When The Loneliness Keeps You Up at Night

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I couldn’t sleep last night. Anxiety pulsed through my body, and for hours I couldn’t determine the cause. I stayed up past midnight reading P. D. James’ take on Jane Austen and binge watching Empire while wondering what was bothering me and keeping me up way past my bedtime. By 2 a.m. I was exhausted but refused to call it a night. A strange question popped in mind. Are you afraid of dying, Seth? No, I didn’t think so. A simple statement followed: You are afraid of aging alone. BAM. My eyes welled up with tears.

 

Celibacy never felt all that costly for me. I moved back in with my family after college and pressed pause on life for five years. I have four younger siblings, so there was always someone at home, always someone to remind me I’m not alone.

 

In childhood psychology, we learn that children go through developmental forms of play. One stage is called parallel play, where children play in the same space, but don’t really interact with each other. I joke sometimes that my introverted family is a little like that. But there’s comfort in living in communal space, knowing you’re free to interact when you have something to share.

 

But now I live in Virginia with my roommate from church. He travels a lot for his job, and there have been a few weeks where I’m on my own. I joked about his absence on Facebook earlier in the evening last night, but it didn’t hit me how much this empty house impacts me emotionally. Coming home for the evening to the emptiness chips away at something in my soul; it feeds a paranoia which tells me this is all I can expect for the future.

 

So I avoid sleep to hold onto one more day that included friends and laughter and happiness. The next day doesn’t guarantee any of those things. In fact, I may blink and grad school could be over. What happens then?

 

I reread a chapter Philip Yancey wrote about Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific writer who experienced same-sex attraction. Nouwen’s deep insecurities and craving for meaningful connection always resonates with me. Yancey describes Nouwen’s conflicted life:

 

“He would give inspiring addresses about the spiritual life then collapse into an irritable funk. He would speak of the strength he gained from living in community, then drive to a friend’s house, wake him up at two in the morning, and, sobbing, ask to be held. His phone bills usually exceeded his rent as he called around the world, disregarding time zones, in desperate need of companionship.”¹

 

My two o’clock breakdown didn’t involve driving to any of my cohort’s or church friends’ homes, because I would never want to impose my emotional mess on anyone else. Honestly, my breakdowns are usually over as soon as they begin: I’ll laugh at how silly I’m being and repress my deepest emotions. I’m fine. I got this. How are you?

 

Sarah Bessey wrote a must-read this week on the traumas we gloss over and refuse to process called “The Sanitized Stories We Tell.” I think she provides a brilliant analysis of our human inclination to cover up our hurts:

 

“It makes me wonder how much pressure we feel to sanitize our stories so that they don’t make people uncomfortable, how we anecdote our experience with the lightness or the healing or birth or new life alone in order to make it acceptable. We simplify and sanitize and so we miss the healing we could have if we only spoke the whole truth.”

 

I would love to tell you I eventually experienced some profound sense of peace or realized some comforting insight about my celibate vocation or God’s goodness, but nothing came in the silence of the night. Celibacy has its sucky moments. A lot of the time God doesn’t feel present in my suffering. That’s probably not what the church wants to hear, but that’s the truth. Nothing about obeying my convictions is easy. Sometimes I’m just a mess like Nouwen, going through an existential crisis and desperately wanting to know I’m not journeying through life alone. And sometimes I just need to sleep, hoping my neurochemistry will reset in the morning.

 

Yancey wrote more on Henri Nouwen’s thoughts about loneliness:

 

“He once described the wound of loneliness as resembling the Grand Canyon: a deep incision in the surface of existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. That insight typifies Nouwen’s approach to ministry. He did not promise a way out of loneliness, for himself or for anyone else. Rather, he held out the promise of redemption through it.”²

 

Faith tells me there’s redemptive hope, even in a lonely, late night. My suffering connects me to my Savior, with humanity, and the creation. Together we yearn for God’s restoration of all things. Faith promises God will provide the friendships I need for my entire life.

 

But for now, I think I’ll take a nap.

 

  1. Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2001, 301.
  2. Ibid, 303.
  • Seth, once again you have led with your transparency and vulnerability. It’s refreshing to see someone willing to be so brutally honest with your internal state. I’m sure a lot of people can identify with this, not just Side B LGBT people but hetero single adults, widows and widowers, etc. Loneliness is not the unique province of celibate gay Christians. As someone who married a little later in life, I remember aching sleepless nights longing for human companionship and thinking it would never happen. Perhaps there is a middle way, though, between your Side B situation and the Side A approach that you don’t subscribe to (please note: I’m not suggesting you should change sides either. I respect whichever side, A or B, people align with). What I’m suggesting is that the Spiritual Friendship approach can be extended even further, to more permanent “I’ve got your back” relationships and commitments that are celibate but far deeper than casual friendships. Physical sexual acts as builders of true intimacy are way overrated to the point of attaining mythic status, but in reality huge parts of highly dedicated, extremely committed relationships do not have much of anything to do with sex at all. And you do, sometimes, need to “impose your emotional mess” on others. If they really are committed friends, they will be happy to help you carry the burden, just as you would at other times carry theirs. That famous “Footprints in the Sand” story about the one set of footprints when Jesus was carrying someone, really needs to be us: We need to carry not just one another’s burdens at times, but actually carry one another. We are, in short, His hands and feet in the world, and if He’s going to carry someone who’s hurting, it’s got to be through us that He does it…

    • Thank you for the kind words and thoughts. 🙂