We tend to assume our emotions are permanent, that we will always feel the way we’re currently feeling. And, we can amplify them into the future, as told humorously in Thanks for the Feedback: you might be embarrassed because you had something stuck in your teeth the whole date, but you amplify it into “I will die alone.”
And in the moment, our feelings do feel like forever: since I feel this way right now, of course I’ll keep feeling that way. But as experience shows, that’s not the case. Maybe it takes five minutes, maybe a few days, but our feelings change. And when they do, we tend to assume those new ones are forever too.
In my own experience with physical pain (back and feet), that’s definitely been the case. If I’m feeling great (i.e. it’s a low pain-level day), I’m elated and think I’ll be that way forever. When the inevitable emotional low comes, it stings even more because I thought I’d stay happy forever.
Likewise, on the high pain-level days, I assume I’ll always feel as emotionally down as I am. But, that makes the emotional ups that much sweeter. Interesting. You’d think I’d figure out that pattern and use the highs to temper/moderate the lows (and vice versa), but usually I don’t.
Noise: ignoring the feelings we don’t like
Sometimes we don’t like our feelings. They’re uncomfortable, unpleasant. Rather than feel them, we’d prefer to not, and turn to various things to numb them. I’m going to describe this numbing using only one word: noise.
Noise might be frenetic busyness, constantly filling your schedule. It might be conversations with no point, music, advertisements, amusement. Because when faced with silence, when the chatter dies, we have to face ourselves and our emotions. And that can be unpleasant.
(Cardinal Sarah’s book on silence (The Power of Silence) is really good, btw, highly recommend)
In silence, we can’t numb. We can only feel. But by allowing ourselves to feel, that’s when we actually learn that our emotions aren’t permanent. Cravings for addictive behaviors are short. For smoking, it’s 10-20 minutes on average, and it’s probably similar for other behaviors, whether it’s alcohol, pornography, cutting, or anything else. 20 minutes. If you can ride the wave for 20 minutes, if you can let yourself feel without turning to something to numb it, the craving passes.
And, numbing it with noise (of any kind) doesn’t make it fully go away. It’s still there, and it’ll come back. Feeling it, however, can help it.
I want to focus on loneliness in particular, because I think millennials in general are a very lonely generation (no idea if other generations also feel that way, but I think it’s the common millennial experience, at least for the people I talk to)
Loneliness is definitely unpleasant. Definitely an emotion I don’t want to feel, and I don’t think anyone does. And, I think it comes up a lot. The solution, of course, is noise. (kidding, that doesn’t actually work)
Feeling lonely at home? Pull out your phone. Lonely at work? Stick in your earbuds and put on some music. Noise, noise, noise. All to make sure we don’t feel loneliness.
Like all feelings, it feels like it’ll last forever, so we try to escape. And in escaping, it doesn’t go away.
But what if you persisted through it? How long would the loneliness last, and what’s waiting for you on the other side? How long probably depends, but I’d imagine it’s a couple of hours at most (per instance), more likely a few minutes.
Waiting for you on the other side of loneliness is aloneness. They’re similar: you’re still alone. But they’re different: you’re not upset or uncomfortable at being alone. You’re still in silence, but the silence isn’t uncomfortable anymore.
But there’s something waiting for you on the other side of aloneness also: union with God. He comes to fill your silence, not with noise but with Himself.
Different kinds of silence
Cardinal Sarah makes a distinction between different kinds of silence, using an analogy of a couple who is sitting in silence at home. Their silence may be one of fullness, where their love is overflowing and they’re so close together that they can communicate without words. Just a glance speaks so much. And hence they are silent.
Or, their silence may be one of rupture, where they feel the love is so strained that they don’t want to talk to each other.
In both cases, the couple is silent. But the silence speaks differently. Vastly differently. So too with God. Silence of rupture is more like the loneliness we feel, especially if we don’t persist in it. Silence of fullness awaits us for persisting through loneliness, emerging to aloneness, then finally union with God.
So if you feel lonely, it’s actually an invitation from God to get closer to Him. An invitation to not let noise fill the hole only He can. You may be happy and content with your life and still feel lonely. That’s actually good, because God is inviting you to union. You might not enjoy your life, and still He gives the same invitation.
It’s an invitation that looks like loneliness, and so it’s easy to flee it. But the way to God is paved by the Cross, and it’s an act of heroism to walk with Him on the way He’s already walked ahead of us.
P.S. Be a hero today.