A Different Kind of Lonely

The day I turned thirty, I met some friends for drinks and celebratory cigars at a smoke shop across the street from one of my favorite restaurants, an Asian bistro where the sushi bar offers a roll that uses raw filet mignon instead of rice to hold everything together. After a couple of beers, and halfway through my cigar, I responded to the question someone had posed, asking what I wanted from the future. For one, I said, I hoped I’d be married before another decade had passed. “I’m not looking for someone to take away my loneliness. I know another person won’t do that. It’s just that sometimes I think I’m ready for a different kind of lonely.”

* * *

I listened to Leonard the Lonely Astronaut seven times in a row the first day I heard it. A concept album from Andrew Osenga, it tells the story of a man named Leonard, set in the year 2365. While in the process of finalizing his divorce, his wife and child are killed in a car accident. Crippled by grief, Leonard decides to volunteer to pilot a transport shuttle to a distant planet. The trip will take a year — six months there, six months back — but due to the laws of relativity and such, everyone he knows will be dead by the time he returns to earth. “I’ll make some new friends / maybe with their grandkids,” Andrew (Leonard) sings, ready for a new start, hopeful things will turn out differently this time.

I loaned Andy my old 60s Rogers drumset for the project and helped him build the spaceship in which to record it (yes, you read that right), so he sent me a copy of the record as soon as he had the final mixes. A couple days after my first listen, still hitting repeat over and over, I read Terry Tempest William’s new book, When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice, in two sittings. A beautiful book, equal parts reflection on her own relationships and meditations on the ways women find their voice in a world that often says their voice is unimportant, she has this to say about her marriage: “I have never been as lonely as I have been in my marriage. I have also never been more seen or more protected.” That night, I e-mailed the quote to Andy (one of the friends who had been around the table when I’d answered that question), saying I didn’t think I could come up with a better short summary of Leonard, no matter how hard I tried.

* * *

How does one escape from a darkness that feels like it is covering everything around you? A cloud that, no matter what you do, what kind of changes you try to make, sticks around?

    That summer night we ran
    down to the lake and swam
    under the moonlight
    where you ruined all my plans.

    (here in the silence)
    I hear a whisper.
    (here in the darkness)
    I glimpsed a light.
    (here in the emptiness)
    I feel the beat of my heart again.

        from “Beat of My Heart” in Andrew Osenga’s Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

* * *

I’ve fought against the feeling of being trapped, of ending up with a life I don’t want to have, of coming to the same end as my parents. How has that affected the choices I’ve made, the things I did or didn’t pursue, I sometimes wonder? What has been the cost of the freedom I’ve so valued?

    I still sort of have a couple friends
    who told me I should change my plans and stick around
    but I buckled my seatbelt and knew how the fly felt
    when the windows roll down.
        from “Brushstroke” in
Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

    When I was a kid
    I ran to the woods and best as I could
    pretended I was free . . .

    . . . and then I got hungry.
        from “Only Man in the World” in
Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

* * *

“I hope you’re feeling God’s comfort,” a friend said to me, after hearing about the death of a close friend. Her words bounced around my empty house, sounding cruel and inhumane, absent any kind of embodied presence; apart from touch, apart from comfort, apart from what is real and felt and here and now.

* * *

    Your touch is a thunderstorm
        rattles the windows
        rips off the door
    Whispers in the ear of every eager pore
        “You’ll make it through the night.”
        from “Smoke Signals” in
Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

I softly close the door behind her as she leaves, resting my forehead against it. I’m grateful for companionship, for good conversation shared over a meal. For the space, as the chicken is cooked to perfection and the asparagus becomes tender in the pan over the sliced garlic, to share a love of words: me reading a poem, her picking up my copy of a book she was reading to share her favorite paragraph. But I ache for touch, for a connection that gets me out of my head, out of a depersonalized space, away from the purely theoretical.

    Boy, just hold on, boy,
    remember this pain.
    If ever you find it again, boy,
    give her room to learn to love you and maybe she’ll stay.
        from “Hold On, Boy” in
Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

* * *

And then, a change. The blossoming of a friendship into something more, something deeper. Bringing with it something I did not anticipate, could not have predicted: I breathe more easily these days. As if a weight had been lifted.

* * *

    I don’t know a lot but that never stopped my mouth,
        a soapbox full of injured pride.
    She had the confidence and grace to hear me out,
        then kindly countered with a smile.
        from “Ever and Always” in
Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

It’s a largely new experience, one that feels foreign to me. Someone close enough to see my faults, but who, instead of keeping a mental list to recite at some future date their reasons for not wanting me around anymore, gently brings one up, coupled with a reminder of her love. And I find myself more hopeful, seeing a way to become more like the person I want to be — instead of my deficiencies serving as a scarlet letter, a reminder of how messed up I am, the reasons why no one wants me around.

* * *

There are things beyond calculation, beyond simple arithmetic. If you do x for me, I will do y for you: this is one mark of an unhealthy relationship, it seems to me. But how to explain the ways that performing a selfless act for another, meeting them at their moment of need, also in some way fills a longing you could not articulate yourself?

If being fully present to another is one way we embody the love of God, one way we make known to another person that they are worthy of respect and love, then is this not what we should, in our best moments, strive for?

* * *

    Love is motion,
    Love is action,
    Love is choosing someone other than yourself.
    Love is freedom,
    rest, and passion.
    The heights of pain and healing
    tower like a mountaintop
    above everyone else.

        from “Ever and Always” in Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

What I did not expect, what caught me off guard, here in the beginnings of this relationship, are the physical changes. The way I realized with something like relief, a week after we had started dating, that I was actually breathing differently. It felt like I had come out of a long darkness I didn’t realize I had been in. I am grateful for this, for changes that I can’t quantify or explain intellectually, changes that affect me on a deeper, more primal level.

This excerpt of Christian Wiman’s poem “Elsewhere” resonates with me:

    is momentary, a way
    of seeing, a sweet lingering
    in a cloud before it drifts
    beyond the form he’s found
    for it, a brief
    impalpable life breathed
    into clothes on a line . . .

    He longs
    to find some calm within
    what he’s become, inside
    the sound, a roaming
    stillness. It seems
    so close, as if he might,
    even now, blink and be
    there, restored, prepared,
    whispering all he remembers.

* * *

In Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Lauren Winner, writing about the aftermath of her divorce, quotes a friend as saying “that the loneliness he experienced in his marriage was more devastating than anything he has experienced since.” Lauren thinks that her friend gets “the hideous disjuncture between expectation and reality, between what should be and what is. . . . Intimacy alienated — that is what my friend hates.”

As I watch friends and siblings work on their marriages, I understand — and fear — that loneliness. I grew up in a world that bought into the promise of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and similar books — a guarantee that following their rules would result in a perfect, pain-free future, while at the same time promising that any relationship that did not lead to marriage would rob you of your personhood, would turn you into damaged goods (as if a person could be commodified in such a way). That you would be ruined for any chance of future happiness. Read alongside parental stories of past relationships they regretted and rules made to guard you from any kind of similar hurt, the cumulative effect was a hesitancy to pursue relationships at all. The shift to seeing the world in a different way, one not driven by fear, was accomplished slowly and with great effort.

    We prayed each night to the risen God
    for our loved ones health and safety.
    Then we locked the doors and windows up.
    There was no danger, we were not free.
    The big, bad world was on the hunt
    and its dogs were fixed on our scent.
    Clouds of fear may block the sun,
    still the world remains in orbit.

        from “Firstborn Son” in Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

* * *

Lauren continues her thoughts about loneliness in Still, writing that she felt differently than her friend did: “I find the loneliness of no one knowing if your plane lands on time, of no one to call if you lock yourself out of your house or your alternator dies — I find that loneliness worse. The loneliness of the everyday, more than the loneliness of estrangement.”

* * *

Here, I’m back to where I started. When I confessed to being ready for a different kind of loneliness that night over beers and cigars, this is what I was trying to get at. Being more familiar with the loneliness of estrangement, I still did not want a comfortable familiarness, like an old coat or worn blanket. I didn’t want to shut out other possibilities, simply out of a fear of intimacy alienated.

And yet, I also hoped to avoid reaching for something different solely as an avoidance of pain, a grasping for momentary pleasure that would mean abusing another person — valuing her only for what I could get from her — instead of for who she is. Theologian Paul Tillich, articulating the difference between joy and pleasure in a sermon collected in The New Being, gets close to what I want to say:

There are people who believe that man's life is a continuous flight from pain and a persistent search for pleasure. I have never seen a human being of whom that is true. It is true only of beings who have lost their humanity, either through complete disintegration or through mental illness.… If we desire something because of the pleasure we may get out of it, we may get the pleasure but we shall not get joy. If we try to find someone through whom we may get pleasure, we may get pleasure but we shall not have joy. If we search for something in order to avoid pain, we may avoid pain, but we shall not avoid sorrow. If we try to use someone to protect us from pain, he may protect us from pain but he will not protect us from sorrow. Pleasures can be provided and pain can be avoided, if we use or abuse other beings. But joy cannot be attained and sorrow cannot be overcome in this way. Joy is possible only when we are driven towards things and persons because of what they are and not because of what we can get from them.  

* * *

    When I finally found you,
    I was a madman, drunk with desire,
    you were a lifeboat, I was on fire.
    Now that it’s over
    the damage is seen.
    All I can say is
    could you forgive me?

        from “Hold On, Boy” in Leonard the Lonely Astronaut

Might an awareness of bad motivations — of selfish desires — enable one to avoid that path, to start from a different place and thus not make the same mistakes, at least not in the same way? In Dorothee Sölle’s book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, she explores what Meister Eckhart calls Eigenshaft (what is one’s own), which includes “love of self and egoism.” There’s a freedom that comes when we move past that, when we learn to love “without a why or wherefore.” So “Love has no why, no reason,” Sölle quotes Eckhart as saying. “If I had a friend and loved him because good things and everything I desire might happen to me, then I would love, not my friend, but myself. I should love my friend for his own goodness and his own virtue and for the sake of all that he is in himself.” Finally, expanding upon Eckhart’s words, Sölle writes: “If the words ‘I love you’ mean I would like to sleep with you or I want you to marry me, then it remains in the domain of purpose. When ‘I love you’ means that your physical measurements are ideal or you have a great job, then we remain in the realm of reason, which is destructive to love.”

To love another beyond purpose or reason — to love them for who they are, not because they take away one kind of loneliness or fill some hole in my life — that is what I strive for, what I hope for in my better moments. It is the kind of life I desire to lead.

* * *

If someone had asked me two weeks ago, when another birthday passed by on the calendar, for a report on the completed year and what I wanted from the rest of my future, I would have started by expressing gratitude for what the past year has brought: new experiences, new ways of looking at the world, a new relationship that continues to change and grow as the days and weeks pass by and as the seasons change. I don’t know how I will answer that question next year, or in five years. If I can say I am closer to learning — closer to understanding — what it means to love, better able to look at another person for who they are and not for how they can be used, I’ll know I am on the right path on this good journey.

Stephen Lamb lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he works as an arranger, composer, and copyist. When he’s not writing a string arrangement or printing out another thousand pages of music for a studio session or a symphony orchestra somewhere, you can usually find him hanging out at a local coffee shop or beer garden, book or journal in hand, or spending time with his girlfriend (probably reading a book of poems or essays or a Wendell Berry novel together). Sometimes he dreams about being a writer. He blogs at his web site, Rebelling Against Indifference.

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