I read Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out several years ago when the women in my primary friend group at the time were all reading Henri Nouwen. It’s what we did back then. I decided to revisit this book because I’m not sure if I agree with it now. I know Nouwen discusses the movement from loneliness to solitude, but I don’t remember the details. Did he say loneliness leads us to solitude and then we don’t struggle with loneliness anymore after we embrace and practice solitude? Is that what he said? Because if that’s what he said, then I disagree. Are we allowed to disagree with Henri Nouwen?
After re-reading the short book today, it looks like I’m going to have to disagree with him, whether or not I’m allowed to do so. Here’s a passage from the first chapter of Reaching Out:
Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.
It sounds lovely, though, doesn’t it? This idea that we can transform our loneliness into solitude and live happily ever after is appealing. But my experiences tell me it doesn’t work that way. I have embraced a practice of solitude for several years, and I enjoy being alone, but I still struggle with loneliness at times. If Nouwen were still alive today would he say I’m doing it wrong? Are my silent retreats and early mornings alone sitting and praying and sitting some more not sufficient? Do I need more solitude? Do I need better solitude? Why do I still feel lonely?
Maybe Nouwen had some similar questions. After a bit of digging, I came across proof that Nouwen had a change of heart about the nature of loneliness. He mentioned a “second loneliness” in an interview with Darryl Tippens that I accessed online at wineskins.org. This interview was conducted in December 1993 in Toronto. Reaching Out was first published in 1975—the year I was born. There is no mention of a second loneliness in Reaching Out. He mentions the second loneliness in this interview during the year I graduated from high school. So, maybe Nouwen learned a lot about loneliness between 1975 and 1993. That’s conceivable. I learned a lot about all kinds of things between 1975 and 1993.
Nouwen said the following in the interview:
The best of community does give one a deep sense of belonging and well-being; and in that sense community takes away loneliness. But on another level community allows you to experience a deeper loneliness. It is precisely when you are loved a lot that you might realize a second loneliness which is not to be solved but lived. This second loneliness is an existential loneliness that belongs to the basis of our being. It’s where we are unfulfilled because only God can fill us.
The paradox is that quite often in community you get in touch with this second loneliness. In community, where you have all the affection you could ever dream of, you feel that there is a place where even community cannot reach. That’s a very important experience. In that loneliness, which is like a dark night of the soul, you learn that God is greater than community.
And it’s good because that kind of suffering makes me realize that the community is not the final destination.
I much prefer this more nuanced take on loneliness over his take on loneliness from Reaching Out. And I love that Nouwen says the second loneliness can’t be solved but lived. While I prefer this take, I do think he’s still putting loneliness in a box, well, two boxes to be exact. There’s the bad loneliness that isn’t related to being in community and there’s the good loneliness that you have because you’re so very loved.
I agree with Nouwen that we can struggle with loneliness even when we are in community with other Christians and have relationships that are flourishing. This sort of loneliness may settle in us the way fog settles in a valley. It can come and go regardless of how connected we feel to God, other people, and ourselves. It’s a loneliness that has no solution on this side of heaven. But other forms of loneliness can come and go and settle into us, too.
So, what do we do about it? I agree with Nouwen that we keep living. We recognize that our loneliness (the “good” kind, the “bad” kind, or one of the many in-between kinds) has returned, then we go on to handle our daily responsibilities and work and rest and worship and play. And we ask God to make himself known to us in our loneliness, to give us glimpses of beauty in the midst of the hard stuff, and draw our hearts to hope for a different future—a future when the loneliness won’t feel so lonely and our ultimate future when none of the kinds of loneliness will be no more.