Some time ago I attended a stake Relief Society fireside. Its topic was being alone but not lonely. During the meeting, which included a discussion, we realized that in the past most of the sisters present had not only been alone but had also sometimes felt lonely. Whether one is married, widowed, single, or divorced, one can feel lonely even when surrounded by a family, a crowd, or co-workers.
There is a likelihood that even women in the Church who are married to active priesthood bearers not only are left and feel alone but also feel lonely sometimes. Especially when younger, they are often tied to the home because of small children or other circumstances. Being alone can lead to loneliness, which is like a dangerous illness that should be cured as soon as possible.
In contrast, everybody needs moments of silence, of meditation, and of being alone. One often chooses these moments voluntarily. Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith are good examples of men who searched for privacy. Christ went into the desert for forty days. (See Matt. 4:1–11.) Joseph Smith went to the woods. (See JS—H 1:14–17.) And yet in the lives of Jesus Christ and the Prophet Joseph Smith there were moments when they were not alone, yet felt lonely. Remember Christ on the cross. (See Mark 15:22–34.) Remember Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. (See D&C 121:1–6.)
Although we may never be in such frightening situations ourselves, loneliness can have the same impact on us as it had on them. We never need to be ashamed or feel guilty about feelings of loneliness; but we do have to fight them. There are two ways individuals attempt to cope with loneliness—a negative one and a positive one. The first is a way of self-pity, of criticism, of anger, of unjust blame, and of discontent. It does not lead us out of loneliness.
The second method, the right way out of loneliness, is to engage in meaningful activities such as church and service. This means helping others who are more in need than we. There is a saying: “I was sad about not having shoes, until I met someone without feet.” Peace comes as we give our lives to worthwhile activities in spite of being alone.
Let me tell you of my own experience. As a child, I was blessed with a good and kind but also overly busy father. He was very active in the Church as well as in politics and often had to leave his family alone.
I had wished that in my future life this would not happen to me again. The man I fell in love with, however, not only kept busy with the Church and politics like my father, but he also had to serve for a long time in the Swiss army.
Believe me, there were moments when I was rather furious and, in my thoughts, wanted to abolish politics and the army and to rearrange Church affairs so that I would have more time to spend with my husband and our children would have more time to spend with their father. At church, none of the sisters ever complained or talked about these problems because we were afraid of appearing critical.
A talk I heard many years ago by Lois Brown, the wife of a former Presiding Bishop, changed my attitude. She convinced me that I was not alone in my problem and that it was acceptable to talk about being alone and feeling lonely. Sister Brown said that often, even in her later years, she had to fight feelings of disappointment when a good meal burned while she waited for her husband. A burnt meal became a symbol for her long hours of being alone.
All of a sudden I didn’t feel guilty. I wasn’t ashamed of my feelings anymore; I dared talk about them—not in order to criticize, to wallow in self-pity, or to express anger, but in order to find solutions. When my husband was called to be a stake president, I expressed my feelings in an interview with President Monson. I talked about the fears I had when my husband returned by car long after midnight from Church meetings in other cities. President Monson must not have seen my comments as criticism, because those midnight meetings disappeared.
Prayer was also a wonderful tool I used to find solutions to my loneliness. I was reminded of Nehemiah and his people of the Old Testament, who built a new wall against their enemies. Not only did they pray for protection, but they also “set a watch against them day and night, because of them.” (Neh. 4:9.) I also “set a watch against” loneliness by constructing a life next to my husband’s and becoming involved in meaningful activities and hobbies and caring for others who needed help.
If we consciously choose a way out of being lonely and take steps to cure this dangerous “illness” I have discussed, we will feel fulfilled. Everyone, independent of his or her status in life, needs to feel fulfilled.
Fulfillment in life, however, means work. Don’t wait for your circumstances to change, but learn to live with your situation. President David O. McKay said, “The greatest battle of life is fought out within the silent chambers of the soul.” (In Stephen R. Covey, The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1970, p. 67.) The battle to conquer feelings of loneliness isn’t easy, and there may be relapses. But we can succeed if we try hard to participate in meaningful activities and to avoid anger, self-pity, and criticism.
Even though we want to overcome feelings of loneliness, we still want to reserve some time every day for privacy and for being alone. Someone asked a Hindu how he was able to maintain the great serenity and peace he had about him, no matter what pressures he faced. His answer: “I never leave my place of meditation.” Every morning he meditated for thirty minutes. Then in his mind and heart he never left that place—he maintained the spirit of that place throughout the day amid his pressures.
Stephen R. Covey wrote: “Joseph Smith had his Sacred Grove experience. … The Father and the Son appeared. Yet even he, the Prophet of this dispensation, was chastened by the Lord for yielding at various times to the pressures, to the persuasions of men. Once, after chastening him, the Lord said, ‘Behold, thou art Joseph, and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord.’ (D&C 3:9.) In a sense he is being told, ‘Never leave your Sacred Grove.’
“I suggest that every day of our lives you and I can go to our place of prayerful study and meditation where we can live out the events that will transpire that day, master those issues that seem to dominate life in terms of true principles and God’s way.” (Spiritual Roots, p. 64.)
If we can remember the difference between being alone and being lonely, we will be better prepared to deal with the challenges of life. It is better still for us to know that being alone, even for a little while, is a necessary experience for all of us—for it gives us the guidance and spiritual power to overcome loneliness by applying the steps I have discussed.