The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon

The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other
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Few books address the topic of loneliness for Christians in a thoughtful way like this one. This theme has become urgently needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Author and spiritual director Charlotte Donlon shares her personal struggles with the chronic state of loneliness in her life. Instead of viewing loneliness as something to avoid, it can be treated or even welcomed as a companion, a grace that “helps to reflect, make changes, seek more, and make space for God.” Like physiological pain, this social and emotional form of pain might lead to the “grace of belonging.”

Although loneliness might be everybody’s experience, it can be a multilayered and complicated mental health topic. Donlon deals with loneliness’ various forms with a journalistic style full of experiential details. The book has 43 short chapters that fall into five parts: belonging to ourselves, to each other, to our places, through art, and to God. Each chapter has a real-life scenario from the author’s own experience, eliciting a spiritual reflection on a situation-specific loneliness and how she processed it. For example, she begins with “core loneliness” that comes from our fallen human condition, a perpetual “out-of-place” or “other-ly” feeling. She reckons that some of us might even feel it more deeply than others. While in the Christian community there is shame in telling that to others, the author affirms by her example that “I’m not any less of a person or Christian when I’m lonely.”

Halfway through the book, Donlon reveals her psychotic breakdown because of undiagnosed bipolar I disorder during a busy but isolated time as a stay-at-home parent. A late-night trip to the emergency room and six months of bed rest afterward became her training ground to receive the grace of loneliness. In her words, it was “a re-belonging to myself.” During this time, the psalms and liturgical season prayers helped her connect to herself and the presence of God. Donlon also writes about how having pets around heals our “species loneliness.” They help reconnect us to God’s bigger picture of creation. 

Because loneliness might affect many aspects of our private life, the author also discusses its impact on her marital relationship and parental role. She notices helpful and creative ways in the neighborhood to connect people, such as “buddy benches” in one elementary school: “When someone sits on a buddy bench, classmates know to approach the student and ask if they want to talk or play.” Places like this and many other physical settings (home and nature) can help us cope with loneliness. Understanding our situational loneliness and how to engage with it may deepen our lives in unexpected ways. Donlon ends the book with an imaginative and beautiful illustration: “When loneliness shows up, like a scruffy neighborhood cat begging for attention, I can give it a bowl of milk and be curious. Where might it have come from? What does it ask of me right now?” (Broadleaf Books)

About the Author

Mary Li Ma, Ph.D., is a a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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