Who doesn’t want to feel respected or liked by a good friend? Yet how many of us are very troubled in this area and fail to be our true selves as a result.
Are we lonely for a friend?
Appreciating one’s solitude – for example in the back of beyond – at times can be a source of refreshment and energy. Yet, sometimes being on your own without a friend to chat with does feel very lonely. Even when in a crowd or a group situation we can also feel lonely. Then our loneliness can come from feeling different from, and not belonging to the network of people with whom we associate at work, home and play.
Friendship flourishes with having something in common and thus having shared conversation and activity – experiences that give delight.
Harry said he had a habit of making a daily entry in his private diary. One day he wrote that he was feeling alone with the weight of the world on his shoulders without a real friend and no one caring about this. He hates feeling that no one loves him or even cares what happens to him. He hates being alone.
On the other hand, he tells himself that he has nobody to whom he can talk who would understand exactly how he feels. He believes that even the few people he calls “a friend” would not be able to relate to how he feels and so he would never share these feelings with them. He lives in shared accommodation which means he has to deal with people who he says `fuss at him’ or ask him to do this or that for them. He thinks that a solitary life is the probably the best thing for him because when with people he has a “bad attitude” towards them feeling such negative emotions as scorn, irritation, and impatience.
The loner who doesn’t want a friend
If we are not at ease with ourselves, we will be ill at ease with people we meet. We may build a wall around ourselves and not allow others to look inside it. We may doubt there is anything of value we can share with them like a sense of humour, sparkling conversation, interesting ideas, or some useful knowledge. This is a fear that others will discover what we imagine to be our limitations. So we may find ourselves thinking, “I’d rather do it myself,” “I prefer to be alone.” Because we do not mix with others, people do not get to know us and we will lack a friend and any close relationships.
Then we will feel even lonelier.
Yet, when something goes wrong in our personal world, we can get desperate for a friend to talk to or a shoulder to cry on. We need to feed our natural hunger for human contact and relationship.
Making a friend by being oneself
Existential writers often suggested that if we related to others in a genuine way we would be less likely to feel lonely. Authenticity is being oneself with others. The people we meet will see our true self and not just the persona; not just the act we put on for the sake of how others may see us. The sort of person, who believes that to be happy one must be approved of by most people one knows, is in for a hard time.
He or she will continually be working to gain their good opinion. What a life of pretence to meet others’ expectations. What a life of effort to keep up the act. Any so-called friend we have will not be a good friend because they will not know who we really are. Of course it is not necessary for an adult human being to be thought well of by every person met.
It is possible for us to reveal more of our genuine feelings and thoughts. When I disclose something of myself then others are also more likely to do the same. Only when this happens will the people we meet actually listen to and understand us, and include us in what is going on. We can really find human companionship when we come together with people with the challenge of give and take.
However instead we may communicate only in a superficial way without being open about how we feel. Then we are hiding behind a social or intellectual façade and as a result not getting close to anyone.
“The overtones are lost, and what is left are conversations which in their poverty, cannot hide the lack of real contact. We glide past each other. But why? Why? We reach out toward the other. In vain – because we have never dared to give ourselves”
(Dag Hammarskjold Secretary-General of the United Nations 1953-1961)
Close relationships amongst people involve empathy and a shared understanding. One cannot be lonely having an honest relationship with a long-lasting friend or intimate partner where there is mutual concern. Being part of a good relationship means opening up to the other person the things of the heart and mind.
Recognising our humanity
Through talking with others we can find out what concerns other people and what values we share with them. It might for example be a shared unease about the environment of the local neighbourhood, the needs of some disadvantaged group, or something troubling the family. Then we can begin to find some shared meaning that will help us connect purposefully with others.
There is thus one good thing about feeling lonely. It is the chance to be reminded, “I really care about people, and I want to be with them. I need to find out what kind of connection I need with somebody right now” And then we are encouraged to take an action immediately to reach out to somebody and make a new friend.
Accepting our imperfections
We may avoid disclosing our true self to others if we feel we are unacceptable to them. This can happen when a person privately makes too much of his or her failings and not enough of inner strengths. Noticing only our negative side, we forget that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Actually, it is easier to acknowledge our good points if we can be honest with ourselves about our bad ones. It is easier for a friend to talk to us when they can see what is negative about us as well as what might be positive; after all no one is expected to be perfect.
If we keep quiet about our ethical values, our sense of beauty, or the uplifting ideas that inspire us, we will not reveal these feelings and thoughts either to ourselves or to any friend. No wonder loneliness and self-doubt may come about when we do not appreciate the better side of our nature and the deeper part of our own character.
Only when we realise the reality of the spiritual qualities within us can we start to feel more at ease with ourselves, to hold our head up high despite our failings, to be authentic in revealing our true self, and to feel comfortable about others seeing us as we really are – `warts and all.’
Need for a friend
The prisoner in solitary confinement is separated from other prisoners as well as from communication with people in society, and he suffers for it. His basic social needs are not being met for we are all interdependent members of a universal humanity needing each other to some degree at least.
“No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The rest of us are usually in the physical company of other people – at work, at home and at play and we are only too aware of what they say and do. This means of course that we have to find a way of getting on with all these people; bosses, work colleagues, relatives, neighbours and any friend.
The emphasis is on our genuine involvement with others. This is the idea that people are not isolated from one another, but that humanity is interconnected. We need other people who sense our potential to encourage us as well as challenge us with the raw difficulties involved in having to get on with others to survive.
Humanity as a potential friend all around us
There is some analogy between Carl Jung’s concept of a `collective unconscious’2 and Swedenborg’s doctrine of a `spiritual world.’ Jung’s concept is that of a storehouse of mankind’s legacy of human instincts, creative ideas and spiritual possibilities about which we are not directly aware. This is said to be the source of images seen in shared mythical stories and individual dreams.
He distinguished this notion of a `collective unconscious’ from what other psychodynamic psychologists have called a `personal unconscious’ – an idea more familiar to the modern reader that is seen as a sort of repository of repressed individual experiences that influence the way we behave. Jung thought that archetypal images are collectively promoted within the mind – formative ideas conveying mysterious and deeply impressive messages.
By learning from such symbols, he said the individual could better discover how to link together the various disparate elements within the personality. In other words Jung assumed that much of our unconscious life is influenced by universal themes we have in common with the rest of humanity.
A century earlier Swedenborg had had a similar notion that we each are unconsciously influenced by many others whom we never see. His idea of a `spiritual world’ is that of an unconscious source of our creative ideas, our thoughts, notions, impressions – all coming to us through the spirits of former earthly people now alive in a hidden dimension that is as real as the material universe.
Spiritualist mediums have described this spirit world as a hidden realm which can be consciously experienced by those who are born with psychic ability and who have trained to get in touch with what they term the subtle promptings within the mind.
Of course ordinarily most of us have little or no direct awareness of such a realm.
No one is an island of self-generated perception. We all need other people even when we are physically alone in order to give us an inspiration and broader perspective. I believe that actually without an inflow of thoughts and feelings from the spirits of others we could have no meaningful perception, understanding, or motivation.
Noticing the mystical presence of a divine friend
We may recall once having been in a beautiful setting, perhaps with a sunset. We were relaxed and simply taking in all the natural beauty. The mood was one of patience and a relaxed perception of what was there. Then we suddenly and unaccountably felt as though we were part of the immense living, creative life before us.
This is a type of experience that many can remember having at some time or other. How can we feel alone when we sense being part of this mysterious life force? Our authentic relationship with this divine source of life who can be a friend to our good aspirations is also an important part of our personal well-being.
Something happens when we are on our own that can only happen when we are by our self. It is finding a sense of what is universal within our limited ideas; the sense of timelessness and the eternal now; being alive to a transcendent truth and life. It is wordless and we cannot easily communicate it. It is like a presence that is so close to our inner self that we cannot easily share the experience with anyone and so it is often unheard, ignored, lost, in the hubbub of daily life. The effort to make space for it is too great. We need a chance to listen to, focus on and inwardly digest those hidden, sparkling moments.
Remnants of childhood
These experiences may chime with dimly felt recollections of childhood; when we felt a sense of trust and no sense of urgency or responsibility; when we were spontaneous in our play and capable of joyfulness. This supports the idea that these innocent states of childhood remain deep within us as we pass on into adult life. We may no longer experience them much as we strive to succeed in our adult world. Nevertheless, unconsciously what remains within prepares us for those special moments when we can once again experience contentment and peace. This capacity for spontaneity means we all have the potential to make a friend.
When parents are gentle and patient tolerating their children’s imperfections then they act as a medium for the implanting of such heavenly states. On the other hand if their attitude to their offspring is possessive rather than caring, demanding rather than giving, then children will see through any false demonstrativeness of affection into the selfish impatience that lies within.
If basic love is unconditional so that parents impose rules in a loving way then the child will trust and love their parents. However, if parents only attend to the child when he or she happens to meet their demands then the child will not feel trust and contentment.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby has written about attachment and loss in maternal care and the development of the child. He wrote that an essential condition for the well-being and psychologically healthy development of the child is `a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment’. Physical touch as an expression of love is vital for infants and can cause severe emotional problems or even death when not provided. It is important that we as children felt the parent loved us for ourselves. It is more difficult to make a friend with somebody else if we cannot make a friend of ourselves.
I believe we can all to some extent be ready to accept ourselves and accept the reality of a heavenly state within our soul and the love of a divine Spirit. Parents are in the place of God in infancy. We can sense God’s loving presence as a good friend because we retain within us that sense of comfort and security we experienced long ago with our parents.
We may notice a mystical presence in the beauty of nature, in the love of a parent, but also in times of personal crisis. There was a man in his mid-twenties who reported being in a state of `dire perplexity’. When the trouble first appeared he was dazed, but before long – about two or three hours – he could distinctly hear these words spoken inside of him, `My grace is sufficient for you’. Every time his thoughts turned to the trouble, he could hear this quotation. He felt that God has frequently stepped into his life very perceptibly.
The nature of God as a divine human friend
However, what is God like? Cold or warm? Condemning or forgiving? Critical or accepting?
The abstract notion of the divine Being is just that – an abstraction. The divine Spirit is a perfect ideal that I cannot really conceive; being finite how can I know the infinite?
“Measure not with words the Immeasurable; nor sink the string of thought into the Fathomless”
(The Buddha. The Light of Asia, viii.)
This impossibility of conceiving the absolute is expressed by Jesus as:
“No one has ever seen God”
Yet, I think of the divine spirit as humane – the perfect human model of which we are all imperfect images – a Lord God with a heart of compassion, a wise head and powerful hands. The historical person of Jesus Christ revealed this divine human Spirit as a friend as well as leader to his followers. The Gospels tell us a lot about Jesus Christ himself. One who has a natural empathy with others and so with whom as a friend we can each relate person to person.
It is difficult speaking to a stranger so it might help us to go over in our minds what we know about Christ – particularly the good things we have heard. He was not like the person who believes one must be approved of by everyone. He did not live a lie pretending to meet others’ expectations. Instead he associated with certain individuals such as despised tax collectors and social outcasts knowing full well this would meet with disapproval. Just because not everybody approved of his behaviour and what he taught did not mean any one disciple and friend did not accept him.
Those of us who assume we need to be approved of by all significant people also tend to think that they should agree with what we ourselves think and believe. So we become anxious if we cannot persuade them to fall in with how we think about things. But typically, Jesus would say what he thought, and left it to his listeners to make up their own minds – even if this meant their rejecting his views and ultimately rejecting him himself. Jesus predicted his betrayal by Judas and denial by Peter. However, he did not alter his actions to gain their approval, nor did he beg for their approval. He simply continued on his course.
Many religious people would acknowledge that when they talk to him as their God then they often get answers to matters which perplex them. Not necessarily an inner voice but intuitions begin to dawn. Similarly Swedenborg’s concept of the Spirit of Jesus Christ is the divine presence within our own hearts and minds.
On the one hand many parts of the Bible actually seem to say a lot of bad things about God; that he gets angry, wanting revenge, is hateful, and wanting to punish. On the other hand, I would argue strongly that these are only appearances of what is real about God’s true nature, suited and adapted to the limited understanding of the relatively primitive mind. God is like a parent who, out of love and care, puts on an angry demeanour when their child puts its hand near an electric wall socket.
Children do not understand adult ethics, nor teenage idealism but they can appreciate a moralistic tone. The mature adult mind however can see through the appearance and realise that actually a God of pure love can never really get angry let alone want revenge, be hateful or desire to inflict punishment.
The Gospels portray Jesus Christ as the divine humanity of God; loving, merciful and wanting to be a friend helping us all. He healed the sick, went out of his way to teach those who wished to learn, and was a good friend to his followers. It is easier to bring to mind someone when we think of his character. Likewise, we can feel God being with us when we remember all that he does for us his children.
A woman once said that she had the sense of a presence, strong, and at the same time soothing, which hovered over her. Sometimes it seemed to enwrap her with sustaining arms. This sense of having an inner support and friend can come from talking person to person with Christ. Thoughts that are different from those that have been afflicting us suddenly come to mind after we start to do this.
I believe we can never feel lonely when we learn to get in touch with the humanity of God as the hidden uplifting force within our soul. We can especially hope to have contact with Jesus when we humbly ask for his presence. The words of the hymn spring to mind
“What a friend we have in Jesus”
It is the divine within our being that comforts us as when we are experiencing, for example, the anguish of loneliness and inspires us to express our true individuality in the way we relate to others. This is the loving acceptance we need if we are to set to one side the self-consciousness that formerly hindered our human contact.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.”
“It is the Lord’s presence with man through angels and spirits, by and according to which the man is enlightened and taught”.
(Swedenborg. Doctrine of the Lord section 46)
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems