If you've ever been lonely, you're in good company, and you can find your way out.
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Known for her social activism on behalf of the poor and her commitment to peace and nonviolence, Dorothy Day inspired countless people by her life and ideas. What she is perhaps less well known for is her personal search for faith amid her struggles with loneliness. Her autobiography is, in fact, titled The Long Loneliness, and describes her journey from youth to old age as she sought a solution to her profound experience of loneliness.
Writing about her childhood, Day says she would often venture through the neighborhood and enjoy herself until “the sudden realization came over me that I was alone, that the world was vast and that there were evil forces therein.” Later, when she went away to college she would wake up weeping at night from homesickness and loneliness. The separation from family devastated her and she felt it as a terrible loss that she could not be forever a teenager, holding her baby brother in her arms. Even as a mother with her own newborn baby, she writes, “I was lonely, deadly lonely … we women especially are victims of the long loneliness.”
The problem of loneliness is with us now more than ever – in fact, close to three-quarters of Americans have experienced it. What can we learn from Dorothy Day about how to overcome loneliness?
Day was a voracious reader of novels. She also loved music and poetry. Through these she found human connection. “Whenever I felt the beauty of the world in song or story … I wanted to cry out with joy. The Psalms were an outlet for this enthusiasm of joy or grief — and I suppose my writing was also an outlet. After all, one must communicate ideas. I always felt the common unity of our humanity; the longing of the human heart is for this communion.”
Day later admits that she’s the person who’s always telling people to read such-and-such book. It isn’t so much that she loves to analyze them …“I want to live by them!” she exclaims. In other words, authors are her friends and so are the characters they have created. “It would have been a far lonelier life,” she writes, “If I hadn’t met Mr. Dickens or Mr. Tolstoi …”
Live by a moral vision
From the writers and artists she encountered, and of course from her ever-growing faith, Day explored answers to some of the big questions in life. She realized that much of the loneliness of her life sprang from the fact that she didn’t really know what her purpose was. Because of this, she felt like she was adrift until she found her purpose in serving the poor.
When asked what she hoped to be remembered for, she gestured toward nearby kitchen tables and said, “I hope they will remember that I tried to make good coffee for them, and good soup!” The moral vision that guided her was to care for the downtrodden and voiceless. A moral vision is a source of strength and imparts a sense of purpose and belonging.
“I have not always felt the richness of life, its sacredness,” Day admits. “I do not see how people can, without a religious faith.” The first half of her life, she says, was marked by the absence of spirituality, and because of this, “The first twenty-five years were floundering” and “insecurity.”
The faith she eventually made her own certainly included going to Mass and working actively among the poor, but it was also a way of life. It was with her even in when she was alone. As such, it was introspective and thoughtful. She purposely spent time alone for quiet meditation and reading, and during these times does not complain of being lonely, even though she was by herself.
This shows that filling up your calendar with busyness doesn’t solve the issue of loneliness, and the secret isn’t as easy — or trite — as making more friends or becoming more social. Instead, Day made time for introspection and quiet in her life.
Gift of self
In the end, Day writes, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” The way she phrases this is interesting because the sort of community she’s talking about isn’t created by making more friends or being surrounded by like-minded people. It is formed by the act of giving yourself away for the sake of others.
Day spent her time with homeless people, drug addicts, and confused people who had lost their way. This is the community she built and this is the community that brought her solace. The key to overcoming loneliness is thinking less about our own needs and more about others. This, says Day, is the only solution, but it is one that all of us who struggle with loneliness will find that, even if it isn’t an easy answer, is well within our reach.