The Cure for Loneliness

The Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition draws us into a moment of desolation: the expulsion of the human being (Adam and Eve) from Paradise. One of the hymns from Vespers dramatizes this moment:

Adam sat before the gates of Eden,
bewailing his nakedness and crying out:
“Woe to me! I have listened to wicked deceit;
I have lost my glory, and now am driven away!
Woe to me! My open-mindedness has left me naked and confused!
No longer will I enjoy your delights, O Paradise;
no longer can I see my Lord, my God and Creator.
He formed me from dust, and now to the dust I return!
I beg You, O compassionate Lord:
‘Have mercy on me who have fallen!’”

In these words, we join with Adam at the beginning of humanity’s spiritual history, seated at the very bottom of our life, deeply aware that we are on the outside of our true home, excluded from Paradise. We experience with him the tragedy of our fallen condition, naked and exposed. And we weep at the sight.

What is the Paradise we have lost? It is not a physical place, something whose coordinates could be entered into Google Maps. It cannot be found out in the world, measured and outlined, as many have tried to do over the centuries.

Rather, Paradise is a relationship, a condition of blissful belonging, of being at home, of being exactly where we need to be—safe, happy, contented, at peace, accepted, and loved. Again, this is not a physical condition—a sense of belonging with other human beings—but a spiritual belonging with the One whose being we reflect, in whose image and likeness we are made, the sight of whose face brings us to rest at last.

We lose this Paradise when we come to believe that we no longer reflected God’s face. The enemy of our souls tells Eve, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5) He sows in her mind the doubt, “Perhaps I am not really like God… Perhaps He is hiding His true face from my sight…” She entertains this doubt (which the hymnography refers to as ‘open-mindedness’) and eventually gives in to it. Led to believe that they do not really belong to God, Adam and Eve become ‘naked and confused.’ No longer able to see the countenance of their Lord and Creator, they can no longer see themselves.

And when God Himself comes looking for them, walking in the cool of the day, they hide from Him. Thus, their expulsion from Paradise is not just God’s punishment for a bad deed, but His simple and final acceptance of their initial choice to expel themselves from His presence. They commit spiritual suicide—hiding from the One they reflected, and thus ceasing to exist—and God allows them to make that choice.

The alienation of Adam and Eve is our deepest spiritual malaise. Its chronic and all-pervasive symptom in today’s world is loneliness. Even when we’re not alone—surrounded by lovers, friends, family—we are lonely. Somehow, we are overwhelmed with the strong feeling that no one can really see us for who we are. Worse, we feel as if we cannot see ourselves for who we are, a reflection looking for a face.

Our popular culture knows this problem well. In the song “Eleanor Rigby,” Paul McCartney asks the key question, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? / All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” Our world has rarely asked better questions. But its answers are inadequate. Consider how many popular songs propose romantic love as the solution to loneliness. Consider how many Hollywood films idolize family as the way to ultimate belonging. Consider our fetishization of gangs, tribes, nations, ideological groups—all offering a way to bring an end to our alienation from one another.

The Church, while recognizing that many of these realities have some good to offer, also asserts that even the best of them are just not sufficient for curing loneliness and the deep alienation that lies beneath. To Paul McCartney famous question, “Where do they all come from?” the Church answers, “They came from Paradise.” To his question, “Where do they all belong?” She answers, “They belong with God, as in the beginning.”

How then do we ‘regain our home in Eden’? How do we return to that place of belonging to God? Someone once told me, “The cure for loneliness is more solitude.” That may sound strange and contradictory at first. How can solitude cure loneliness? The answer is twofold. First, solitude is allowing ourselves to sit with Adam outside Paradise, to feel his sadness and to weep with him, without trying to escape into the pleasant distractions that our world provides. Second, in that place of lonely grief, we can reach down into our hearts with the simple “Lord, have mercy” that lies at the heart of the Orthodox tradition.

When we reach in this way, seeking the healing implied in the Greek word for ‘mercy,’ we turn back the flight of Adam and Eve from the face of God. We emerge from our hiding-place, crying out, “Heal me who have fallen!” Only then can we finally find ourselves face-to-face with the One whose face we reflect, the God to whom we belong, so that even if we find ourselves utterly alone in the world, without loved ones, family, tribe, or nation, we can know again a deep and joyful belonging, and loneliness will finally flee away.


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