A Place for the Lonely

Categories: Essays

A Place for the Lonely

Photo: Neil Kremer

I’ve found ample fodder for my writing addiction where I live in Vancouver, Canada. This pearl of the West Coast has consistently been rated among the most liveable cities in the world. And it presents at least one never ending mystery. Oddly, in spite of this city’s charm, many who have lived here for any length of time have found it to be a “lonely place”. In fact, surveys reveal the startling reality that the number one problem expressed by its residents is loneliness!

I noticed it first in the vacant stares of my students at the international school downtown. They sat befuddled, cast into this relationally chilly city. “Who am I” and “what is real” were written all over their faces. I began to notice the same vacancy in the faces of the locals. Like Waldo in a crowd, the lonely started popping up all over the city. Lastly, I felt it in myself, with my neighbors, among my work contacts, in my church. Friendships were easily expendable, it seemed, when greater comfort elbowed in – a new job, travel abroad or another budding romance. The transients living on the damp, frigid streets were simply a microcosm of the city’s personality in general. The only difference was the street people seemed to be more stable and committed to each other than the rest of us were.

Why this lack of togetherness and commitment to one another? One could easily write this off in sociological or geographic terms: Vancouver’s on the edge of continent; we’re immigrants, an infant city, fearful of each other and in search of a core; our cherished “Canadian cultural mosaic” actually divides us; social media has rendered real friends with real faces obsolete; the weather keeps people huddled under their umbrellas with pointy projections jabbing for personal space; etc. I suppose all of these responses, in part, sound sensible. Indeed, these themes come up again and again in my writing.

But my greater hunch is this. Beneath the cultural excuses there lies what is essentially a spiritual quest for meaning and identity, which can only be found in relationship. But ironically, we fear the same thing we want: to be known. We lack the foundation of trust and intimacy to go there. And so, the cycle of budding friendships and loss, closeness and running off, feels ongoing and rampant. It can be exhausting and depressing.

I take a short walk down to the bay. The waters are choppy. There I rediscover the God who is not alien to our restlessness, a God who feels our loneliness, our dislocation and dissonance because he also has lived without a home, alone and unknown. In my life as a student, as a poet, as a lover of my wife, and as a father, I’ve learned that I need first to embrace the God of the lonely and the restless, the God who understands my basic alienation. Until then, I cannot find a real home, or real community, characterized by trust and intimacy.

Here is where it starts: God with us. Absent that, I cannot be known or know another. And even in a city where the prospect of intimacy feels so distant, I can still reside with great hope. There is room for the lonely.

Author: Karl Petersen