Q: I'm divorced and never remarried. My parents are deceased and my two children are grown. I've recently relocated and am trying to make connections, but that's much harder to do later in life. I'm lonely and have even started thinking this will be my lot in the afterlife. After all, if we're supposed to reconnect with our loved ones and our soul mate, who will be there for me? I'd appreciate any words of encouragement for me in this life and the next.
-- D., Brooklyn
A: I'm so sorry for your loneliness. It would be supremely arrogant of me to imagine that I could wipe it all away with a few words. Basically, you need hugs, not words. Mother Teresa said, "Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." I don't want you to be poor that way, but you must find a way into meaning, hope and love on your own. This is the truth of our individuality. We're all on journeys but they are solitary journeys at their core. Here are some other thoughts from famous and wise people that might keep you company on your journey:
Stop thinking so much about how lonely you are. Chuang Tzu, the 5th century BCE Chinese philosopher, wrote, "You never find happiness until you stop looking for it." OK, that may be too Zen for you but he had a point. Everybody has trials and tribulations, and obsessing about your burdens can blind you to your blessings. Also, not having an intact family close by shouldn't prevent you from making other connections. As comedian George Burns remarked, "Happiness is having a large, loving, close-knit family -- in another city."
Try picking a charity to which you can devote your energies. Getting out of your way by helping others may bring you both new friends and more importantly, a new purpose for your life. Helen Keller did this for the cause of blind people. She wrote, "Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."
You not only have a life to live, you also have work to do. Getting involved with a church or other religious institution could be the context for your charitable efforts, or you might get involved in a charity with a vision that's not specifically religious. Either way, you'll be bound up in that effort with other people, and that binding will strengthen you. A saying of the Masai tribe in Africa (also found in rabbinic teachings) makes this point with simple wisdom: "Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Sticks alone can be broken by a child."
If you prefer Bible verses, consider these words from the Book of Job (14:7-9): "For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and its tender branches will not die. If its roots are old in the earth, even if the trunk dies in the ground, at the first scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant."
Part of holding onto that hope for me has always been holding onto God. The reason I have faith is that hell is living without hope, and I need to be saved from hell. God loves you and wants to use you to heal the world, and in so doing, heal yourself from loneliness. There is a rabbinic teaching, "If a person uses broken vessels, it is considered an embarrassment. But God seeks out broken vessels for his use, as it says, 'God is the healer of shattered hearts.' " Out of your brokenness can come a wholeness that will sing to you a song that poet Emily Dickinson knew well:
"Hope is the thing with feathers
"That perches in the soul.
"And sings the tune -- without the words,
"And never stops at all."
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