Every now and then someone crosses our path and insists we think about an important matter which, on account of sloth or cowardice, we would sooner avoid. Recently Andrew Osenga has been performing that office for me. He doesn’t know he’s been doing that. Last year, though, he released a concept album, Leonard the Lonely Astronaut, that has pressed me to think through a subject — loneliness — I’d usually shy away from thinking about.
Some people steer clear of thinking about loneliness because they’re afraid of loneliness itself. I usually shy away from thinking about it for a different reason: it’s kind of my beat. It’s a pet I’m often quite happy to feed and groom with mindless solicitude, forgetting that, for all its soft fur, it has some damn sharp teeth, and it can bite. Leonard confronts me about this.
Andrew Osenga as Leonard Belle.
The album goes about confronting me in several ways. Without going into a review proper*, I will note its general musical excellence, and its lyrical cogency and depth, which prevent me from writing it off on style points before I hear what it has to say**. That is especially important since what Leonard says hits uncomfortably close to home. Osenga sings it in the character of Leonard Belle, a loner who was in the process of divorcing his wife when she suddenly and unexpectedly died. Following that succession of tragedies, he jumped into a space freighter and set off into space all by his lonesome. Like Leonard, I have a pronounced tendency toward introversion, and I am divorced; had a spaceship been available immediately following my divorce, the idea of a solo space mission would have presented a very real temptation. Leonard was released a bit late for it to be cathartic, but it carries a great deal of credibility with me because of its realistic portrayal of divorce’s aftermath. Its verisimilitude extends down to small details. To take one example: there’s a line in “We Never Said Goodbye” where Leonard says, “to look at my bed is such defeat now” — too well do I remember that sense of defeat, which drove me to sleep on the couch for a solid year.
In short, when Leonard insists that I think sharp about loneliness, I listen. What follows is some of the fruit of that thinking.
A moment ago I compared loneliness to an animal with soft fur and sharp teeth. But there are many such animals, and these present us with a broad spectrum, both as to danger and goodness. House cats present little danger (opinions as to their goodness vary). Pet dogs may present a little more real danger, though we generally think of them as “good.” Tigers and bears appear to us as very real, but amoral, dangers. Wargs are really evil, and really dangerous. And Aslan is simultaneously the most good and least safe being you’d ever meet. As with furry animals with sharp teeth, so with loneliness: there are different kinds, ranging from bad to good, and these kinds present diverse dangers.
I. Common (bad) loneliness
After the weekend
He was standing at the corner,
With his hands itching for pockets;
He was looking for another just like him.
And the heart of God broke for his creation:
It was not good for man to be alone.
Osenga, “It Was Not Good for Man to be Alone”
I start with common loneliness, which we may also call bad loneliness. The first thing God described as “not good” was the man’s being alone. And so we have to admit that most — probably almost all — loneliness is bad. Some of the simple causes of bad loneliness are listed in Osenga’s “Out of Time”: spite (“fine, tell your father he was right, I wasn’t worth your time”), sloth (“guess I just didn’t try”), cowardice (“I was scared, I don’t know why”), and presumption (“oh, how I loved you, but I never told you . . . always thought there was time”). There isn’t anything for this kind of loneliness but to go after its root causes.
II. Difficult loneliness
When we said “I need you”
It didn’t sound right;
We were hurt and confused,
Fragile as the breath of a candle,
Staring in silence at the Tower of Babel.
Where do we go from here?
Osenga, “Tower of Babel”
There is another kind of loneliness, though. I call this the “difficult loneliness,” and its causes tend to be more complex than the causes of common, bad loneliness: confusions in cultures and languages, differences of worldviews and characters. Difficult loneliness arises from the fact that everyone is to us an “other,” and from our being an “other” to everyone. There may be very little about any of us that is truly sui generis, but there are lots of wrinkles to all of us that aren’t easily understood. Difficult loneliness is a goad to make us explain these wrinkles, particularly to those we trust and love. In that sense, difficult loneliness is a good thing. It makes us think, grow, communicate; it makes us step out in faith. Difficult loneliness also presents us with the real, profound dangers of frustration or betrayal.
When we shrink in fear from trying to overcome difficult loneliness, or when our efforts to overcome it end in frustration or betrayal, its ultimate effect may be to send us back to bad loneliness. Or it may point us to a place through which we must press, into a third kind of loneliness.
III. Peculiar loneliness
As the fir-tree lifts up itself with a far different need from the need of the palm-tree, so does each man stand before God, and lift up a different humanity to the common Father.
George MacDonald, The New Name, in Unspoken Sermons, First Series (1867).
This third kind of loneliness is, when found, exceedingly good; finding it is also exceedingly rare. This is the loneliness that comes from the thing about us that no other created being will ever understand, though we spend ages trying to explain. George MacDonald described it thus in The New Name:
In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter. I say not it is the innermost chamber — but a chamber into which no brother, nay, no sister can come.
The existence of this loneliness presents us with several dangers. It’s exceedingly difficult to locate this “chamber of peculiar life.” For we never really know if or when a brother or sister might come along to give us the secret handshake; and, if we then refuse our brother or sister entry to the inner chamber, on the ground that we’d already called it “ours,” our miserliness would place us in mortal danger of falling into the most diabolical loneliness of all. On the other hand, if we make no progress in finding out where this inner chamber lies, the frustration arising from its unknown, unacknowledged existence could well consume us.
Here is the loneliness that would embitter us for all eternity — or the secret joy, the inside joke between each of us and God, that would sustain us, even if all hell rained its fury upon our heads.
* If you’re looking for one of those, I suggest checking out Jason Gray’s review here. If you’re interested in another, more elegant Leonard-inspired essay, I suggest Stephen Lamb’s, which you may read here.
** Yes, I am that small.