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‘Loneliness expresses the pain and solitude … the glory of being alone’

Ralph Genende
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Published: 13 August 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

RALPH GENENDE: Our Jewish community is known for its solidarity, which is why lockdowns are especially painful. After all, what is a Simcha without others to share it with?

PAUL CELAN, THE post-war Romanian-Jewish poet and translator, describes the hopes of the poet that his works be read and understood: “A poem… can be a message in a bottle, set out in the – not always greatly hopeful – belief that somewhere in sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.” 

Celan may be describing the lonely creative process and hopes of the poet; great poems and profound ideas are born in the stillness and solitude of the heart. But it could also be applied to the aspirations of us all to be recognised and understood. It certainly has relevance for leaders who long and wish for their message to be accepted and appreciated.

Moses, great leader of the Jewish people is better known as a prophet, political leader and teacher par excellence. He was, however, a superlative poet as well. His greatest poems are the songs he composed after the crossing of the sea, the Shira, as well as his final verse at the end of his life known as Haazinu.

As a poet and leader, he was all too familiar with the pain and pleasure of solitude. He first meets God in the isolation of the wilderness at the burning bush. He later encounters God in the seclusion of Sinai as he slowly winds his way up the mountain. He is alone with God in the Tent of meeting; he pitches his lonely tent outside of the camp of Israel.

He sends out his insights and God’s words like those messages in a bottle, hoping they will touch the shores of his people, the souls of strangers. This modest man would have been amazed to know how many lands and heartlands his words have reached. 

Moses is a complex and paradoxical leader. On the one hand he is the quintessential loner, on the other, he is the great connector. He comes from a place of loneliness, a small crib in the vastness of the Nile; he creates a space of togetherness, a family, a community, a nation.

If we are experiencing the feeling of being adrift or lonely, we should acknowledge that it’s natural and seek help.

Moses is a singular and unique leader, yet he also embodies the challenges and character of us all. We come into the world alone, we depart it on our own. And on our journey through life, we get to experience the pains and pleasures of solitude, the gains and sorrows of togetherness. 

Aloneness can be a creative and energising experience. The greatest works of art are created in the singleness of the soul, the most profound prayers spring from the privacy of our spirits. We often need to be on our own to discover our own ideas, to think things through.

Yet the experience of being alone can also be depressing and debilitating. Theologian Paul Tillich put it this way: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone”.  

The pandemic and times of lockdown heighten the sense of isolation across all sections of society. Loneliness impacts on all age groups with people living alone and young adults being especially at risk. Even before Covid, surveys found that one in four Australians regularly experienced loneliness. 

Sydney clinical psychologist, Dr Eva Lowy, is part of a study by the Combat Loneliness Task Force as featured in a recent Plus 61JMedia article. This is a survey of loneliness of the Jewish community of New South Wales. It is a study dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding of social isolation in the Jewish community; it was ignited by a growing global focus on the subject. 

In 2016 the British government established a commission on loneliness and this year Japan appointed a minister for isolation and loneliness. The Sydney study hopes to show that affiliation with a group or community is not only likely to improve social isolation and loneliness but also contribute to health and well-being both physically and emotionally. 

Our Jewish community is known for its solidarity and for the way we try to reach out to those isolated or who feel cut off from others. We have always known that to connect is vital for the human spirit. We have always extolled the merits of living together, of sharing and of bearing the load with others. The Talmud expresses this dramatically, saying “either togetherness or deathliness”, Chavruta or Mituta. 

Illustration: Avi Katz
Illustration: Avi Katz

And of course, that is why lockdowns are especially painful for community life. After all, what is a Simcha without others to share it with you? 

It’s a reminder to us in each lockdown to reach out to those who may be experiencing the loneliness of being locked down and locked out of companionship and community. And if we are experiencing the feeling of being adrift or lonely, we should acknowledge that it’s natural and seek help.  

As Lowy put it: "People feel it’s very stigmatising to acknowledge you're lonely because they think: it must be something wrong with me; why am I lonely? … It’s important ... to acknowledge that we will be lonely at some time or another…and there’s nothing wrong with it. We need to remember that the Jewish community has got my back.” 

Last month we fasted and commemorated the Ninth Day of Av and read its poignant poem: How alone (Eicha) sits the city of Jerusalem.

May Jerusalem soon throng with the sounds of tourists returning to it. May we all soon find the comfort we need and deserve after the sorrows of this sad Covid season. 

Photo: Paul Celan in 1963 (Lütfi Özkök)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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