Loneliness is not simply not having another person around us, not being connected to another. It is more complex than that. We all have basic needs around belonging, being a part of something, being connected, but this is multidimensional.
There is a transcendent dimension to this belonging wherein we need to feel connected to something larger/greater than ourselves. Whether we label this something God, Being in General, the Force, matters little; even a cause that helps us transcend the narrow bonds of our personal existence can give us this transcendental connectedness. It can be anything which makes us feel connected to something greater than ourselves, contributes to the meaning and purpose of our existence, and that we are living in harmony with. When we lack this connectedness, we feel loneliness. We also experience loneliness when we break this bond by behaving in a way that is inconsistent or conflicting with this connectedness, even though we may give this loneliness another name, such as alienation or guilt. Why we find it so difficult to experience a lack of integrity inside ourselves is because it makes us feel disconnected. This is loneliness.
Secondly, there is a cultural dimension to loneliness. We are all part of a culture that provides a fundamental orientation to our lives. This is a system of values, beliefs, customs, manners, ways of doing things that becomes so basic to us that we take it for granted and tend to see it as the right way, or the only way, to be and to do. When we are away from our own culture and in one that is radically different, we experience a type of dislocation that is actually loneliness. When we become disconnected culturally, we feel lonely. This is why immigrants will tend to seek each other out and band together in neighbourhoods or clubs where they feel “more at home”, i.e. less lonely.
There is also a social dimension to loneliness. We all need to feel that we are socially acceptable, i.e. that we have a place in society, that we are valued by the social group, and that we “belong”. When the social group, be it society-at-large or some smaller social group like family, diocese, school, Order, finds you unacceptable, be it because of your sex, race, nationality, behaviour, thoughts, sexual orientation, age, or whatever, you experience loneliness. Discrimination produces loneliness, since it labels people as unacceptable, inferior, not belonging. We need to feel socially connected; a disconnection comes when that social group fringes or marginalises us. This is loneliness.
Lastly, there is an interpersonal dimension to loneliness. This is the loneliness that we feel when we are not part of another person’s life in a significant way, and that person is not a significant part of our life. When you ask yourself the question, “Who would really care if I did not wake-up tomorrow morning?” What answer would you get? I am sure the person who would have to cover your workload would care, as would anyone else who was inconvenienced by your demise, but who would really care in the sense that your absence was deeply and painfully felt? A popular and successful pastor of a large parish once said to me: “On any Sunday there are 40 families I could go to for dinner and every one of them would be happy to have me. But, you know, none of them would miss me if I didn’t come.” Who would miss you if you didn’t come?
We have a basic human need to be connected to another person; to, in a sense, belong to someone. Each of us has the responsibility to live his/her life in a way that sustains and nurtures this connection to others. This has nothing to do with chastity or celibacy; it has to do with intimacy. The majority of the clerical sex abusers that I have dealt with were not hungry for sex; they were hungry for intimacy. The same was also true of those celibates who behaved in ways that compromised the integrity. of their religious commitment; they jumped into doing intimate things with another, when what they were really searching for was intimacy with another. This has very little to do with sex. As Tolstoy has said, we search for intimacy not because it is necessary for happiness, but simply because it is necessary.
Permit me to make two points about intimacy. First, it is my belief that each of us needs intimacy in order to maintain emotional health. This is not to say that we do not also need solitude, but this is not a problem for most celibates; forming and sustaining intimate relationships often is. It is a given in mental health lore that good interpersonal relationships are the best prophylactic against mental illness. Karen Horney, one of the pioneers in non-orthodox psychoanalytic theory, saw all neuroses as, not the result of blocks in impulse expression, but as “the ultimate outcome of disturbances in interpersonal relationships … sexual or nonsexual”.
Let me take this one step further. We need to be in intimate – relationships with people of both sexes if we are to fully grow and develop as persons. This now touches more directly on the third definition of “integrity”. I, as a man, need to be in intimate relationships with men as well as women, and women need the same. This has nothing to do with whether you are married or celibate, gay or straight.
There can easily be a tension between the biologically based drive for genital expression to ensure the survival of the species, and the psychologically based need for intimacy, but you can have one without the other. Much of the present issue that we are experiencing around celibacy is much more an issue of intimacy than an issue of genital expression. If, in the process of ensuring the integrity of a celibate commitment you disavow physical closeness and emotional intimacy with another, you are in for trouble. But the trouble is not with celibacy, rather it is with overburdening celibacy.
Celibacy is always a way of loving, never a way of avoiding love, otherwise it is unchristian. If it is seen as demanding avoidance of loving involvement, then most will find it burdensome, if not intolerably difficult. Probably the only ones who will be happy with an avoidant celibacy are those for whom celibacy is a necessity because of their own disability around being able to form and sustain intimate relationships.
A second opinion that is basic to our discussion: not to be loved by someone is a very painful thing; if no one cares whether or not you awake tomorrow, if no one misses you when you are not there, it is sad. As painful as this is, however, it is not the worst; it is tragic if you fail to love someone else. We have no control over whether or not we are loved, but being a person who loves is within our control. We hear so much bemoaning, especially from children, around not being loved, but the more vital question is whom do I love, to whom am I a friend, to whom do I give priority in my life that arises out of my love for that person. When we talk about loving another, of being intimate with another, what we are talking about is being (and having) a friend. Friendship is the model, not marriage, and the important question is not who are my friends, but rather to whom am I a friend. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the best way to have a friend is to be a friend.
What does it mean to be a friend, to love someone, to be intimate? “Intimacy” is really a rather simple thing. It is perhaps where we express in a most unadulterated way Immanuel Kant’s categorical moral imperative of making another person always an end in him/herself, never a means. In friendship, love, intimacy, we can make the other person an almost exclusive end. The other is cared for in a non-exploitive way. If the friendship is reciprocated, then you experience the other’s caring as non-exploitive, and thus the safety so necessary to intimacy is established.
Love presupposes knowing, and being known by, another. ~ The word “intimacy” itself comes from the Latin verb “intimare” which means, literally, “to bring, or put, inside”.
Fundamental to being intimate with another is permitting the other to enter inside you, i.e. to know you as you are, warts and all. Without this knowing, no intimacy is possible. Without it, the other’s “I love you!” cannot penetrate because your response is likely to be “Yes, but, if you really knew me…” It is only when the other really knows you that his/her love has value. Thus, permitting ourselves to be known is fundamental to intimacy, and if there is to be reciprocity, then you must know the other.
So often we pursue admiration when what we really want is love. We can get others to admire us by getting them to see us as virtuous, beautiful, intelligent, capable, witty, or whatever it is that we feel others will admire us for. But admiration is not love. You can admire a statue, but you can only love another person and this presupposes that I see them as they really are, without deception or misrepresentation.
All we really need for intimacy is to permit ourselves to be known and to have that received by the other in a non-judgemental way. If we feel the other evaluating us, then we pullback and withhold ourselves, thereby blocking the formation of intimacy. In permitting ourselves to be known we risk rejection, ridicule, or otherwise negative reactions, thus placing ourselves in a vulnerable position. Encountering the other’s non-judgemental acceptance permits the intimacy to flower. This is the ground for real friendship.
When you have allowed this friendship to conceive and develop, you have a commitment to each other; this brings with it expectations for and from each other. You give a piece of yourself away as a hostage to the other and he/she has a claim on you, as you do on him/her. Does this mean lifelong? No, but that does not diminish the depth of the commitment. In the movie “Missing” there is a scene where one of those who volunteered to go to Chile to aid in the fight for justice was confronted by one of the Chilean revolutionaries for their lack of commitment to the Chilean people. He told the American: “As long as you walk around with your return airline ticket in your back pocket, you are not really committed to the welfare of our people.” Not that he had to vow to stay in Chile for the rest of his life, but the fact that he refused to give up the security of the ticket in his pocket, negated the completeness of his commitment. Perhaps the completeness of all our commitments has more to do with openendedness than life-longness; where we “tear-up” the securities we keep in case this commitment does not work. It is in this sense of commitment that we enter into friendship. We do not know where the pursuit of that fundamental commitment that was made at the time of our baptism is going to take us tomorrow, but that does not make us any the less committed to the persons and values of our life today.
The sense of God given to us in the revelation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is of a God Who invites us into intimacy. The imagery used to describe God’s relationship with humans is that of intimacy, e.g. a mother with her child, a lover with his beloved, a father with children he protects, a vine toward its branches, etc. God and I are Intimate Friends, and I give expression to that in my intimate friendships with others.