Loneliness and the Sanctuary of Spirit
By Jay Michaelson
I’m an old man now,
and a lonesome man in Kansas,
but not afraid to speak my lonesomeness…
because it’s not only my lonesomeness,
It’s ours, all over America, O tender fellows,
and spoken lonesomeness is prophecy.
— Allen Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra Part 3”
Does loneliness open us to spirituality, or is spirituality merely a consolation for those of us who are lonely?
I’ve wondered about this question ever since I started on the spiritual path in earnest. When I was younger, and stupider, it was framed judgmentally. I would look at the sad and lonely people on retreat with me and say “I’m not like them — I’m here for God, not because my life is so pathetic that I need to fill the hole.” The very notion of sanctuary was alien to me; sanctuary from what? I could take care of myself fine, thank you.
Very quickly, however, I was forced to admit that I was, indeed, looking for sanctuary: for an embrace, and a shelter from the storm. The more I chipped away at the false layers of ego surrounding my core, the more pain, loneliness, and suffering I discovered. What is it they say — religion is for people afraid to go to hell, spirituality is for people who’ve been there?
Really, I’ve had it pretty good: born a middle-class white male in the richest country in history, to parents who loved me as best they could, and with uncountable privileges of education, background, and community. But, like many Gay men of a certain age and above, I also spent two decades hating myself, wishing I were different, longing for a life I could never had, and not understanding who I was, how I loved, or how I was wounding myself by wishing it was otherwise. And like many spiritual people, I experienced other forms of exclusion: I was a high school outcast, with few friends. I’ve never been a “people person.” And I’ve experienced my share of loss over the years.
But most of all, I think it is love, and its lack, that has impelled my spiritual work. We all carry some wounds from childhood — especially, I think, Gay men — and I am no exception. I still occasionally hear myself speaking in a depressed, defeatist voice I learned from my father, or a harsh, critical voice I learned from my mother. And I still occasionally act as the rebellious, rash child in response. Yet when I reflect on my tears, they flow more from later loves than earlier ones. I’ve loved ten people dearly enough to merit the word used in its most serious sense — not crushes or relationships or flings or even dear, dear friendships; that number would be much higher. I mean the ones I think I would have died for, and in some cases, almost did.
Five of the first six were straight boys, whom I lusted after, yearned to be friends with, and for whom I variously cursed and romanticized my unrequited love. These were young men whom, at the time, I didn’t even know that I loved; I didn’t know that that’s what it was. But I cherished them, pined for them. Who knows what that must have done to me, a tender fifteen-to-twenty-six-year-old?
The sixth was a wonderful Gay boy I knew in college. We had a short relationship, but I was too terrified to continue it. I didn’t trust my body — didn’t think it worked, actually — and trusted my heart even less. I thought I was bisexual, and I knew I wanted a family. So I betrayed his love, let my own grow icy and distant. Thank God for him, he came out blazing, and had all the fun in college that I should have had, but didn’t.
The seventh was a woman — wonderful, really, and, thank God for her too, now happily married. She dumped me after a year. I was puzzled, because I didn’t know what real human connection was, and thought that we had it when really we didn’t, since I was too insular and fearful to be truly vulnerable. And yet, I did love her, as best as a crippled heart can.
Is it coincidence that during all this time, I also yearned for the love of a somewhat distant and judgmental God, whom I feared as much as loved? I had many spiritual experiences during those years, during which I lived as a Conservative and Orthodox Jew, but they were almost always tinged with authority, repression, clinging, desire to please, and conformity. I was alone, and I rejoiced in the sacred spaces of religion, but there was always some holding back.
My story is not so unusual, right? Surely you can nod your head, maybe recall in your heart your own lost loves, and feel the sweet pull of sadness, inviting you into the core of who you are?
One of my teachers said I’m at my best when I’m at my most broken, because that is where I am truest to myself, and most open to others. Not in the sense of wallowing in grief or rushing to erase it with distraction — but in the way Leonard Cohen, following Rumi, meant: “There is a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.” Being lonely opens me to the reality of dukkha, of suffering, and the naturalness of compassion for others. For each of us is, ultimately, alone.
To realize that each of us is alone need not be a depressing or life-denying insight. Often, when I encounter a group of people, I see them as a group, imagining that they are not alone, but I am. But in fact, all of us are “lonely planets,” and all the more lovable for it; we are in this conundrum together, yet each of us is existentially alone and reaching outward or inward to fill the emptiness.
But the filling is never completed. Love, partnership, satisfying work, spiritual highs, ecstasy, sex, possessions, new experiences, pleasure, friendship — all of these are wonderful gifts of being alive (How many there are! How many more could be named!). But as space-fillers, they are of at most temporary use. Very temporary, in fact: perceptions are blinking in and out of mind every moment, and even the most durable of them are subject to unexpected change. How long can any pleasure last, before either it passes, or we become disenchanted with it? This is not to deny pleasure, but to appreciate it, and relinquish it, and not hold on too tightly.
Relationship too. Really, every relationship is reconstructed on a daily (hourly?) basis, because each partner is constantly changing. If nothing else, each is aging — but there is much more. Changes in personality, taste, interest; new desires and disenchantment with old ones; new perspectives and the shedding of the past. All of these are part of the human condition, and there is no core that remains constant throughout.
Thus a love that is forever is a love that is forever renewed. When one person says to another, “I will love you forever,” it would be naive to think that the present experience of love, whatever it is, will endure forever. It will not. Like all conditioned phenomena, it is subject to change. It will grow and shrink, become more passionate and less so, deepen or evaporate. What a person can say, however, is that he will commit to the other throughout these changes — or at least, be patient and understanding of change, not bolting because the love or passion that was once present is now absent. Perhaps a new form of love will arise. Perhaps new people will arise who change the balances of relationship — children, for example. Or perhaps, upon careful reflection, it will be time to part. In any case, a mature commitment “for better or for worse” is not “I will love you forever as I love you right now,” but rather “I will renew my love for you forever, in different forms, in different modes, as a constantly renewing act of devotion.”
I have not yet known such a love with another man. I have known deep love, spiritual love, and ecstasies beyond the imagination of most people. I am wildly grateful to the lovers and teachers who have made all of them possible. But as I learned from lovers eight and nine (I won’t talk about number ten, for I love him still), holding on too tightly, either to another person or to an image of what love should be, destroys the very thing that is sought to be held. Number eight left me because I was too clingy and needy; I was so astonished that someone so wonderful and sexy could love me that, instead of loving myself, I grabbed onto him, never wanting to let go. Wisely, he fled.
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