The Unbearable Weight of Loneliness

“There’s two kinds of poverty. We have the poverty of material; for example, in some places like in India, Ethiopia and other places, where the people are hungry for a loaf of bread – real hunger. But there is a much deeper, much greater hunger; and that is the hunger for love, and that terrible loneliness and being unwanted, unloved – being abandoned by everybody.”

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

You are not alone. 

I can’t tell you what it is to look into the face of someone in pain, offer those words, and see immediate relief, as though a massive weight has been lifted. The suffering that was there before  remains. Reality hasn’t changed. But something has and it’s palpable. 

In my years of speaking with hundreds of women in DMs and coaching, I have learned that time and time again it is not what we suffer in and of itself that can be crushing and demoralizing. It is the feeling that no one sees us, that we are totally alone where we are. 

He was fully man. 

I’ve often heard the phrase that Christ entered fully into our experience of our humanity, except of course he didn’t sin. Literally every single experience we have had he had while he was on earth. He took on our entire humanity, not just the physical, but the mental, emotional and spiritual too. It’s certainly a subject of infinite possibilities for meditation and healing.

When I thought about my own experience of loneliness, I wondered where Christ experienced that too. There was the 40 days spent in the desert after his baptism, and Mark’s gospel notably says that “the Spirit drove him out into the desert” (Mk. 1:12) which implied force and reluctance to enter into that loneliness. 

But there’s another time I didn’t think about until recently, and we will be commemorating it this week.

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Matthew 26: 36-41

We’ve all read this as Jesus longing for his disciples to prepare for the test of his Passion, chanting “mea culpa” for our own fickleness at maintaining our prayer life, and remembering the benefits of Jesus’ invitation to spend an hour with him.

Recently, I went back and read this differently. Yes, Jesus loves his apostles to the end and wants them to prepare for what was coming, and the plea to watch and pray was certainly for their own good. 

But I saw something else this time. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was also lonely. His hour had come, and he longed for the companionship of his specially chosen friends. Thinking of Jesus as lonely and abandoned in the Garden makes his Agony even more palpable. Jesus took on our full humanity, and that includes our need to know that we do not carry our crosses alone. 

The relief his friends could have offered was not to take his cross away as they may have preferred, but just to be with him and assure him that he had someone by his side for strength. In the garden, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus was not just carrying the knowledge of what he would suffer and the weight of our sins he would take on, but also the reality that he would do so totally, completely alone. 

My Garden Experience.

The loneliest I ever felt was during my second pregnancy. I felt abandoned by just about everyone in the midst of facing a second unwanted C section due to the timing of the conception of my son. Years later, I would learn the reason for my mental breakdown was because I had experienced and processed my first C section as trauma, and the thought of heading for a second had me in trauma-response mode for the duration of the pregnancy. I had no idea why I was so sad, angry or why I couldn’t connect with my unborn child.

Everyone I turned to in my hour of need to see me, to help me make sense of my experience, turned away, dismissed me with platitudes or told me to go talk to someone else. I learned that my pain and confusion made me lose connections with others at a time when I needed to be connected to people. So I hid my pain and shut myself off from people to make myself lovable. Years later as I unpacked my experiences in therapy, I began to share the truth with those who knew me at the time. Every one of them was shocked by what I told them I felt and experienced. No one had any idea. 

This time, sharing my experience didn’t result in a loss of connection. It actually deepened connection. I found healing in being seen, in having my pain acknowledged. Not one of these people did, nor could they have, taken my pain away. But the simple fact of knowing I wasn’t alone in my suffering, that I could be honest with others, that I had people willing to walk with me – even after the fact – made the weight suddenly bearable. Nothing about what I experienced had changed except I was no longer alone. 

Take Up Your Cross.

It is neither easy, nor our nature to sit with another person who is in pain. Suffering makes us supremely uncomfortable, and more often than not, we do whatever we can to make it go away, whether with dismissive statements (even spiritual ones) or with an exacerbating fix-it strategy. We have to recognize this aspect of our nature and challenge it, because giving in often causes more damage than the actual suffering. 

When Peter rebuked Jesus telling him he shouldn’t die on the cross, Jesus rebuked him in return saying “Get behind me, Satan!” As much as it is our desire and inclination to erase someone’s or our own suffering, that is neither our job nor is it the way we conquer it. We conquer it like Christ did, by entering into it. But when we do, we can’t do it alone. 

Just like Christ, we too need our Veronicas who will draw close to us despite our gruesome appearance and remind us that we are worthy of intimacy. We need our Simons of Cyrene, who will offer us even a momentary reprieve of some labor so we have the strength to continue on our walk. We need those women weeping for us, showing us that our pain matters and doesn’t go unnoticed. And finally, we need our Mother at the foot of our cross, not jeering us or pleading for us to come down, but simply offering us the comfort of her presence to strengthen us to the end. 

We both need these people, and need to be these people for others. We need to realize that suffering, while difficult to sit with, can facilitate beautiful, deep connections, relationships and authentic love when we have the courage to brave it together. If we find it difficult to do this, we have to get curious about why. Often it is our own untreated wounds that make us incapable of holding the wounds of others. 

And of course, as we sit with our own suffering and the suffering of others, we invite Him into the midst of it all who knows precisely what we experience. We need our Master Healer so that we may truly grow in love, learn the meaning of hope, and experience authentic reconciliation with him and one another. With him, loneliness is not irredeemable.

Jesus entered into our humanity fully, including our loneliness. If you have felt that unbearable weight as you carry your cross, bring it to Jesus this week. Rest in the knowledge that he was once where you are too.