…shame thoughts are quintessentially alone thoughts. They are produced by the felt impossibility of communion, and they produce realities that have no primary communion in them.
Patricia DeYoung, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame
What does it mean to be lonely? We could pool our collective experience and quickly generate our own Wikipedia entry on the topic. There is probably no one who is a complete stranger to loneliness. The definitions that point to the failures of social structures, however, fail to treat the fact that we are often victims of loneliness even when we are with our closest and most intimate friends. In that manner, I suggest that loneliness is what you get when all the distractions have been removed. So what is it?
At its very heart, loneliness is the absence of communion. Human beings are not created to be alone. However, we are created for something far greater than merely keeping company or spending time with others. Communion is a way-of-being but is frequently disrupted in some lives and almost completely absent in others.
Sin is accurately described as the “rupture of communion”. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, who experience their nakedness as shame, is also the story of ruptured communion. The presence of God, prior to their sin, is unutterable joy-in-communion. Afterwards, it is perceived as a threat, something that exposes them, causing them to hide. God’s description of the relationship of the man and woman after their sin is filled with the conflict of broken communion:
To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)
We were not created to be alone. God had said of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and creates woman. Ideally, the goodness of what it is to be human is found in communion.
The experience of shame, on the other hand, is the experience of being alone, of being disconnected. Some theorists posit that we first experience this brokenness in infancy, in the imperfect relations with a mother. No matter how much care and love is given to a child, the pain of separation will first be felt in its early months. In many cases, that pain will rise to the level of trauma, either then, or later. For a child, it is a pain that they are powerless to change.
Even for adults, the pain associated with shame creates a form of powerlessness. We feel confused, unable to think or to reach out. That feeling is the most unbearable of all human experiences. As a result, we substitute other feelings that are more bearable: anger, sadness.
Our alienation and loneliness are greater indicators of the brokenness of our lives than any moral measurement that might be applied. Our salvation begins with an act of restored communion: we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. His death becomes our death; His resurrection becomes our resurrection. Communion becomes the very ground and source of life. The restoration of communion in Christ is the only thing that can heal all that has been lost.
What I have been describing is the psychological impact of sin/shame. It would be correct to think of this psychological experience as an “icon” of what has taken place on the spiritual/ontological level. The Scriptures equate sin with death. It is our mortality, on the most fundamental level, that is the primary consequence of sin. The things we do wrong (what we often refer to as “sins”) are merely the symptoms of that deeper reality.
One way to think about the death that is at work in us is in terms of disintegration – particularly as that word serves as an antonym of communion. Our first disintegration is on the level of the spirit. Alienated from God, our hearts (nous) become darkened and we lose our spiritual sight. On the level of the soul, we become alienated from our spiritual life and the soul is dominated by the body and the passions (desires, habits). Then the soul becomes alienated from the body in physical death. Lastly, the body itself becomes subject to disintegration as it lies in the grave.
Loneliness is simply the emotional echo of this disintegration, a pattern that dominates much of our existence.
For much of our lives we avoid loneliness not by its cure, but by distraction. We avoid that inner pain by pursuit of the passions. Certain encounters, however, plunge us back into the nether regions of our disintegration – particularly those that can be described as shame.
I do not think I have been aware of shame most of my life. As such (and it is not uncommon), the entire topic of shame would seem to be beside the point. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of shame itself. The core experience that is referenced in shame, is a very painful affect in which we become aware of ourselves as exposed and vulnerable, unsafe and disconnected. It is hard-wired in our bodies, like the affect of surprise (the startle response) or dissmell (you wrinkle your nose and instinctively turn away from certain smells). It is only in time that this basic experience of exposure becomes associated with various scenes and events and develops into the emotion we name as shame.
This same affect is not inherently bad. It is the basis for our awareness of boundaries, and of people as “others.” Indeed, without this affect we would not experience humility, awe or wonder. Thus, like all things, shame (in the negative sense) is simply a distortion of something good and useful. God has not created us for evil.
However, what should be nothing more than an appropriate signal of “otherness” becomes an overwhelming experience of alienation and exposure. In a very short time this painful experience comes to be attached to the thought that “it is because of me.” This becomes the essential voice of shame: “There is something wrong with me. I don’t belong here.” This is only one of the many dark thoughts that emanate from this place of disintegration. These ideas are not correctly described as “thoughts,” the result of reason within the frontal cortex: they are “noise” an artifact of something much deeper. As such trying to reason with such thoughts is often useless. We are broken on a deeper level.
The pain of shame is frequently transformed into other things such as anger and sadness, with the noise of its darkness adding color. So, though we might not be utterly aware of shame, we are easily aware of anger or sadness. We are aware when we are depressed, and experience loneliness on a regular basis. We are sometimes overwhelmed by feelings for which we have no name. We are sometimes isolated and disconnected. All of these are voices of shame, or of this fundamental disintegration within us.
It is worth thinking about the great movements of monasticism within the early Church. Although there were many communities of monks and nuns, the primary experience included “aloneness” (the actual meaning of the word “monastic”). When all of the distracting noise that masks our inner world is removed, we come face-to-face with a more frightening adversary. That inner alienation, as noted earlier, is also the place where we encounter humility, awe and wonder. It is thus understandable that lessons of humility are primary in the sayings of these great desert figures.
Of course, there are often toxic, chronic problems rooted in our shame, resulting from various forms of abuse. Some of these experiences are so painful that they are blocked from our awareness. The journey towards humility and into the presence of God is likely to reveal them. It is in this, and many other ways, that the path of salvation is synonymous with the path of healing. The connection of humility with the mechanism of shame also adds meaning to the saying of the Elder Sophrony, “The way up is the way down.”
Our healing begins on the ground of our spirit. “…he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” (1Co 6:17) In Holy Baptism, Chrismation and the continuing life of Communion, we nurture this foundational union with God. Its grace supports the healing of the whole of our life. This work is generally not within our daily awareness. The struggle that is most within our consciousness is the psychological struggle. That can be a long, slow process, depending on how deeply we are wounded.
The healing within our lives is rooted in communion. In our relationships with others that communion requires vulnerability – something that can only take place where there is safety, honesty and love. Those practices, by grace and with time, can heal our deep injuries. They also form the basis of a communion that is the antithesis of loneliness. God is with us.