Only the Lonely
I am a collector of loneliness.
My literary compass points toward characters who feel set apart from the world, shut up within themselves. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The young vaquero carving a solitary path across the Mexican border, back and forth and back again, in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing.
Like Tsukuru Tazaki, invented on the page by novelist Haruki Murakami, I know what it means to exist as a colorless being in a world of bottomless blues and brilliant reds.
My ear tunes to the characteristic alienation of Radiohead’s catalog. As Bruce Springsteen testifies to being lonely within the confines of love, my mind’s eye pictures the countless nooks and crannies where one hides, even in happy marriages.
Acquainting myself with the art of loneliness, learning to be swallowed by color and sound, seems vital to my soul’s survival. Beauty blankets solitude, whether self-inflicted—as I suffer anxieties or retreat to nurse my ideals; or served by the hands of friends who forsake, forget to call or fail at empathy.
Charlotte Donlon croons lonely ballads across the pages of her new book The Great Belonging. But her songs sound with uncommon notes; even as she plays within minor keys, the chord changes refresh and revive.
Our depression and heartache never impede God’s interest; it isn’t a problem to be fixed, but a chance to touch something deep within us, a space he made.
Donlon spends little time with the world’s Rob Thomases, gruffly declaring that loneliness is over; she doesn’t recall Robyn, blissfully dancing on her own before the void. She’s certainly no Justin Bieber, shuffling under the weight of luxury like King Solomon pacing his palace.
Instead, she resembles Roy Orbison singing “Only the Lonely.” The tenor of her writing voice hovers across the surface of our shared sadness, telling us we belong to one another—and to God.
The Great Belonging is not a psychology text connecting dots of diagnosis and prescription; it does take seriously our reality as thinking, feeling, perceiving beings. It isn’t a systematic theology, grounded in chapter and verse, feeding the head to fix the heart. But Donlon’s work understands man’s condition—and divine loneliness—in profoundly theological terms.
“According to the Gospels, Jesus had plenty of company—sometimes too much company—but I can imagine his differences might have felt significant,” she writes. “He was God-man among very many not-God-men and not-God-women.”
Taking its shape in vignettes and reflections, The Great Belonging mirrors documentary. Donlon chronicles the proper nouns and inert verbs of her own loneliness, more long-term relationship than episodic flirtation.
She writes of the loneliness that attends particular seasons of life: childhood, the waxing, waning phases of adulthood, the death of loved ones. Lighting Christendom’s myths on fire, she describes alienation within marriage; twinned chapters trace the loneliness that occurs “When We Didn’t Have Sex” and “When We Do Have Sex.”
Uniting formal invention and narrative power, Donlon counts ways and means in chapters such as “Occasions of Loneliness” (“You’re on the outside of the inside jokes”; “Your best friend’s wedding”) and the staggering “A List of Lost Friends and Answered Prayers.”
Donlon writes through the darkness, creating a series of powerful proposals—that loneliness isn’t provincial, that it has a million causes but no one to blame.
Donlon treats loneliness as something less than a burden or hidden blessing, and more of a tuning fork. Part of the human instrument post-Eden, it heightens the senses and softens our stoniest edges until we finally reckon with ourselves and the world in all its tragic fullness.
“We can inhabit a posture of curiosity when we recognize loneliness, and our responses to it, as part of the human condition,” Donlon writes.
The Great Belonging challenges me, as the best books do, to transcend false choices. Unlike my literary companions, the book never lets me burrow; contrary to so many Christian titles, it doesn’t urge me to move past loneliness quickly.
In this way, Donlon imitates a God who wrote our loneliness into his permanent record through Psalmists and prophets. Our depression and heartache never impede God’s interest; it isn’t a problem to be fixed, but a chance to touch something deep within us, a space he made.
“Sometimes I wonder if loneliness resides in an extra, secret organ within the body—maybe the size of a plum, a storehouse of dense alienation hidden deep within us,” Donlon writes in the book’s introduction. “I wonder if God knew we’d need a special place for our loneliness because we would have so much of it.”
Donlon models how not to hate this tucked-away organ, but to heed it.
“Rather than approaching my loneliness as something to be fixed, I decided to approach it as a companion to whom to listen,” she writes.
Donlon’s words lead us from the edges of the field where only questions or only answers exist. Instead, we plough row after row up the middle. Only there can we see ourselves for the complicated, multi-dimensional creatures we are. There we learn to avoid elevating or diminishing others, treating them as redeemers or thieves.
Hearing out my loneliness, my feet move toward the cathedral where like souls gather. Together, as human as can be, we approach the altar and meet the God who made us all.
Late in the book, Donlon suggests we need a more expansive vocabulary of loneliness. Her words reveal a binding we can’t see but shouldn’t live without; this language creases the seal of a belonging more romantic than any we might invent. As a favorite song of mine suggests, we will remain lonely, but we aren’t alone.
“If we believe we are beloved children of God and united with Christ, then we trust our other belongings and unbelongings are wrapped up in a Great Belonging: this most significant and essential belonging in existence because of the love, grace, and mercy God lavishes on us,” Donlon writes.
The truest isolation accompanies what we can’t admit, what others simply will not acknowledge. Knowing us and herself, Donlon hums a better tune. There is a Great Belonging, and only the lonely will discover it.