Chapter 1

Interpersonal Loneliness

& Spiritual Loneliness

    Loneliness is an aching void in the center of our being,
a deep longing to love and to be loved,
to be fully known and accepted by at least one other person.
It is a hollow, haunting sound sweeping thru our depths,
chilling our bones and causing us to shiver.

    Is there a person who has never felt the stab of loneliness,
who has never known the eerie distance of isolation and separation,
who has never suffered the pain of rejection or the loss of love?

    But another kind of 'loneliness' is deeper than love.
Spiritual loneliness is not longing for a specific person
or the general urge to have more contact with others.
Rather, it is an incompleteness of being, an emptiness,
which we mistakenly believe can be overcome by better relationships.
Being together with other people—even people we love intensely—
does not overcome this deep incompleteness in our beings.

    Loneliness for a specific person
is the experienced absence of someone we love.
Loneliness for people in general is our need for human contact.
We may feel cut off from other people, even in the middle of a crowd.
Perhaps we sense an invisible glass wall separating us from others.

    Living in bodies makes us essentially separate and alone.
Each of us is a complete, self-contained
physiological, neurological, and psychological unit.
We experience ourselves directly, from the inside.
But we experience others only indirectly, thru what they say and do.

    Some people suggest that the more deeply our bodies are involved,
the deeper the communication will be.
But even the most intimate bodily contact—having sex with someone—
can be an experience of intense loneliness.
Sex can be one of the loneliest experiences in the world
—perhaps especially when we expected it to create
the deepest and most ideal communication and closeness.
If sex does not take away our loneliness, can anything?

    Cultural expectations also make us more lonely,
because we are trying to fulfill an unrealistic dream of perfect love.
If everyone else seems to have fine loving relationships,
we may feel that we have been left out of a wonderful experience.
If we are not coupled with someone, we may feel inadequate.

    Interpersonal loneliness arises from the clash
between the ideal state of love and the actual state of separateness.
There are two ways to relieve this tension:
One is to get into better relationships (the most popular approach);
the other is to notice that the 'ideal' is unrealistic.


    But whatever the state of our relationships
—whether close and warm, boring and cool, or non-existent—
we should distinguish our experience of interpersonal loneliness
from the much deeper, more central, spiritual loneliness.

    Spiritual loneliness is really a void within ourselves,
a hollowness that cannot be filled with other people
—no matter how close, warm, and fulfilling our relationships might be.
The yearning we feel is real; it comes from the depths of our selves.
But love is not the answer to this spiritual yearning.
Fusing with another person will not solve all our problems.
If our real problem is our Spiritual Malaise—felt as loneliness—
even the most ideal loving relationship will not fill the aching void.

    If we are spiritually empty persons individually,
getting together with others will not overcome our spiritual Void.
In fact, it may generate even worse feelings of incompleteness.
For a time, probably, love will cover our inner emptiness,
but after the initial period of emotional excitement is over,
our fundamental hollowness will make itself felt again.
Then we may blame each other for our spiritual alienation.
We may respond to the reappearance of loneliness by changing partners.
With a new person to love, we can become lost in romance again,
forgetting momentarily our inner incompleteness of being.

    The belief that 'true love' will solve our Spiritual Dilemma
is one of the strongest illusions of the Western world.
Perhaps only a series of disappointments will convince us
that love cannot solve our spiritual loneliness.

    How can we distinguish interpersonal loneliness and spiritual loneliness?
Consider the following five differences:

    1. Both the longing for a specific person and the general urge
to make connections with others are clearly interpersonal feelings.
But spiritual loneliness only seems to be yearning for love.
Even the best love will not abolish our spiritual loneliness.
After a while, the inner lack or hollowness gnaws thru again.

    2. Interpersonal loneliness results from being isolated and alone.
When we reunite with the people we love, our loneliness disappears.
But when being together with the people we love
does not overcome our 'loneliness', it may be spiritual loneliness.
We may feel 'lonely', incomplete, and unfulfilled
even when we are receiving all the loving we could ask for.
Nothing others can do will abolish this 'loneliness'
because the problem is spiritual rather than interpersonal.

    3. Interpersonal loneliness is usually temporary;
when our relationships improve, this loneliness disappears.
But spiritual loneliness is a permanent condition of our beings.
Independent of the ups and downs of our love-lives,
our spiritual loneliness remains—a persistent lack of wholeness.

    4. Interpersonal loneliness affects only one part of our lives.
But spiritual loneliness affects every dimension of our lives.
We feel incomplete, inadequate, miserable in everything.

    5. We know now to cure interpersonal loneliness: Find people.
It is seldom easy to create good personal relationships,
but at least we know some appropriate ways to open ourselves to others.
But rearranging our relationships will not cure our spiritual loneliness.
In fact, we may be disappointed to feel essentially 'lonely'
even when our relationships are doing very well.
Our central hollowness remains unfulfilled
no matter what the state of our personal relationships.

    Being spiritually lonely is discovered in our depths.
Sometimes, when we least expect it, loneliness freezes us.
Or perhaps it feels like the bottom dropping out of our being.
We feel incomplete, as if something important is missing.
We feel shaky and insecure inside, weak and 'clingy'.
Sometimes this gnawing deficiency makes us want to 'devour' others
to get as much of them as possible,
to complete our egos by possessing them.
Or we may seek to be supported and protected by others.

    One woman who has a fine relationship with her husband of 8 years
—complete communication, physical closeness, and understanding—
and who has 4 children still feels lonely.
But because she understands it as spiritual loneliness,
she does not blame her husband or children.

    However, our spiritual loneliness can be cured
—independent of our personal relationships.
If our interior hollowness is filled as a gift of Grace,
it becomes fundamentally impossible to use other persons
to plug up our inner holes and fill in our deficiencies of being.
Instead of trying to fit other people into our interior gap,
we find ourselves loving from a deep richness, fullness, and completeness.
We are empowered to give to others without expecting anything in return.

    Altho each person's journey toward Grace is individual,
we may, nevertheless, distinguish three movements within our spirits:
1. We separate interpersonal loneliness from spiritual loneliness.
2. We abandon our former attempts to solve our Malaise by love.
3. We leap across the Abyss and find ourselves resting in Grace.


    When we discover how to open ourselves to Grace,
our hollow yearning is filled, our spiritual loneliness is cured.
In that very place in our depths where we used to feel
empty, lacking, deficient, incomplete, lonely, and needy,
we now find ourselves satisfied and full.

    This new fulfillment empowers us to love in a new way.
Instead of trying to use others to fill our aching spiritual Void,
we can now appreciate them for the persons they really are.
We no longer need to cling to others
because their absence does not throw us back into spiritual loneliness.
Having received the fulfilling gift of Grace,
which far surpasses anything possible in personal relationships,
we are empowered to love from fullness rather than emptiness.

Interpersonal Loneliness        Spiritual Loneliness

1. Human isolation, separation,             1. Incompleteness of being,
lack of relationship.                                  lack of wholeness.

2. Results from being alone;                  2. Primordial incompleteness of self;
social cause.                                             inward source.

3. Comes and goes with the                  3. Permanent lack of completeness,
rise and fall of relationships.                 even within love.

4. Limited to the interpersonal              4. Taints every aspect of life;
dimension of life.                                    cannot be isolated.

5. Solved by communication,                 5. Cannot be overcome by love;
sharing, closeness, love.                         incompleteness, unfulfillment continues.
Questions for Discussion

1. Have you ever felt lonely for one specific person?

2. Have you also felt the general desire to have more human contact?

3. Have you believed that love is the answer to your Spiritual Malaise?

4. To what extent have you tried to solve your spiritual loneliness

    by trying to create better loving relationships?

5. If you are not yet convinced, what additional experiences

    are likely to convince you that love cannot cure spiritual loneliness?

6. In what ways does our culture say that love is the answer?

7. How realistic are the images of love in movies, music, etc.?

8. Have you ever experienced spiritual loneliness

    even in the midst of a wonderful loving relationship?

9. What part of your 'urge to merge' with another person

    is really your underlying spiritual loneliness?

10. Is continued spiritual loneliness sometimes a cause of divorce?

11. Where are you in your spiritual journey from loneliness to Grace?

12. Has Grace enabled you to love without clinging?

Further Reading on Spiritual Loneliness and Grace

James Park Our Existential Predicament:
Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety, & Death

(Minneapolis, MN: Existential Books, 1995)

Chapter 1, "Existential Loneliness" p. 25-38.

James Park New Ways of Loving

(Minneapolis, MN: Existential Books, 1999)

Chapter 13 "Love Among Existentially Free People" p. 224-231.


The file above is the first chapter of Opening to Grace.
Return to the Table of Contents of Opening to Grace:
Transcending Our Spiritual Malaise.

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