Loneliness. Some people fear it, some people honor it. But at times we all experience the phantom nipping at our heels, or even threatening to engulf us.
I’ve had many conversations about loneliness with clients. It seems that those whose challenges are more unique tend to experience more feelings of isolation than others whose challenges are more acceptable or mainstream. For instance, if you have cancer, droves of people support and sympathize with you. If you have a sickly child or a spouse who dies an honorable death in the military, people will rally around in support of your horrible trial. Of course, after the months go by and the crowds of support fade, you are then left to deal with the second big wave of grief on your own. Even the “acceptable” trials bring a sense of isolation.
But for those whose trials are not “acceptable,” a new and separate dimension of experience awaits. These unacceptable packages could be a whole host of things ranging from divorce, a family member’s suicide, a mental illness, problems with the law, etc. And there is no question in my mind that same sex attraction and gender identity issues would be some of the absolutely most difficult trials that this life can offer.
I remember one time when I was feeling the crushing weight of a heavy trial (and of course feeling totally alone in that trial), I received a blessing that reminded me that “Jesus has not suffered less.” At first I felt irritated. I have no desire to compare myself to Jesus or to go through anywhere near the level of suffering He experienced. Of course I want to do my best, but Jesus is so out of reach. I know my trials are smaller than His, and He conquered far more than me. I wanted help on my sorry-little-level. But instead, I was reminded that even in my hardest and darkest hour, I had not surpassed Christ in my suffering.
Was that supposed to be comforting? Honestly, in that moment it didn’t feel comforting at all because what I really wanted was for the hurt to go away. But it is given me much to think about over the ensuing years and I have come to appreciate that reminder very much.
Sometime after my experience with the blessing, I read an article (can’t remember where) that talked about the exclusive club of the tried-and-true (not those exact words, but that idea…). The idea behind it was that when you’ve entered and lived out the most deeply agonizing trials, and experienced a sense of being shunned and isolated, if you endure it well, you are then eligible for entrance into a very exclusive club through the eons of humanity’s presence on the earth. That you are eligible for contact with truths and levels of spiritual understanding that can be gained in no other way but through the brotherhood/sisterhood found in such deep suffering.
We see such triumph in some of the most fascinating stories in all of biographical literature such as that told of Viktor Frankl, Louis Zamparini, and Corrie Ten Boom (coincidentally all World War II stories, I might add…WWII stories are the best!). In each of these stories, the character enters the most excruciating, isolating, agonizing circumstances. Each of them suffers. Each of them triumphs. Each of them softens; each forgives.
These stories move us. They reach our own heartaches and spur us on to be a little stronger, a little more patient. They help us have the desire to hang on even though the waters of our life’s voyage are choppy, stormy, or even threatening to capsize our boat.
I met a woman recently that belongs to this club-of-the-tried-and-true. I had born my testimony in sacrament meeting that day, and had been emotional and vulnerable. It had been a tough week and I felt lonely and worn out. That night, I heard a knock on my door, and there stood a woman in my ward, holding out a card. This was a woman I’d intended to introduce myself to eventually because I sensed a warmth, depth, and compassion in her. She exuded a sense of peace and I saw in her someone very understanding and safe. But until she came by that night, I hadn’t yet talked to her.
I invited her in, and we spoke for a few minutes. She was reaching out to me because of the testimony I had shared, and had written me a card filled with kind words. While we visited, I learned a little about her life. She had two adult children living with her, both of whom were mentally ill and disabled. Her husband had killed himself seven years ago. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s a couple of years ago, and she shook visibly at all times and had to steady one hand with the other. But she was really more interested in talking about me, learning about me, and crying with me. She didn’t try to hide her story, nor did she seek to tell it. She was there for me because she understood suffering and knew how to help someone else who suffered.
When I think of her, and what she extended to me that night, I see the image of a Coast Guard ship, edging up to my poor sinking raft. But at other times, I am the Coast Guard, and a brother or sister is the one in the failing raft.
Just like a muscle doesn’t strengthen without being traumatized first, we don’t strengthen without being torn and thrown around. And in all of this, there is always an increase of loneliness. But if we can see the bigger picture, and hold on, we will become something better in the process. I am reminded of a quote from Neal A. Maxwell (love this guy) who stated, “Like goldfish in a bowl, some are mindless of who changes the water and puts in the pellets, or, like a kindergarten child whose retrieving parent seems a little late, concluding, ‘Man is alone in the universe.'”
In our times of loneliness, my prayer is that we can see the significance of our suffering and appreciate, even if only a little bit, the mighty work of refining us that God is engaged in. It is not for nothing that we pass through our dark times. Our loneliness serves a mighty purpose. May we stay true to God in our suffering, so that we can be eligible for membership in the club-of-the-tried-and-true.