Some time ago I was sitting talking with a friend in my shed. I don’t recall the context, but I do remember very clearly something that he said. I have no memory of what prompted it. He said “ Sadness has been my constant companion throughout my life.” It took me quite by surprise, and I have never forgotten it.
I’m sure that we went on to talk about what he’d said, and I remember that it prompted me to ask myself if there has been a similar constant companion throughout my life ? I intuitively knew the answer. Loneliness has been my constant companion. That took me by surprise too. On one level it still does. I wouldn’t call myself a lonely person. I’m an introvert so I need some private space, but I am blessed with a loving family and a wide circle of friends.
But I don’t think that my friend’s sadness will be dispelled by jollity, any more than my loneliness will disappear if I seek more friends. We were both talking about something different, an existential sadness or loneliness that exists deep within us, and which other human beings might ease sometimes but can never resolve. Indeed its futile & unreasonable to expect them to do so, and it’s a waste of our time, and the cause of much disappointment when we try.
Maybe my friend’s and my experience is unusual, but I don’t think so. I’ve shared our conversation with others and asked them if they too sense that they have a ‘constant companion’ and they’ve all agreed that they do, sometimes after a long pause for thought. They express it variously, but always there is this sense of loss. Where does this sense of loss come from? From our childhood upbringing? But why would it seem to be so common? Perhaps you can guess where I’m going with this? I wonder if it’s a sense that we all bring with us when we are born: that in being born into this world, we have had to leave somewhere else of which we have good memories, and so we bring with us a sense of loss. It lingers in the background of our conscious awareness, this sense of something missing. Like someone who emigrates to Australia where, despite being very happy, they retain a memory of something they’ve left behind and lost.
The Abrahamic faiths have a story that reflects on this experience, the story of how humans once knew a paradise experience that they subsequently lost. The fact that this is a core story for three faith traditions suggests that the sense of loss might be quite common. My problem isn’t with the story, but with the explanation that it offers: that we are no longer in Paradise because our earliest ancestors did something bad, for which we continue to be punished. If your view of faith is that it is essentially a legalistic matter: God commands and it is our job to obey, and to expect punishment when we don’t, then the explanation makes sense. But if your view of faith is that it is essentially a relational matter with a loving and forgiving God, as Jesus taught, then it doesn’t.
Worse than that, if you are seeking to deepen your relationship with a loving God then a sense of loss of something you once valued, which is deemed to be God’s punishment for something you didn’t do, leaves you as a helpless victim forever feeling unworthy of being loved and accepted.
But we don’t need to think of it like that. There is another way. We have a choice. We are not born with a piece of paper clutched in our hand, which tells us, probably in badly translated Chinese, the meaning of life. We have to discover the meaning for ourselves, and that means that we can and do, choose the meaning of the life we want to try and live. We have a choice. We could choose to see it differently.
John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was with God from the beginning, that he laid divinity down to be born as a human being, and that after His death He returned to be with God. I believe that this is the pattern not only for Jesus but for each of us. We come from God at our birth bringing with us both our Memories of our previous state, and a sense of what we have left behind, that we experience as loss. The key question then is how we understand that loss and how we act upon it? Do we understand it as a punishment or might we see it as a gift, with the seeds of a vision of how things are meant to be? Our vocation then is to help build a Kingdom of God here in this world that reflects the Kingdom from which we have come: we are missionaries, equipped with Memories from Home and an aching sense of loss that points us to what might be. My task with loneliness as my constant companion is not to sink into existential gloom, but might be to nurture friendship wherever I can, my friend’s task with sadness as his constant companion might be to nurture joy wherever he can. This way our sense of loss can empower us rather than diminish us. It becomes part of our vocation
Interestingly, while mulling on the above before writing, I was reminded by my friend Hugh of a poem by R S Thomas, I remembered a prayer of Augustine and a poem from South Africa, and I chanced upon a poem by Carol Ann Duffy that I didn’t know. I’ll share them with you as they seem to point in the same direction.
R S Thomas. The Word.
A pen appeared, and the god said:
‘Write what it is to be
man.’ And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word ‘lonely’. And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: ‘It is true.’
You have made us for yourself
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in You
Teach us to offer ourselves in your service
that we may have Your peace
and ‘in the world to come
may see you face to face
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Nelson Mandela quoting Marianne Williamson in his 1994 Inaugural Speech.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens.
We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
Its not in just some of us; its in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others.
Carol Ann Duffy: Homesick
When we love, when we tell ourselves we do,
We are pining for first love, somewhen,
before we thought of wanting it. When we rearrange
the rooms we end up living in, we are looking
for the first light, the arrangement of light,
that time, before we knew to call it light.
Or talk of music, when we say
we cannot talk of it, but play again
C major, A flat minor, we are straining
for first sound, what we heard once,
then, in lost chords, wordless languages.
What country do we come from? This one?
The one where the sun burns
when we have night? The one
the moon chills; elsewhere, possible?
Why is our love imperfect,
music only echo of itself
the light wrong?
We scratch in dust with sticks,
dying of homesickness
for when, where, what.