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Of Loneliness and the Long Loneliness

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Six years ago, while revising a syllabus for a class on religion in early twentieth-century America, I decided to start teaching Dorothy Day's autobiography The Long Loneliness. I mentioned this to a graduate school mentor of mine. He smiled and told me, "That book will make you a better person."

Dorothy Day, for those unfamiliar, was a brilliant, radical journalist in the early decades of the twentieth century. After thirty years living in defiance of the gender and political norms of the day, she converted to Catholicism and continued to live in defiance of those norms. She and the French-born Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker newspaper and, with it, the Catholic Worker movement. Their aims were to bring the injustices of industrial capitalism to light, to reform them, and to address the devastating effects of American industry on the poor.

The Long Loneliness is an inspiring book. It is hard to read Dorothy Day's relentless self-evaluations and socio-economic critiques without being moved at least to think about one's own complicity in human suffering. The book is also fascinating history. It opens students' eyes to early twentieth-century struggles -legal, intellectual, and physical - over the structure of the American economy, and challenges the notion that the marriage between American Christianity and free-market capitalism is necessary and good.

One of the privileges of my work is that I get to read books like The Long Loneliness again and again. Life changes the way that we see and understand texts, and this time around, having lived for a year now without my dad in the world, I found myself drawn more than ever to Day's discussion of (surprise!) loneliness. Loneliness moves like a character through her story. It follows her into urban and rural landscapes. It comes to her in moments of isolation. It finds her in a crowd.

Day's final words on loneliness, almost the final words of the book, are, "We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community." These are beautiful and restorative words. They reveal and sanctify community. They condense her experiences and, I think, explain much about what is good in our lives. But I have to confess that I am not entirely satisfied with them, and that I'm not convinced that they are entirely true to her experience either.

The Long Loneliness, the very title, makes a quiet distinction between types of loneliness. If there is long loneliness, there must also be short loneliness. From where I sit now, it seems that the communities that support us in and out of grief address very well the real and quite heavy short loneliness that comes from loss. Yet, in spite of our best efforts on behalf of each other, long loneliness - call it impermanence, separation from the divine, or simply mortality--persists.

In retrospect, I see this distinction in my father's last days in hospice as he struggled, nobly but noticeably, to die. He had the presence and the love of family and friends. He was comforted occasionally by music and, once, by a therapy dog. I know that all of this was meaningful to him. I also know, or I think I know, that at the end, the very end, the long loneliness was there both in spite of community - death is inherently isolating - and because of it - he very much wanted to stay with us and could not. Some of the hardest things for me to reconcile myself to, then and now, were the steady shrinking of his communal horizons and our inability, as a community, to do a damn thing about it.

This, to me, is the long loneliness. Love and community were there. They were comfort and sustenance. In this sense they may be a solution to the long loneliness. But they are not its erasure.