Potomac at sunset

Potomac at sunset

What do you do in times when you feel absolutely alone?

I think we all have times where we feel this way—sometimes as a part of daily life, sometimes as a result of heartache, sometimes as a result of trauma, sometimes from a sense of failure or inadequacy, or other longing. I think most of us can identify on some level with C.S. Lewis’s observation that, “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” A common part of aloneness is probably that feeling of “going nowhere.”

In reading Philip D. Halfacre’s Genuine Friendship today, I’m reminded that our way out of this terrible aloneness is, at its heart, in the striving for heroic virtue. It’s been said that “virtue is its own reward,” and I realize that doesn’t simply mean “doing good is good,” but that, because it is in our nature as human beings to relate to one another, virtue inherently involves right relating to those around us. Virtue is its own reward because it is the basis from which other goods flow.

In Genuine Friendship, Philip D. Halfacre writes:

There is a likeness, a similarity between God and us, and that similarity is found in our personhood. We have personhood in common with God; and persons, because they are persons, seek interpersonal union. The personalist philosophy of Pope John Paul II provides fresh insights into the way we look at God and into the way we look at ourselves. It is part of the personalist philosophy that we acquire insights about ourselves by reflecting on the personhood of God and that we acquire insights about God by reflecting on human persons.

Because we were made in God’s image, we desire at our deepest level to live in union with other persons. The human person grasps long before the age of reason that possessing the good to the fullest cannot be done in solitude. As we grow and mature, our understanding of the role that people have in our lives develops more fully. This is more than saying that we humans are social beings. We desire to live in union with others not simply because it helps us meet biological needs, but as the bishops at the Second Vatican Council said, “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

A principal theme of this book is that love is the gift of one’s self, a gift that brings about interpersonal union. This is how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love each other. It is a love that unites. And, though not always felt, it is real. We must not make the mistake of reducing all love merely to the experience of feeling love. Love is the gift of self, and we can give a small gift or a large gift. When I was a boy, there was a retired gentleman who lived several houses down the street. I was about seven-years-old, and he was in his seventies. In the summertime, I would often go down to his house and sit outside with him. I even had my own little pint-sized chair. We would sit and visit. Though we did not think of it in these terms, we each made a gift of self to the other. It was a small gift—but a gift nonetheless. The experience of the gift of self and the interpersonal union that is created thereby is what I call intimacy.

Imagine two friends who have known each other for many years. They have reached the point where they have no fear of revealing their deepest secrets. Besides feeling free to speak about very private things, they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the other and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the other’s well-being. Here we see a greater gift of self than in the previous example. The union is deeper, and so is the intimacy. Intimacy must not be thought of in an exclusively sexual or romantic way. There is certainly intimacy in sexual love—but non-sexual relationships can be intimate as well. The experience of intimacy is the feeling of being connected with another. It is the sense that somehow my life is a part of your life, and vice versa.

What happens when one experiences intimacy with no one? Then one has the experience, the feeling, of aloneness.

This is one of the most important graphs in the book:

Finally, healthy relating—the kind found in healthy friendships and happy marriages—is a matter of virtue. Great friends, great spouses, begin as great men and great women. It is hard to be a really good friend all the time. That is why we seldom see it. Great lovers love even when their love is not reciprocated. That is hard to do, especially over the long haul. And loving people well means loving them virtuously, which means that all love must be based on and rooted in truth.