Loneliness welcomes nice warm hug on cold winter day

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 29, 2006

“’Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la la la.” So goes that Yuletide favourite. But for so many in our society, ’tis the season to be lonely.

Loneliness at this time of year seems to be especially a problem among the elderly who have lost their life companion and whose children and grandchildren have moved far away. They have so much love to give, but there is no one close by to receive their hugs.

As Vincent Van Gogh put it, “One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul, and yet no one ever comes to sit by it.”

But loneliness is not restricted to any one time of the year, nor is it reserved for only a few.

“No person has ever walked our earth and been free from the pains of loneliness,” writes my longtime coffee companion Ronald Rolheiser in his 2004 book, The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness.

“Rich and poor, wise and ignorant, faith-filled and agnostic, healthy and unhealthy have all alike had to face and struggle with its potentially paralyzing grip. It has granted no immunities. To be human is to be lonely.”

Many of the responses I receive from our readers speak of loneliness. Often they point to the “virtual coffee shop” of these columns as a means of coping with it.

I was discussing this the other day with Bruno Struck, owner/operator of High Country Framing & Art Gallery in Cochrane. He likes the coffee shop metaphor.

“Just sitting in the coffee shop, we actually become part of the person’s life we see regularly,” he said. “We may not know their names, we don’t know much about them; but there’s a therapy in just seeing them every day.”

I couldn’t agree more. The people I encounter in my daily visits among our town’s coffee shops and through the correspondence around these columns are lamplighters to my soul. They light up my life and in the midst of my own longings for the presence of others, they make me feel connected, as I hope I do them. They are good “therapy.”

Ron Rolheiser in one of his weekly columns put it this way: “When you are lonely in certain ways, no matter the pain, you can still put out a hand and someone will take it, hold it, offer empathy, and the loneliness itself can lead to a deeper sense of being loved and valued.”

Another writer, Elisabeth Elliot, spoke of this “deeper sense” in her 1988 book, Loneliness, which she shared with me over coffee some years ago.

She tells the story of George Matheson, a young man in the late 1800s who went blind shortly after getting engaged. His fiancée ended the engagement.

“Perhaps there is no more bitter loneliness than that of rejection,” Elisabeth writes. “Not only must one learn to do without someone he had come to feel he could not live without, but he must endure dagger-thrusts to the heart, such as: You deserved to be rejected. You are not worthy to be loved. You will never be loved. Who would want you? You are condemned to loneliness forever, and nobody cares.”

Such thinking, she says, leads some to wonder if even God has rejected them and “the devastating conclusion is reached: I am alone.

Matheson’s spiritual struggle led him in a very different direction, however. He turned away from “the powerful temptations to self-pity, resentment, bitterness toward God … and selfish isolation which might so quickly have overcome him, and lifted up his ‘weary soul’ to a far greater Love – one that would never let him go.”

And out of the loneliness of his soul and the darkness of his blindness he penned a hymn that has brought comfort and light to many in their own loneliness:

O Love that wilt not let me go,
    I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
    May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way,
    I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
    May brighter, fairer be.

As agents of that Love and Light during the approaching days of Christmas and Hanukkah, are there ways in which we can be especially present to the lonely in our midst – to help relight their “flickering torch”? To those who have lost a partner? To those who are far from family? To those who long to sit at a festive table with others? Or simply to share a nice warm hug on a cold winter day?

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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