When I was in 4th grade, my class at school took a field trip to the Biltmore House. The Biltmore House, located in Asheville, North Carolina, is the largest privately owned home in America and the top tourist attraction in the state.
However, when my class visited the Biltmore House, I had the worst case of poison ivy in my life. I’m talking every inch of my body—in my ears, on the backs of my legs…I could barely walk, and I looked like a leper.
I was sad to miss the field trip, but the consolation prize wasn’t half bad: my dad took me to see Star Wars, which had recently been re-released in theaters.
Plus, since my family spent a fair amount of time in the Asheville area when I was a child, I got another opportunity to visit the Biltmore House. As it turns out, besides it being a big house, all that really stuck with me was how creepy the mannequins in period dress were—so I think I got the better end of the deal on that ill-fated 4th grade field trip.
David Wilcox, the writer of our second focus song tonight, talks about his own experience visiting the Biltmore House on his album Live Songs and Stories. The visit felt a little ridiculous to him. It seemed absurd to pay $26 to visit “the largest private dwelling ever built”—but how at some point he began to be deeply, deeply bugged.
His friends visiting from out of town were all very impressed, enjoying the visit, but Dave was just bugged. He says he took himself aside and said to himself, “It’s not your house; you don’t have to vacuum it. Just relax.”
But he couldn’t shake the feeling that this house wasn’t just big and ostentatious. Something was wrong.
And then he realized when he started feeling bugged. It was when he read about what the owner of the house, Mr. Vanderbilt, did while he was there. “He was alone a lot… You can just imagine him coming down to breakfast in his bathrobe, he’s got his cornflakes, he’s reading the paper…now it’s one thing to be alone, but sitting at a table that’ll seat 350 people, now why rub it in?!”
It’s one thing to be alone. It is quite another thing to be lonely.
The dictionary definition of the word lonely is this: “sad because one has no friends or company.” Aw…
When we talk about loneliness, we are usually talking about something undesirable, something negative. Loneliness is painful. Loneliness can lead us to depression. A month ago, I shared here that a study on dementia found that people who are lonely are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Yet most of us know that loneliness is more complex than simply not having friends or company. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, in part because you do not have to be alone to be lonely. How many of us can say that we have felt our loneliest when in a crowded room, or in a failing marriage, or with an estranged family member?
Albert Schweitzer once said, “We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” Reminds me of that Kathy Mattea song: “Standing knee deep in a river and dying of thirst.”
When we are lonely, not just any company will do. Sometimes, even the company we think we want most proves not to be enough. We may get the attention we crave, but we wind up lonelier than we were in the first place.
In Genesis 2:18, God created Eve after he saw Adam and observed, “It is not good that man should be alone.” We are not meant to be alone. But our loneliness drives us toward something other than eliminating aloneness.
Eric Klinenberg has done research on loneliness and on the growing rates at which young people are choosing to live alone. He points out that living alone is becoming more and more a modern rite of passage.
Getting married and starting a family has been the marker of adulthood for generations, but fewer and fewer young people are choosing to take that route right away. Many of them observe, to quote Klinenberg, that there is “nothing lonelier than living in a bad marriage.”
For young people for whom marriage isn’t the first step to adulthood, living alone can be. It shows that they are independent, that they can make it on their own.
But beyond that, Klinenberg finds that living alone can actually push you toward being more active and social. Loneliness can be productive when you live alone. You get lonely, so you call a friend, head out to a bar, do something to connect with the outside world. Studies show that singles are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, and they are more likely to volunteer.
Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says that lonely people must avoid two extremes: either avoiding their loneliness or dwelling on it. When we try to escape our loneliness, it doesn’t actually go away; we just push it out of our minds temporarily. But when we dwell on our loneliness, it drags us down into depression.
There is, however, a third option. As Klinenberg found, loneliness can actually be productive.
A few months ago, a good friend of mine was sharing about the continuing growth of a small business she helped start. The whole process had been an incredible learning experience, but it had also been extremely difficult for her. She found it difficult to appreciate her successes because she knew intimately where her projects fell short, and her dreams created far bigger shoes than her small and gradual achievements could fill.
But she told me that this sense of discontent was not an entirely bad thing. She told me that she thinks all people of vision have within themselves a continual sense of dissatisfaction. That is what keeps them going, what keeps them striving for bigger and better things. If they were ever satisfied with what they had, they would come to a standstill and forget how to dream.
My friend had to learn how to balance this dissatisfaction with a hard-won ability to find joy in the process. But even when things were really hard, I don’t think she would have traded it for the world. Her vision of what could be made her discontent with what was—and it was that discontent that gave her the drive and energy to work for a better way.
Dag Hammerskjold said, “Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” Our loneliness can be productive, not just in getting us off the couch and out of the house, but in drawing us out of ourselves for the sake of a better world.
Henri Nouwen says, “The pain of your loneliness may be rooted in your deepest vocation.” Every character defect is the flip side of a character asset. So, too, our loneliness is a painful manifestation of a deep longing that has the potential to lead us to our deepest, most meaningful joy.
Nouwen says that we must find the source of our loneliness. There we will find our deepest vocation. And we find that not through mental gymnastics or social experiments, but through prayer.
“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Too often, when we feel the pang of loneliness, we immediately try to fill it with busy-ness or with another person. But what if we sat with it? What if we prayed through it?
Saint Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Looking back on his life, Augustine saw in retrospect how this profound restlessness, this unmet desire for God, had been woven through his entire life. He had filled the emptiness he encountered with reckless living and with women, but he had never sought the source of his loneliness.
When he finally did so, he found that the pain of his loneliness was rooted in his deepest vocation. The love he had tried to express came out selfish and twisted until it could be grounded in the unchanging love of God.
When David Wilcox talks about the Biltmore House, he isn’t just commenting on architecture. He describes an elaborate metaphor. Our hearts, like this house, he says, are big. They have many, many room. They can hold a lot of fullness, but they leave a lot of room for empty.
But he assures the listening that there is a lot of fullness to find—and maybe it’s only the empty that could keep us looking long enough to find it.
“Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Amen.
Sarah S. Howell