Solitude that hurts, solitude that heals

[Text of de Lecture given in the Library of the Autonomous Community of Navarra, March 27, 2023]

When my friends who organize this series of lectures on “spirituality and suffering” asked me to talk about loneliness and suffering, the first thing that came to my mind –as it often occurs to me- was the ambiguity of the terms, of the word loneliness or solitude in this case, and the need to clarify them. This is where I will start.

There is a loneliness that can kill us. “Vae soli!”, “Woe to whom who is alone!”, says the Latin adage, taken from a verse by the biblical sage Kohelet: “Woe to whom who is alone should he fall: there is nobody to raise him” (Kohelet 4, 10). That is true: poor he who walks alone on the mountain and falls. But, is he not even poorer when he is with others and he is knocked down and abandoned by his own companions? And, is he not even poorer he who, for whatever the reason, withdraws from all company and gradually sinks to his death? In the end, the “solitude that hurts” is always the solitude of isolation.

Yet, the word solitude expresses also just the opposite to isolation, that is: the absolute solidarity that constitutes us, the full communion that we are in the deepest part of our being. I call it “the solitude that heals” and makes us live. I do not know if it is adequate to use the same word –solitude- to refer to such opposing and at the same time fundamental concepts, but such is our language.

The same is true for the term “spirituality”, which still sounds to insolidary introspection, a solipsistic and apolitical interiority. However, in these reflections I want to claim spirituality as a deep, vital, religious experience, inseparably individual and political, a healing experience for those solitude that hurt us. I will focus the following reflections on some fundamental elements of spirituality such as healing solidary-solitude, some steps of the way of solidary-solitude that lead us to healing of the isolation-solitude.

1. Looking with compassion on the fallen in solitude

Together with war and hunger and their terrible consequences, in this hyperconnected and globalized world, in this world of networks and metaverses, solitude is one of greatest causes of suffering for human beings.

The outlook is global and terrible, and it is more present and evident than ever in this era of digitalization and planetary globalization: the solitude of the unbeloved or abandoned child, the solitude of the adolescent girl that needs to break her dependence and is still not finding herself, the solitude of someone who cannot love or feel loved, the solitude of the family evicted from their home, the solitude of someone who loses his or her job and with it the bread for today and tomorrow for herself and her family, the solitude of those thrown out of their land or country by hunger or war, the solitude of the forgotten sick, the solitude of the depressed, the solitude of the old women, the solitude of the prisoners, the terrible solitude of the overcrowded patera abandoned to its misfortune in the middle of the sea… Solitude, solitude, solitude. Multitudes with no place to live in a common world.

Solitude hurts today more than ever. A few days ago, Nuria Larari published an article titled “I feel lonelier than ever (in the history of humanity)”. She said, for example: “Relationships among ourselves have become more liquid and diffused. First the city and later the Internet became real shredders of the bonds that tied us to each other” (EL PAIS, March 25th, 2023).

We cannot look away and pass by with all kinds of excuses, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, one the most challenging, provocative and moving of the universal literature. The lonely walker assaulted and abandoned on the roadside destroys and dismantles all arguments that justify this growing planetary disorder. The loneliness and helplessness of the abandoned screams in our ears: whoever does not become a neighbour becomes an accomplice, and the accomplice loses his vital breath.

The first expression of spirituality, whether religious or not, consists in opening all our senses to these lonelinesses that hurt and wound: to look, to listen to, to touch, to smell, to feel the taste of their bitterness. To suffer that hurting loneliness as if it were our own, let our entrails move at the cry of the fallen humanity and the threatened Earth: we are that fallen humanity, we are that torn Earth, we are the mother giving birth and the newborn child in the wooden boat abandoned among the waves.

That integral gaze-sensitivity made of compassion is the first criterion of spirituality: its unmistakable sign and its most accurate measure. Our human species, and all this community of the living of which we are part in our common planet Earth, will only save itself if we develop the spiritual, personal and political spirituality, if we allow ourselves to join in a wave of healing, global relationships, a saving tsunami.

2. Discerning the causes of the solitude that wounds

Whoever looks with spiritual compassion cannot help but wonder why that person or group of persons suffers. “Love consists on asking the other one: what is hurting you?”, wrote Simone Weil. Why does he who is solitary suffer? Why is loneliness one of the greatest causes of human suffering? Does she suffer because she is physically solitary? Or because he thinks differently? Or because she is different (in her body, psychology, sexual orientation, political option, ethnic origin, beliefs due to her religious affiliation)?

The spiritual gaze is compassionate, but true compassion is lucid, critical and active. The spiritual gaze wonders why loneliness hurts, why so many people fall alone and cannot get up, why all those situations of lethal suffering occur in loneliness.

Just as having more relationships does not mean we live more accompanied, living physically alone does not imply we have to suffer: 10.4% of citizens in the Spanish State live alone, and 25% of living quarters are inhabited by just one person, but that is sometimes a luxury for many people who live in an overcrowded place where being alone is not possible. And the worst of all misfortunes, worse even than living on the streets, can be living humiliated and mistreated by the partner. The same can be applied to so many other situations of apparent loneliness.

If we look carefully, we discover that the suffering of the solitude that hurts does not occur just because of being alone (physically, psychologically, politically, ethnically, religiously, etc) but rather because of isolation. Solitude does not hurt just because of loneliness itself, but because of the isolation that causes it. Isolation could happen because an individual or a group isolates itself, or is isolated by other or others, by society, the party, the church institution, the State or the international community. When Buddha said that “the human being is born alone, lives alone and dies alone” he meant the illusory psychic loneliness of the illusory ego. The Buddha is right that the human mind is deluded when it manufactures its isolated ego and self-isolation, but perhaps he neglects too much the structural and political dimension of isolation. Both (the mental self-isolation and the structural socio-political isolation) are always, without exception, inseparably related to each other. I isolate myself because I am being isolated, and I am being isolated because I isolate myself. And, undoubtedly, the most obvious and determining factor is the socio-political structural isolation. What knocks down a migrant is not so much being alone, but not being welcomed, or given help to integrate into the new society in which s/he is. The misfortune of an LGTBIQ+ person is not being the way s/he is, but being humiliated, marginalized, abandoned.

Solitude hurts when the founding relationships of a person break, the ties that build his deepest being begin to dissolve, when she is deprived of the relationships that constitute her. Isolation consists on the dissolution of those constitutive relationships. And that is the solitude that wounds and hurts. Isolation destroys relationships and leads us to die in our liveliest part, because to be ourselves we essentially need recognition, being accepted and the appreciation of others. The solitude of isolation destroys us at our roots, our nurturing ties, our esteem and dignity, our faith in ourselves and in our self-love, our vital breath, our respite and hope. Isolation makes us sick because there is no physical or psychic health without healthy and harmonious relationships. Isolation does not let us breathe, it makes us experiment spiritual death, because the spirit is relationship, like breathing. Isolation can bring us to physically die, because life –from its simplest to its most complex form- derives from relationships, from a structure of harmonious relationships.

There are solitudes that hurt, just as there are companions or communities that destroy. Isolation occurs both in solitude and in company. And it can be much more painful to feel isolated living in company than living alone.

Nobody feels hurt in solitude if he is not isolated or if she does not isolate herself. Nobody suffers simply because they are different or alone, but because they are separated, abandoned, condemned. Actually, as I will later insist on it, nothing is constitutively “alone”. All beings are forms with their own identity, but each form is constituted in its relationship with the entire universe. So it is among us, human beings. No one is or should feel isolated per se, no matter how solitary he or she may be, because we are individuals living together in deep communion with everything. However, both the relationships among humans and the harmony between identity and relationship are, in our species, more complex and conflicting than in any other known animal species.

What is the matter with this human species, capable of so much tenderness, compassion and empathy, but at the same time of so much suicidal self-isolation and of cruelly isolating others? I cannot think that it is due to malice: no one isolates another consciously and on purpose, but by lack of will and of freedom. Neither can we think, obviously, like so many ancient cultures and religions thought and many still continue thinking: that we isolate ourselves and kill each other because of the fall of some first parents of humanity who transmitted their sin and its consequences to all their descendants. Let alone, that those consequences are due to having been expelled from a primordial paradise by a punishing supreme “God”. We live isolated and isolate one another because we are unfinished, because we are insufficiently evolved, because we have not yet become what we deeply are or can be. But it is in our hands. “You can”, God says to Cain in the biblical myth. You can be more fully yourself by being more fully a brother, a sister, to your brother or sister.

3. Accompanying isolated persons

I return to the parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable of the violence that hurts the world and of the proximity that heals it, a story inspired by the universal spirit of the subversive compassion: a Samaritan, considered to be a heretic or pagan by the dominant religion, “who was on a journey”, comes to the wounded man, sees him, feels compassion, approaches him, dresses his wounds after having cured them with oil and wine, mounts him on his horse, takes him to an inn and takes care of him (cf. Lk 10:33-34).

Everything has been said. The “man who was going from Jerusalem to Jericho”, who “fell into the hands of robbers”, who “after being stripped of his clothes and hit mercilessly, continued their way leaving him half dead”, that lone man is a multitude, he is you and he is me, too. The priest and the Levite of the Temple who, on seeing him, do not look at him nor do they approach him but “make a detour and pass by”, that priest and Levite are the powerful, the factual powers, and so many everyday people who live their lives and do nothing because they do not know what to do or do not want to do anything, that priest and Levite are you and me, too. We look in another direction, go a different way, and pass by.

And the Samaritan who sees him and feels compassion, who approaches him, becomes his neighbour, his brother, who takes care and charge of him, that Samaritan can be you, she is you and me and everybody, too. We all are walking, on a journey, just like him, and on our way we encounter persons who are wounded, isolated, abandoned by other persons or the systems, or by persons and the systems at the same time.

We are all those characters at the same time. But, which one do we want to really be, beyond the role and the image? Deep down, we will only be if we become neighbours, brothers or sisters. We will only be what we truly are if we accompany the wounded person. Because we are all walkers, and fellow travellers. Each one goes his or her own way, true, and so it should be, but all our trails, no matter how infinite they are, cross each other every day, at every step, on every inch of common ground. The life of everyone is the same life. The spirit within us and gives us life is the same in all its forms. We will only breathe if we allow ourselves to be inspired, encouraged, carried by the universal spirit of light and compassion, the spirit of consolation and hope.

And only then we will be able to break our own isolations, heal our own hurting solitudes, practice our healing solitude, realize our healing solitude, our solidary being.

4. Learning to be alone to be always with every one and with everything

Until now I have mainly referred to the “solitude that hurts”. From now on I will focus on the “solitude that heals”. The remedy to solitude is solitude, but with just the opposite meaning: the remedy to the solitude-isolation is the solitude-solidarity, the true solitude, that which moulds us in the same universal clay, that which roots us in the same common earth that we are, that which consolidates us in the solidary soil from which we all come.

In this same sense, the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío wrote: “I want to be alone to be with myself”. Obviously, here “to be alone” does not mean to be isolated, but to deepen into the being in the communion that we are. Here, to be alone means to be oneself deeply, as a necessary condition to discover what we are in communion, but also vice versa: to be in communion as a necessary condition to be oneself. To be deeply with oneself is equivalent, in this sense, to be fully, and that is the solitude that heals us from isolation, from the solitude that hurts.

To be alone in this sense does not imply, therefore, the mere physical solitude, nor the mere interiority as a result of introspection. To be truly with oneself is not equivalent to go inside oneself avoiding others. Nor is it equivalent to do mindfulness or meditation exercises or concentrating in breathing or in a mantra or in any object that lets us be free from our thoughts. These exercises are undoubtedly very necessary, but they can also become a way to concentrate on or be distracted by myself, and concentrating more on myself can be a way to be less with myself, a way to enclose in myself as if in a shell that isolates me from the others, from reality and from ourselves.

To be in one’s own world is not to be with oneself. In vain do we strive to build our being, our confidence, our future on the shifting sands of knowledge, of power, of possessing, on the shifting sands of our egoic being with its greed, fears and flighty projects. In vane do we look for our solidity in deceitful soils. Our closed ego separates us from the others and makes us run away from ourselves, isolate from ourselves to isolate us from others or vice versa.

Now, our most proper being is inseparably our most universal being. Therefore, being fully with oneself is inseparable from being fully with everyone, it is accompanied by the awareness of being one with everything: the dog that follows me, the birds that cheer me, the insects that fertilize the flowers, the microorganisms we ingest in everything, the water we drink and the air we breathe…. To be truly with oneself means to feel or become aware or to be simply alone, to be in the void of our egoic constructs, and to be simply communion, in communion with everything.

This is the solitude that heals us. The solitude that hurts derives from isolation, from the dissolution of the vital relationships that constitute us –ecological, family, political-. The solitude that heals us, on the contrary, is that deep solitude that consolidates us, that roots and affirms us onto our vital soil, that consoles us in the nurturing soil that is inseparably personal and universal. The loneliness that heals is the true solitude, free, fruitful and open, that which consolidates us in our true being, in universal solidarity. Whoever can be in that solitude will never be alone.

To break our isolation and accompany in a healing manner the lonelinesses that hurt, it is absolutely necessary to learn to look for, choose, practice the solitude that heals: to retreat every day for a short while anywhere to be quiet and in silence, or to contemplate a tree or a river, to feel the air, to thank for the sun, to walk in the fields. Or to dedicate a few days every year to breathe, to be, to feel ourselves deeply, to live ourselves truly. To meditate, that is, to take the centre of our being, following our breathing or looking at a flame or to an inspiring icon. Or just sitting in nature, or at home, doing nothing, not even listening to anything, without talking with anybody, quietly, in silence. Or to read a book or listen to a piece of music that touches our deepest fibres of our being. Or, while being anywhere or whatever we may be doing, take a few moments every now and then, a short repeated moment is enough. No form is essential, but it is essential to do it in some way, to free ourselves from the whirlpool that drags us, takes us and brings us, without letting us live. To be with oneself, yes, but to be with Oneself that is and that knows it is one with everything. To look, to touch, to hear, to feel that WE ARE in communion with everything. It can be the best antidote against the lonelinesses that hurt.

Actually, nothing is isolated from anything. Atomic particles are not alone, nor are atoms alone, nor are molecules alone, nor are cells alone, nor are organisms alone, nor are planets or stars alone, nor are galaxies alone, nor are black holes alone. And could we say that the Universe is alone? How could it be alone if it is the totality of the entire space-time, the sum of all forms of matter-energy, if all forms are bound to all other forms in a cosmic communion of forms in a net, without borders or limits? The problem is that dictionaries define things as a function of their differences, and Western philosophy has been constructed on an atomistic philosophy. And the human being has been defined on a similarly atomistic concept of person: rationalis naturae individua substantia, “individual substance of rational nature” (Boetius). Actually, nothing is separated from anything. Not even the island is separated and alone. “Island” is but a metaphor, just as Vae soli’s sentence “Woe to whom who is alone”.

Jesus of Nazareth is also a metaphor for me, an icon of solidarity, of the human being as Communion. I do not see him as unique, nor perfect, nor as the best. But he became neighbour of the wounded by isolation, and, thus, he suffered isolation, family, social and religious marginalization. In spite of all that, he did not give up eating with the marginalized, supporting the fallen, being one with the last ones. And because of that he risked his life and gave it up, he gave his vital breath becoming one with Everything. This is why his eyes of compassion open me to Infinite Communion, to Universal Warmth and Light, to the Infinite Companionship and Compassion, to the Soul or Breath or the Heart of the Universe. Or GOD. But it is not important what we call that universal fontal Reality, or that we give it no name at all. But I also call it God.

5. Expanding the awareness of being as Interbeing

I suppose that all of you have spent long periods of time looking at, or rather admiring, a beehive or an anthill. They are two very different worlds, but they have in common with each other -and with so many other species, all of them wonderful- an extraordinary feature: they are social beings and all their behaviour is social, because all their needs and their “psychology”, if we can talk like that, are social. I do not miss being a bee or an ant, but I admire their entirely social being, their essentially collective individuality, while constituting a society made up of unique individual organisms. A bee does not lack individuality, individual identity, is not a mere function of the collectivity, but in its being, in its behaviour, in its psychology there is no contradiction whatsoever between individuality and community. Its individual interest is the collective interest, its individual welfare identifies itself with the colony’s collective welfare –the anthill or the beehive. I would, thus, say –with the entomologists’ permission because the vocabulary may not be very precise- that they never feel alone, except when they feel isolated, deprived of their raison d’être that is being in common, and that they never really suffer except when the colony or the anthill are threatened.

I often think: I wish human beings were also a living species with a collective conscience! Actually, we are a large organism. The entire universe or multiverse is as an unmeasurable organism. All beings, from the atomic particle to the galaxies and all the universes are beings in relationship. Their being is interbeing, according to the neologism created by the Buddhist Zen master Thich Naht Hanh. All beings inter-are. Human beings are interbeings, too. We are not, but rather we inter-are. We are not a sum of beings, but we only are when we inter-are, being everybody with everybody in all dimensions of our being.

I do not miss being an ant or a bee, but when I watch myself and the social groups that constitute us, when I watch humanity as a whole, I do miss the harmony between the individual interest and the common interest, the harmony between the being and the interbeing. Each human being is unique, of course –all beings, in their form, are unique- and I do not aspire that the human individual ceases to be unique, but I do aspire that the unique individuality that constitutes us can one day be lived, concretely and effectively actualized in harmony with the full relationship that constitutes us. I aspire that we will not seek our own well-being at the expense of the evil of others. I aspire that we will not destroy our individual and collective happiness because we do not tolerate that the other is stronger, better looking or richer, or simply different. I hope that one day we may eliminate or at least reduce that crazy competitiveness that we humans have turned into the mainspring of our social, political, economic and social life. In this way we destroy coexistence, collaboration, the capacity to suffer with the other one and, perhaps above all, to enjoy and rejoice in the good of the other one. I aspire to a leap of consciousness, so that the consciousness of our unique individual self is at the same time and in everything -sensitivity, psyche, self-awareness- real awareness of our being one in everything with everything

6. Creating political structures of solidarity or of Interbeing

The deep, truly spiritual, conscience is able to transform an isolated solitude into a solidary solitude, and therefore it is able to heal the solitude that hurts. But at the same time we have to say: political structures of solidarity can transform our conscience, widen it and make it universal. I will finish my reflections with this idea.

We are, simultaneously, spirit and structure. We are spirit that emerges from a structure. Each one of our thoughts and emotions, of our desires and options depends on the physical, chemical, organic organizations that constitute us, just as it depends on what we breathe and eat, of what we see, hear and touch. That which we call out deep, profound, spiritual being depends, as well and particularly, on the family, social, educational, political and economic structures and relationships that specifically configure us. The deep conscience, the conscience of the profound I or deep self-conscience is inseparably physical and psychic, individual and social, personal and political. That which we call spirituality –life fully lived- depends or emerges from all the structures that make us in all our dimensions. Material and socio-political structures create spirituality, and the spirituality is material and political from their origin and, at the same time, transforms the material and political structures. And it is so always, with no beginning or end. There is no spirit without structure or structure without spirit.

Let’s apply this circle between spirit and structure to the subject of solitude. To transform isolated solitude that hurts into solidary solitude that heals is not only the great personal challenge of each individual, but also the great political challenge of today. It is the greatest global and planetary challenge. Humanity has reached a level of knowledge and power previously undreamt of, and it now faces the most serious and most decisive dilemma of its entire history: to choose between life or death, to deify itself in the destructive power of some over others or to truly unite with all, in order to save life, inseparably individual and collective.

Neither an apolitical spirituality nor politics without spirit or soul will be able to heal the wounds caused by isolation. Neither an interiority that relegates socio-political structures nor mere socio-political structures that do not care for and foster the experience of silent loneliness will do it. It is more urgent than ever to reinvent politics in all its dimensions and forms, so that the major decisions about the planet will not depend on particular interests but on a new politics of the Common Good for humanity as a whole and for the common Earth for all living beings. It is more urgent than ever that a new global and inspired politics direct the diverse structures from which our being emerges: scientific research, technological development, robotics and artificial intelligence, educational institutions, mass media, economic and work-related structures.

The imagination and the implementation of global, democratic and solidary structures is the most urgent political and spiritual condition to save from death the planetary community of the living to which we belong; it is more urgent than ever that we reinvent a global politics with soul, a planetary politics animated by wonder, admiration, respect and ethical responsibility for life. Only together can we save ourselves.

(Translated by Mertxe de Renobales Scheifler)