Guideposts Classics: Maureen O'Sullivan on Loneliness

In this story from March 1965, actress Maureen O'Sullivan shares what she learned over the course of her life and career about loneliness and how best to deal with it.

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- Posted on Jul 13, 2016

Actress Maureen O'Sullivan

In 1963 my husband John Farrow died. We had been married 26 years and were the parents of seven children. I was very fortunate, I believe, in having a career which I could resume, an acting career. Aside from financial necessity and the fact that I do enjoy acting, it was good to be busy. That’s the advice everyone gives a new widow: “Stay busy.”

In this case, “everyone” is right. It is wise to be very busy. But a full schedule does not stop you from thinking back and it does not prevent that underlying sense of sadness from gnawing at you. Like wind in a rustic cabin, it comes through the chinks of living, at unexpected moments and places.

It’s generally some tiny thing that triggers the melancholy—something you want to share and suddenly you are surprised that he’s no longer there. Certain things force you to remember because you no longer know how to accomplish them; how to order plane tickets, for instance. John always did that for me.

And there’s that painful moment when you go into a restaurant alone and ask for a table. I’m convinced that the rule for a restaurant is the same as that for the Ark: you appear only in pairs.

These things, however, are mere scratches. They come nowhere near the depths of that great yearning thing, that “shuffling of memory and desire,” that ageless hunger we call loneliness. I have been lonely many times during my lifetime—who has not been?—but it is only in the last several years that I have been able to determine the many shapes of loneliness. There are a number of them.

Certainly Christmas Day my first year in Hollywood represented one shape. I was 18, fresh from Ireland, waiting to do my first (of five) Tarzan pictures (no matter my other roles, I seem to be remembered as “Tarzan’s Jane.") I was alone that Christmas, and feeling the early tinges of self-pity.

I thought of my mother far away in Ireland. As a widow, her own advice about loneliness had always been “contact someone.” She meant really contact, to learn as much as possible about that person, to understand, to help. “Stretch a hand to one unfriended and thy loneliness is ended.”

But my mother was outgoing; I was not, nor was I quick to make friends. What worked for her, and well, would not necessarily work for me.

As it turned out, that Christmas Day was a most successful one because I used my aloneness for a purpose.

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Years later, in reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From The Sea, I was reminded of that purpose:

“For it is not physical solitude that actually separates one from other men,” Mrs. Lindbergh wrote, “not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation. It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you from the people you love. It’s the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is estranged to oneself, then one is estranged from others, too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others.”

That day I began to look at myself. I made certain that my goals were worthy ones and natural to me. And I drew confidence from confirming the fact that the career that lay in challenge was something I could and should undertake. So it happened that, as I made the effort to get in touch with myself, my loneliness dissolved. But that was only one kind of loneliness. There were others.

There was The War. John was away in the Navy. Everyone was doing something helpful. I was volunteering at St. John’s Hospital in Los Angeles and being mother and temporary father to the children. The days were full and often frantic, but after nine o’clock in the evening, with the children tucked into bed and the house silent, I’d face the night hours and shiver.

It is true that children, with their lives to be fashioned and their problems to be solved, can absorb you. Children can fill a home to the tiptop, but John’s absence could not be camouflaged by activity. Night after night I’d find myself restlessly roaming the house. Is this, I wondered, what being a widow is like? I didn’t know until later that true widowhood is a loneliness of a different texture.

In wartime, one lives closer to God. And for a while I thought that my restlessness would become easier through prayer. Instead, it seemed to grow more acute. Perhaps prayers for myself are wrong, I thought, though I knew at heart that any communion with God must be in some way beneficial. Yet, I also knew that the answer to my problem would come eventually from a realization within myself. It did, in an oblique way.

A friend of mine’s baby was stillborn. Later, she and I talked about the tragedy and its meaning and, at one point, she said to me, “If I had known ahead of time that my baby were to be born dead, I believe the physical pain of birth would have been unendurable. It’s odd about pain, isn’t it? If there’s good reason for it, you endure it—sometimes gladly.”

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The curious thing was that I took my friend’s thought about pain and applied it to my own problem. A philosopher once wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Aware that I did indeed have a “why”—John’s return —I now knew that I could and would endure the “how”—loneliness.

This loneliness, I said, is my own special, personal, private participation in the war. I was able to put my loneliness in perspective when I was able to say, “I will endure it. John will come home.” And he did.

There came a time, though, when I no longer had that perspective. The ache I felt was different from the previous aches. It was deeper, emptier. My husband was dead; the “why” gone. This was the texture of true widowhood—emptiness.

The children were older now and, for the most part, busy with their own projects and careers from which I was excluded. That was as it should have been.

It seemed wrong to be lonely. My career went well. I was starred in a Broadway play called Never Too Late, and it was a great hit. I went out often. I knew that the life of an actress, a celebrity-type, had an advantage over the widow who lived within a small circle in a quiet town. Yes, of course it had, except that when I returned home, the contrast was shattering.

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That is when I began to reevaluate loneliness, to review its previous forms, to bring logic and heart and faith to bear. I drew some conclusions which I hold now. Perhaps those conclusions are not the ones that people suffering from loneliness want to hear, but I believe they are basic and true.

Most of us, I fear, do not wish to face the fact that human beings are lonely creatures. We have been lonely always; we will be always. I am not being flippant when I say that the one area in which we are not alone is our loneliness.

Everywhere I go I find people who are lonely and for whom there seems to be no relief or answer. Certainly as a woman I recognize that there is a restlessness in me that is not satisfied by human contact or by a full schedule.

It has been said that loneliness is a searching for God. Centuries ago, St. Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and restless are our hearts until they rest in Thee.”

Yes, we are born searching and restless and only when we can admit the hard fact that we are lonely and will remain so is there hope for some tranquility and receptivity to life. It is then that we can begin to appreciate the world that God created for us to accept and use, not deny.

In the play The Chalk Gardens by Enid Bagnold there is a governess who has had a particularly ill-starred life. When yet another misfortune befalls her which seems to close off her future, she is asked what she plans to do. Her answer, “I shall continue to explore the astonishment of living.”

Life is astonishing. Not just in its vastness, but in the microscopic, too, in its infinite, intriguing detail and in what many of us condemn as routine and day-to-day. But to be aware of today, to know that it is different from yesterday and to welcome the adventure of tomorrow is to accept life. To accept life is to remove the pain from loneliness.

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Tags: Loneliness
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