The Great Loneliness

Mountain peak above the clouds with sunset in the background, the mountains we must climb on our hero's quest

Ideas of the Ultimate

In his book, The Masks of God, volume 1, Joseph Campbell quotes an Eskimo shaman, Igjugarjuk, who said, “The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others.” [1]

Igjugarjuk spoke those words in the context of a discussion about Sila. The different groups of Inuit have different notions who Sila is. Perhaps she is breath, soul, form. On the island of Nunivak, the people understand Sila to be a great spirit who speaks to them in the roar of the ocean and the storms. If she is frightening, she can also be gentle, making herself known through the sunlight, with a voice sweet as a woman’s, one the children never fear. [2]

For many Inuit, Sila is a deity, yet not the only one. For instance, there are Sea-woman who rules under the ocean, the Moon Owner who has dominion over the celestial spheres, and Sila who governs life on Earth. Some communities consider Sila to be supreme, others see him as subordinate to Sea-woman, and yet still others do not believe he is a god at all. [3] Regardless, Sila is the Wind Owner. As such, he cannot be ignored, for we need the wind to bring healing rain, and we fear it for its hurricanes.

Into the Great Loneliness

The names and stories we use to approximate the divine are only metaphors. We don’t understand the gods. Just as Yahweh, Allah, and Grandfather are fingers pointing to the moon rather than the moon itself, so is Sila. She may be breath and soul, [4] but what does that mean? We cannot see her any more than we can see the wind. Our words, ideas, stories will never encompass nor restrain a deity.

But when Igjugarjuk spoke of “opening the mind” to “all that is hidden,” was he talking about a knowing beyond knowledge? In the great loneliness, can we discover the divine itself, a truth beyond thought, beyond enlightenment?

Whatever the “great loneliness” is, I doubt it’s a concrete place. We won’t find grass or sky there, nor color or shape. Sun, moon, wind will have no meaning in this realm where nothing exists and everything exists.

Years ago, I dreamed that I died. Maybe I did die. The memory is fuzzy. I do know I entered an emptiness so vast it felt intolerable, though I guess I tolerated it, for here I am. In that place, there was no God. It felt like a great loneliness to me.

At the time, I didn’t believe in God. I’m not sure I do now, either. Even so, from early childhood, I felt a connection with something sacred that brought me peace. I suppose I took it for granted. It was just part of my experience, like the wisp of my breath, unseen, unheard, but nonetheless known, and in this knowing, I felt a promise that this essence would be with me always.

Then, when I died, or didn’t die, it was gone.

The Hero’s Journey

If that was the great loneliness, did my suffering and privation give me an insight hidden from most people?

I don’t know. I remember feeling an emptiness and loneliness so deep it went beyond fear, and when I woke up from that slumber, or death, or whatever it was, I felt betrayed. Not because I had suffered. That was nothing new. I don’t recall a time I didn’t understand that life was painful, but we live the life we are given and do the best we can on the journey. We need harbor no resentment or bitterness at the unfairness of it all. What would be the point?

I suspect my father taught me that. He escaped the Holocaust with his parents and sister and nothing else. He was grateful to have them, though less grateful for his memories. They brought him more pain than peace, as one might imagine. So he chose to let them go. He embraced his new country, created a new identity, and moved forward into the future. He didn’t look back. If he felt regret or anger, he didn’t talk about it. Life is meant to be lived.

It’s like the hero’s journey. We set out on our adventure, and life hits us with one tragedy after another. To make it to the end of the quest, to find the holy grail, to move into and beyond the great loneliness, we need friends, gifts, and maybe a bit of magic. That is what the stories tell us, at any rate.

Descending Into Hell

Take the Christian story. To reach his fullness, to become the “Christ,” Jesus had to descend into hell. He had to dwell in that great loneliness for a time, to know it intimately before he could become divine.

Yet he didn’t become his true self on his own. He had parents, disciples. Some say he had a wife. Maybe he didn’t confide in them, but they were there, and they helped him along the way. When he died, he didn’t take himself to hell and bring himself back again. God did that. God shaped him. Of course, it gets confusing if we think of Jesus as God, but that’s part of the inscrutability of a divinity.

Still, something happened in that netherworld into which he fell. He changed, becoming someone new. Was he divine? For our purposes, that doesn’t matter. We don’t need to become divine to grow into our fullness. Nor must we willingly enter that place that is no place. Not even Jesus wanted to die. Sometimes, the great loneliness just claims us.

Regardless, we can get through it. We can find a path forward, and we can allow the loneliness to forge us into something wiser and calmer and more whole.

At least, we can if we are fortunate, but we aren’t always. Sometimes suffering breaks us irreparably. To emerge redeemed, we need true friends, we need their gifts, and we need to experience the intimacy and ache of a kindness more compassionate than geniality, one that arises from strength rather than fear.

Not that we will never know fear again if we emerge intact from hell. Quite the contrary. We will, however, be better able to see the fear and let it go.

Mountain peak above the clouds with sunset in the background, the mountains we must climb on our hero's quest

The Youngest Sibling

So who arises redeemed from the loneliness? Who emerges from the suffering more whole, and who does not?

I think it’s a matter of luck. We are born with a certain capacity for resilience, and we grow up in particular families, and maybe someone teaches us the difference between gifts that glitter and those that are real, and maybe they don’t. Some of us live lives enriched by magic, and others don’t. In the moments of our despair, who held us? When we died, who was there? Did we learn to be nice, always doing what we’re told, or did we come to know kindness, learning that compassion is boundless, but boundaries are still important? Maybe we grew up believing we didn’t need to be nice or kind, that the world owed us deference. If so, we may wonder why life is so unfair.

We sometimes see this difference in person and upbringing in folktales. There’s the youngest brother or sister, for instance, who once had a mother or father who loved them, so they understood love. Then this person died or went away, leaving them vulnerable to angry and spiteful relatives who demean and starve them, so they knew suffering, as well.

The important thing is that the imprint of love does not go away. The hero remembers. The elder siblings may be thoughtless and cruel, but the youngest ones are kind because they once received kindness themselves.

Coming Into Our Fullness

In “Little Sister and the Month Brothers,” a Slavic tale retold by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, a stepmother forces a girl into the snow to find strawberries. She meets the Month Brothers, treating them courteously, so they help her, turning their forest into June until the berries grow. Unlike her older stepsisters, who are rude and grasping, she is grateful and takes only what she needs. Though the elder sisters in the Russian tale about the god of the winds, Kotura, are thoughtless, cruel, and greedy, the youngest sister is gentle with a bird who needs help, soothes a mother’s diseased eyes, and takes time to bring food to a grandmother.

The good children of folklore are rewarded, but life is not that way. My father escaped Germany with his family, but his cousins died at Auschwitz. On the same evening that my family and I emerged without serious mishap from a high-speed, head-on collision, and the driver of the other car experienced little more than a broken leg, in a separate accident, another couple died, leaving their newborn baby an orphan. Why?

I don’t believe one of us was deserving and another not. We are all worthy; all beloved. It is life, luck, a grace that blesses both the evil and the good. Or fails to bless, as the case may be.

Coming Out the Other Side

Look around you. You’ll see we don’t all endure the same amount. Not everyone spends time in that great loneliness, nor do we all find truth hidden in the heart of suffering. Sometimes we just find bitterness.

If we have gone to that painful place of desolation, and if we were fortunate enough to have received love beforehand, if we understand how to be kind, what it means to be a friend, if we received the blessings of grace or magic or the kiss of an angel, and if this helped us survive and emerge relatively intact, we are lucky.

We are all heroes on a journey. Some of us choose to embrace that journey, to answer the call of descent, to accept the pain of living because we trust we can survive and come out the other side, if not whole, at least a little more loving, more kind, more wise.

A Metaphorical Kiss

Not everyone believes this. I don’t know why some hearts mend and some don’t, why some of us make it through the labyrinth alive, while others are eaten by the Minotaur. I’m certain it’s not about worthiness or blessing. It takes luck to make it through life without dying inside or numbing ourselves or taking our pain out on others.

So if we are lucky, we have a choice. Some might say we have a responsibility to reach out to others as others reached out to us, to offer gifts, magic, a metaphorical kiss. That is what it means to come into our fullness.

I suppose it’s like making lemonade out of lemons. This terrible thing happens to you, and you decide you’re better and stronger and more compassionate because of it. Those blessings don’t make the experience worth it, but they do give worth to the experience.

Nothing But Love

So do we want to help others make their way through that great loneliness to a deeper fullness? I’m not talking about sacrifice. Nice people sacrifice themselves. I’m talking about offering kindness, compassion, wisdom. If we have emerged from the depths redeemed, how can we do otherwise than support others on their journey?

Maybe, for me, redemption wasn’t an issue, anyway. Instead of being dead, I may have been asleep, or it may have been nothing but a dream. The facts of the event matter less than the experience of it, which was of a loneliness so vast it was impenetrable and of a grace so miraculous it was like salvation.

It took decades for me to process what happened there. Yet I think I have woken, and if I haven’t come into the complete fullness of my nature, I am getting there. Not everyone wakes up, though. That is the tragedy. So if we have woken a little and gained some wisdom, perhaps we should help others open their eyes and see the truth of this life. That can be dangerous, of course, for how do we know we are right?

Yet if we keep our hearts open and learn to be kind, perhaps we will one day see Sila or God or whatever the ultimate is called. When that happens, the great loneliness will dissolve. We will know peace and discover that nothing is left but love.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Campbell, Joseph, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, New York: Penguin Compass, 1991.
  2. Merkur, Daniel, “Breath-Soul and Wind Owner: The Many and the One in Inuit Religion,” American Indian Quarterly, Summer, 1983, Vol. 7, No. 3, American Indian Religions (Summer, 1983), pp. 23-29, 25.
  3. Ibid 36.
  4. Ibid 28.

Photo by Boris Baldinger on Unsplash

Copyright © 2023 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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