[The following is a guest post from Brendan Myers, Ph.D. Brendan is a professor of philosophy at Heritage College CÉGEP in Gatineau, Quebec, and sometimes an instructor at the Cherry Hill Seminary. He is a winner of OBOD’s prestigious Mount Haemus Award for professional research in Druidry, a founder of the Order of the White Oak, and the author of five books including “The Other Side of Virtue” and “A Pagan Testament”. I've invited him to write a bit about the themes in his latest book: “Loneliness and Revelation: A Study of the Sacred”.]
Paganism can be described as a religion of relationships. We speak of magical correspondences, apprenticeships with teachers and mentors, therapy work with counselors or magical healers, initiatory group membership, relations with a totem or a patron deity, and ecological relations from local landscapes to the global biosphere. Some of our best known writers and leaders also emphasize relationships in their metaphysics: Starhawk, for instance, wrote that “the primary principle of magic is connection”.
With that in mind, consider how many people in our world are severely socially isolated, and profoundly alone. A recent study found that half of all Americans have only one close friend in the world, and one quarter have no friends at all. The last United States census found that 27.2 million households, one-fourth of the total, consisted in just one person. Half a century ago, that was the case for only one-tenth of all households. A British study found that one out of every ten adults in England sought professional help for loneliness at least once in their lives.
It seems that loneliness is everywhere. Indeed I think it likely that just about everyone feels it at some point in their lives. Yet facts like these are not spoken of very often, perhaps because loneliness is a taboo topic. No one likes to admit to feeling lonely. It’s embarrassing, and sometimes humiliating. But loneliness is painful for many people. We should ask what, if anything, a spiritual point of view can offer to people who find themselves painfully lonely, and what it can offer to the counselors and therapists who assist such people.
This month, I have published a book which attempts to do exactly that: “Loneliness and Revelation: A Study of the Sacred”. This book does not describe any spells, rituals, invocations, or magic: I think there are probably too many books already on the market which address such themes. But if you are looking for a book by a pagan author which goes well above and beyond the “101” level, and which addresses a serious social and psychological problem from a spiritual point of view, then please read on.
The first thing I discovered about loneliness was that that it has nothing to do with how physically or geographically close you are to other people. You can feel terribly isolated from others, anytime and anywhere, even while hundreds of other people rub shoulders with you in the busy shopping mall. When you go to parties, or nightclubs, or other places where people gather, you get to see all the relationships people have with each other that you are not part of, and are not invited to join. We are also individuals at heart, taught to be self-reliant. But that very self-reliance can create distance between people. You might want to reach out to others, but then you would have to admit that you need others. So loneliness is not just a social problem; it also has the character of an existential crisis.
Some people try to fill the emptiness within them with food, alcohol, gambling, video games, or shopping sprees. But the relief that such things provide is always superficial, and always temporary. When it wears off, as it inevitably does, feelings of disappointment can set in. You might go back to them anyway, to try and regain the pleasure and distraction that they can create. But this creates a vicious circle of stimulus and withdrawal which strongly resembles drug addiction. So the problem is not just isolation. The problem is that people do self-destructive things to avoid isolation.
Religion promises you that you need not ever be alone, because the gods will always be there for you. But there are reasons why the gods, themselves, feels lonely, and probably feel it worst of all. Think of the distance between where you are sitting and the nearest star beyond our solar system: Barnard’s Star, approximately five light years away. We can understand that distance mathematically, using spectroscope analysis and stellar parallax measurements. The gods, if they exist, and if they inform the universe with their presence (as we often say they do), probably feel that distance right in their bones. A Hindu holy scripture, the Bhradaranyaka Upanisad, claims that God created the universe precisely to fill his own need for companionship.
But my study of loneliness also showed me reasons to have hope. Some of the world’s best known religious heroes achieved their spiritual victories in solitude: and examples are not hard to find. Siddartha Gautama achieved his Buddha-hood alone, beneath a tree, in a deep forest, far from others. Jesus defeated the devil in the desert, with help from no one else; he also took on the despair of the world while alone in the garden of Gethsemene. The founder of Bahá’í, a mystic who took the name of Bahá’u’lláh, withdrew from his family and community to live as a hermit in the mountains of Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, for two years. Odin hung himself from the World Tree alone for nine days, and at the end of his time he discovered the runes. Because of examples like these, and perhaps also because of the prevalence of individualism in our culture, most people “on a spiritual path” believe that enlightenment can only be accomplished on one’s own. Only by looking within, and attending directly to one’s own inner self, can one accomplish enlightenment. Or so the popular wisdom goes.
But how can one gather the spiritual benefits of solitude without incurring the suffering of loneliness? My suggestion is to look to the idea of revelation: this is the experience someone has when something of existential significance appears in his life. You find it in a stone dolmen, in a windy fenland in the west of Ireland, or in an Inuit cairn in the high arctic of Canada. You find it in lighthouses, clock towers, church steeples, symphony performances, rock concerts, and holiday fireworks. It’s in your voice when you say the words ‘I love you’. It appears in any activity which reveals presence, identity, and the goodness of life, and in anything which invites others to share that life. I believe this understanding of revelation is the solution to the problem of loneliness. But more than that, I believe it is the foundation of the good and worthwhile life.
My sincere thanks to Jason for allowing me to describe my book on his blog.
Everyone is welcome to attend the launch event at The Clocktower Brew Pub, 575 Bank St. Ottawa, Ontario Canada, on Sunday 7th November. Starting at 1pm, Brendan will read from the text, sign copies, and answer questions. He’ll also stay to share a drink or two for the rest of the afternoon.