, loneliness is dissipated like morning mist in the rays of the sunshine of his love.

What replaces our inner loneliness is the awareness of divine recognition of our “uniqueness,” truly of being “called by name,” where “being” requires no other “knowing” or “having” than God’s own presence. God, then, is the end of desiring, as of knowing. For in “knowing as we are known,” the heart’s longing is fulfilled, desire is completed. God is now our most intimate knowing, our ultimate desire. For without God, desire is a cul-de-sac, or like a wager that always loses.

So our inner conviction that loneliness spells the sense of courting failure is a true one. Without the place of God within our lives, we are condemned to continuing loneliness. Opening ourselves then to the mystery of God, letting his presence abide with us always, ruminating constantly in his Word, these attitudes move meditation into contemplation. It is the experience of receiving and exchanging God’s love, alone with the God Alone—alone in his holiness, yet never alone in his triune mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So then, I can never be alone in his abiding presence. Yet I can never experience more my own uniqueness than in his love—but now no longer alone.

Thus the psalmist exclaims to the Lord: “In thy presence is fullness of joy” (Ps. 6:11). Joy is the antidote to loneliness. For it experiences our emancipation from being self-grounded, to becoming “in Christ, a new creation.” It challenges the perversity of associating personal uniqueness with a life-sentence of aloneness. For joy is gift. Joy is shared. Indeed, joy is the celebration of eternal life. It is expressive of the contemplative life we have with God, where I can exercise my longing desires to desire him alone. The popularity of great literature, as Elaine Scarry points out in her book Dreaming by the Book,24 is because we can identify with the characters of a story in such a way that we enter their world, are introduced into their fictional social relationships, and experience all they experience emotionally, so that at least momentarily we forget our own forms of loneliness. But reading about the narratives of biblical characters gives us so much more inspiration, since they lived under the reality of God’s abiding presence. Then all fiction evaporates before the presence of the love of God, to dwell securely and fully in his eternal friendship. What greater promise can we give our alienated world today than the pledge of Jesus to his disciples: “Lo I am with you always.”


1 David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1953).

2 Richard Stivers, Shades of Loneliness: Pathologies of a Technological Society (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

3 Charles E. Moustakas, Loneliness and Love (Eaglewood Heights, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1972), 20.

4 James M. Houston, Letters of Faith through the Seasons (Colorado Springs: Cook Ministries International, 2007) 2:75–76.

5 James M. Houston, Joyous Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

6 S. Gordon, Lonely in America (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1976), 15.

7 Shakespear, King Lear, 1i.92.

8 David Wildberm, Shakespeare’s “Nothing” in Poetic Will: Shakespeare and the Play of Language (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1997).

9 Shakespear, King Lear, 1i.95–7.

10 Thomas Wolfe, The Hills Beyond (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941) 11.

11 Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 81.

12 Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (New York: Putnams/Avon, 1994).

13 Shakespear, King Lear, 1iv.

14 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 476.

15 John Zizoulas, Being as Communion (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1985).

16 René Girard, Things Hidden from before the Foundation of the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 298.

17 Charles Williams, Many Dimensions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 198.

18 George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (London: Constable, 1930), 171.

19 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 234.

20 Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 1.i.

21 Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square, 1966), 724.

22 James S. Dunne, “The Ways of Desire,” Cross Currents, Winter 1990.

23 C.S. Lewis, ed., George MacDonald: An Anthology (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946), 28.

24 Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1999).

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