Some Musings on Loneliness, the Human Heart and a Conversation with Jean Vanier

jean vanier

I want to write about loneliness. No, I need to write about loneliness. Feelings unexplored are like wounds left untreated. They morph into something frightening that cannot be controlled; haunting and alienating, they don’t seem to leave us alone and linger on. Unwanted, disobedient.

I write and by writing, open myself and release the pressure that again and again emerges and settles inside, spreading out, roosting. The feeling is one of tense dislocation. If moments before the day was sunny and full of promises, it is now dark and constricted. Heaviness. Sometimes it is hard to breathe. Escape! but where to? Walking helps, fresh air, and the feeling of wind…caressing.

Dislocated. Nothing makes sense. Questions emerge. Nothing makes sense. Suspicion. What is real? So many people in your life, but does anyone really understand….me? Are friends, friends? Family? Facial features tense, distort, mask-like. It hurts and you spiral out of control. Efforts to claw your way back to reality? fail. And you wonder…what is wrong with me… where is this coming from… what purpose…what ghosts linger inside… and you might be embarrassed…is this not a weakness? Toughen up, optimist. Life is precious and fleeting. Live it. Yet, you spiral on and sit motionless or wander aimlessly or hug yourself lying on a floor somewhere. Thoughts of suicide, of giving up….sshhh… creep up from nowhere, but you shrug them off. None of that now. Your spiral of loneliness remains about the living… the onwards and forwards, but how?!

Jean Vanier speaks and tells me that “anguish is the pain of a soul confined and constricted. One can smother the feeling by throwing oneself into activities and by seeking after success. That’s what we all do. Generally, we have the energy needed to do things that give us a sense of importance and the feeling that we are alive. But when we can’t do these things anymore, when we can no longer be active or creative, we become conscious once again of this inner suffering. This suffering is a fundamental element of human nature; we can try to forget it, to hide it in a thousand different ways—it’s still there. This anguish is inherent in the human being, because nothing in existence can completely satisfy the needs of the human heart”

What does my heart want? Why must suffering be a part of it? Loneliness seems to seep through in moments of unguarded silence. Moments of uncensored contemplation; gazing out bus windows, sitting on park benches; people rushing by, traffic, buying, selling, politics, economics, needs, desires, demands, expectations, roles, structures… all rushes together and the ground begins to shake. Chaos in the mind gives way to silence and in this silence, a thought: Futile! Another: superficial! Connections, relationships… crumble, become marginal as you sit and become frighteningly aware of the structure, system, construct, that you live in, are bound to live in, and may never escape. It appears rigid, grey, faceless, un-natural. Existential thoughts emerge, and Mr. Vanier reminds us that “the human heart is uneasy, thirsty for fulfillment and for the infinite. It cannot be satisfied with the limited, the finite. From its creation, humanity has sought to go further, higher, deeper, in pursuit of the hidden meaning of the universe”. Yes going beyond the basic, monotonous, colorless and into a seeing of, feeling of, being with and caring for. But what is infinite? What meanings are hidden?

The meaning of one’s own feelings? An understanding of one’s own pain? How, where, when… Jean sits and sighs and remembers “I once visited a psychiatric hospital that was a kind of warehouse of human misery. Hundreds of children with severe disabilities were lying, neglected, on their cots. There was a deadly silence. Not one of them was crying. When they realize that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone may hear us. Anguish is more obvious, more visible among those who suffer most and are the most isolated; however, to enter into communion with them is to become conscious of the same vulnerability and frailty in ourselves, generally kept secret at the very root of our being. In entering into communion we can achieve the philosophical act par excellence—i.e., to know ourselves—but through a compassion that calls to mind that of the Good Samaritan rather than through some exclusively intellectual act”.

So we learn to understand our own suffering through a realization of a common frailty? Throw out the intellectual and open the heart? Create ties, knots? Jean says that “meaning reveals itself as we detach ourselves from that which gives us power and importance in society, in order that we might more truly belong to the universe. To be in dialogue with the universe, with the other, with oneself—all three are inseparable relationships. The beginning is relationship; a person cannot know himself or herself apart from communion with humanity, creation, and the Creator”.

A dialogue between myself, the other and the universe? But dread remains, no? Jean shrugs, “dread might be the only possible response to the reality of human freedom, and only this dread can, through faith, truly form the human being, by devouring all limits, by unmasking all deceptions”.

So, is my loneliness then a result of an unmasking of deception or merely emerges out of a distortion of reality brought on by inner confusion? Perhaps half and half; deception and distortion, hmm… Jean “We are born in extreme fragility, and we die in extreme fragility. Throughout our lives we remain vulnerable, and at risk of being wounded”. Yes, loneliness and vulnerability are allies. They harass and mock you together, pin you down, question you, mercilessly. Expectations create…vulnerability, no? We expect and hope and dream and open ourselves and shake, frightened, uncertain, as we watch that what we set free, created, shaped, enter life’s unpredictable currents. Ups and downs, ebbs and flows. Perhaps nothing, perhaps it grows, perhaps it dies.

Jean invites me to “observe the tension in our world between the pressure to achieve mastery or control, and our longing to find ways to live at peace with our own, and others’ imperfections. Where modernity privileges progress and perfection, Vanier draws attention to imperfection and fallibility as important and overlooked aspects of being human. Importantly, while acknowledging the humanness of our imperfection, Vanier also insists that we “continually take responsibility to strive to grow towards freedom and serving others in spite of this”.

Serve… others? How is this related to freedom? Sometimes people overwhelm. Sometimes they marginalize, sometimes they don’t care…purposefully.

Jean “you cannot legislate people to care about others, but it is possible to create the conditions for the…” possibility of caring?

A sudden thought: Infinite. Difficult concept, yes. Perhaps a connection: “Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy … needs to be celebrated… ” Can infinity be found here…somewhere?

A suggestion, small, perhaps it helps, perhaps not, perhaps it brings confusion, but anyways, Jean says “cultivate fidelity to the wonder of each day… visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.” Acknowledging your imperfections and by doing so, learning to live with greater humility in the face of others’ vulnerability. “It is only when we stand up, with all our failings and sufferings, and try to support others rather than withdraw into ourselves, that we can fully live the life of community.”

Such a high task. Not withdrawing when withdrawing sometimes feels intoxicating. Lifting up, and supporting…when befuddled by thoughts of futility. Small gestures. Yes, possible. Forgiveness. Hmm, start at home. Love? Faith? Very fluid. Wonder. A start, an end, an infinite?


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