I recently flew back home from Holy Resurrection Monastery, where I will return as a postulant – the first stage of a formal monastic commitment – in approximately three months. As I looked out the airplane window, anticipating our landing and contemplating the future, I felt good: confident in my direction, though content with the prospect of a break. At that moment, though, a song came into my head that I associate with terrible experiences of anxiety and depression: Radiohead’s “Where I End and You Begin.”
Whatever you think of their music in general (and my opinion is mixed), the track is surely among the feel-bad hits of the 21st century: an insistent bassline conveys inescapable dread, while Thom Yorke’s simple, impressionistic lyrics offer a futile message to someone who can no longer hear it, or whose hearing no longer makes a difference: “There’s a gap in between / There’s a gap where we meet / Where I end and you begin … I am up in the clouds / And I can’t come down / I can watch but not take part / Where I end and where you start / Where you left me alone.”
I have traveled with this song before. Just over a decade ago – a couple of years before my initial Christian conversion – I played it incessantly on an old portable CD player as I flew home from my first semester of college. It was a low point in my life, during which I felt radically disconnected from others and saw little reason to live. Whether or not it was written to describe that feeling of desperate loneliness, the Radiohead song certainly did the trick: “‘X’ will now mark the place / Like the parting of the waves / Like a house falling into the sea . . .”
That is the feeling I, and probably many others, have long associated with “Where I End and You Begin.” Imagine my surprise, then, when it came powerfully back into my head during that recent flight back from the monastery – accompanied, this time, by an almost completely different feeling, devoid of anxiety or depression. In my mind, the same bassline and lyrics played, yet my response was one of resigned serenity and ultimate acceptance. A complex feeling, but not bad. The song that once soundtracked terrible inner turmoil, now accompanied a hard-won sense of peace.
The irony of this was not lost on me, even at the time. At first, I ascribed it to the natural process of maturing: “You know your youth is ending, when Radiohead’s ‘Where I End…’ gives you a feeling of peace and resignation!” This is undoubtedly part of the story, but I saw quickly that it was not the whole. After all, there is more to my current life than the usual anti-adolescent resolutions and decisions of someone approaching age 30 and putting his life in order.
One of those decisions, after all, was the choice to become a monk: to leave many good things behind, including the prospect of marriage, in order to enter more deeply into the essential poverty and pilgrim-condition of the Church – our existence as Homo Viator, “man the wayfarer” en route to eternity.
And so, having resolved to serve God in this way, I relate to many of my old anxieties as one “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Yet this peace comes at a cost – the cost of discipleship, which is ultimately one’s very life. I have found peace, a release from many previous fears; but it is a peace that costs everything.
I do not think my first hearing of that Radiohead song – with the deep alienation and dread that it both accompanied and summed up – was just a matter of youthful immaturity. There is profound meaning in what many dismiss as mere “adolescent angst.” My first two years of college brought me face-to-face with the question of life’s meaning and whether it was even worth living at all. My inner turmoil stemmed, in part, from a confrontation with basic existential realities: the fear of loss, of failure, of death, of a final absurdity behind our lives. I think the same is true for many young people, even if they cannot articulate it.
Likewise, the profoundly different feeling that the same song gives me now – the strange sense of storm-swept calm – is not just a matter of growing up and moving past one’s insecurities. It also reflects the reality of conversion: Jesus Christ, the answer to the questions and fears of mankind, has sought me out and called me by name; and while one must – in some way – give up everything to follow him (cf. Luke 14:33), it is precisely in handing over all things to him that one finds the peace that the world cannot give. Even amid anxiety, disappointment, abandonment, danger, or depression, the reality of this peace abides in my life.
Life has not become a breeze, of course. Discipleship is hard, and its basic criterion is the Cross. But there is a difference: one suffers in union with the Suffering God, and with an awareness of pain’s ultimate meaning. “Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away,” wrote Bl. John Henry Newman. “If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain … He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
It is liberating on the deepest level to know that in God’s providence one “can never be thrown away.” I have been freed, in particular, from the black cloud that loomed over my entire adolescence and early adulthood: the fear of loneliness.
This is a fear that haunts many, and it is no trivial or juvenile thing. We do incredible, terrible, amazing, absurd, and sometimes tragic things out of our fear of loneliness. I can hardly believe the things I have seen people – myself included – do on the basis of such fear: the fear that, in the end, I will not really be accepted or loved; and that some inner need will break open and spill out within me, which no one will be able to drain out, and I will silently drown in it, unable even to convey that I am drowning.
This is the fear that began in me around age 13, and did not really end until I made the decision – 15 years later – to give up the possibility of marriage, and begin the process of becoming a monk. Up to that point, this fear of loneliness cast a shadow over almost everything I did.
It was this fear, I think, that Radiohead’s “Where I End and You Begin” once signified for me. It was a vivid, haunting abstract picture of what one fears, in his fear of loneliness: the living nightmare of feeling insurmountably separated from anyone who could possibly help, even while living right alongside them. “There’s a gap in between, there’s a gap where we meet . . . I can watch and not take part, where I end and where you start . . .”
But why did that end, for me, with the choice of monasticism and lifelong celibacy? And why do I now hear the song so differently?
I have chosen to be alone. Whatever gifts God may bestow on consecrated persons living in community, there is a true forsaking of many natural consolations, especially spousal companionship and the prospect of children. One’s prior friendships, too, are often profoundly changed, if not ended. And such things are not automatically replaced with consolations of a supernatural kind. The sacrifice is real.
But I have chosen to be alone in a way which reinforces the fact that I am never alone, that I cannot possibly be alone. “Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.” And having chosen to be alone in this way, I am no longer afraid that I will fall helplessly into that suffocating loneliness that is so desperate to reach out, to be found, to connect on the immediate human level, as if everything depended on it.
I am already found by God, already understood and loved by him, beyond anything I could even desire. The monastic life I have chosen is founded on this realization and its ultimate sufficiency. Yet the same is true universally: we are known, loved, and understood by Christ the Lord – no matter how things may feel or appear.
There can be – I already know – moments of great loneliness within the monastery. They are found in any life. But these moments no longer point toward some greater object of fear, some massive lurking anxiety about being cut off from everything and everyone. I have chosen the life of a stranger and a pilgrim: but this is precisely the life which, lived authentically, cannot fail to unite me in Christ with all people, and to make me aware that I am already home in God’s presence. There will be times of loneliness in such a life; but I am no longer threatened by the prospect.
Not everyone, of course, can find release from the fear of loneliness in this exact way. Not everyone can follow a monastic path in the concrete sense. But every believer can work – and it is hard work, not done in a day! – to ground his life in those truths that the monastic journey expresses: that one is never alone, never forsaken by God or even really disconnected from others.
These are the truths that have freed me, especially from the crippling fear of loneliness. Monasticism is a sacred and time-tested structure for their realization. But any life can be devoted to the realization of these truths, if we are intentional and courageous about it.
Self-renunciation, the handing-over of one’s life in which it is precisely regained, together with eternal life: this is the end of the fear of loneliness. The things that once signified that fear to us – songs, books, memories, places, even interpersonal relationships – will gain a new significance. And in our relationship both to God, and to other people, we may become able to say (as a gifted religious artist once sang, perhaps in answer to Radiohead’s lyric):“I can no longer tell / Where ‘you’ end and ‘I’ begin.”