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Loneliness in Lockdown

For some people Lockdown has meant a lack of physical contact and closeness. Of course touch is an important physical need for most people, and lack of physical contact usually implies a lack of touch. However, Jung’s insight into loneliness, expressed in the quotation above, suggests that loneliness comes from a deeper level than having people around you or not.

Perhaps we can make a distinction between loneliness and aloneness. As Jung points out, loneliness is the sense that no-one really understands you. Are you able to communicate the things that seem important to you? An ability to communicate effectively isn’t enough. You also need at least one person who is able to understand your meaning.

You can feel lonely whether you are surrounded by other people, or sitting alone on a space station, thousands of miles from the nearest human being.

Aloneness means being alone in the existential sense. It means recognizing the things that can only be recognized when you take a moment to reflect as an individual human being. It can be the making of us, helping us to realize the value of connection and community, as well as freedom and autonomy. As the saying goes, If you know how to be with yourself, than you’ll know how to be with others.

The Sufi poet Hafiz understood this when he wrote:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly,
let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
as few human or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
has made my eyes so soft,
my voice so tender
my longing
absolutely clear.

Hafiz offers us a process for transforming loneliness into aloneness. As a first step, he says don’t give up on your loneliness too quickly. Look for the remedy inside the pain. As Rumi says in another poem, “Don’t run away from grief, o soul. Look for the remedy inside the pain. Because the rose came from a thorn and the ruby came from a stone.”

Rather than giving up on the experience of loneliness, Hafiz suggests that we really let it in, so that we can feel the sharpness of it cutting into us. Perhaps it is chopping us up into pieces in preparation for the pot! Once we’re in the pot and on the stove, it can be seasoning, giving a divine taste to what might otherwise be a somewhat flavourless broth. Alternatively, if you’re a liquid, it can ferment you, turning you from a dull brown liquid into a life-giving elixir.

All of these are everyday examples of how one thing transforms into another. All take time, effort and suitable conditions.

In the second part of the poem, Hafiz gives us another clue. The secret of loss is in the longing. Longing can make our eyes soft with love, our voice tender, and give us a clarity about what is truly important to us.

Though we try to push it away and fill the spaces in which it could appear, longing is actually what is keeping us alive. It is our connection with life. It is how life is moving through us at the moment. It is a quintessentially human experience. If we can pay attention to it, and give it the time it needs, it can give us a clarity, tenderness and direction that we haven’t yet known.