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The Transfiguration of Aloneness: David Whyte on Longing and Silence

“Reality met on its own terms demands … an ability to live on equal terms with the fleeting and the eternal, the hardly touchable and the fully possible…”

Longing is one of those acutely reality-warping emotions that magnify their object — be it a person or an outcome — to astonishing proportions until it eclipses just about everything else in your landscape of priorities. In the memorable words of John O’Donohue, “a relentless magnet draws all your thoughts towards it.” The object of your longing becomes the backdrop against which every moment of the day is lived, a restless motor generating a constant low-level hum of unshakable anticipation, the torturous and intoxicating bridge between frustration and satisfaction by which love traverses the abyss of loneliness.

The strange machinery of how longing possesses the soul is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a portion of the endlessly rewarding Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — his wonderful collection of short essays “dedicated to words and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty,” which gave us Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means and the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

Art by Salvador Dalí for Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ Click image for more.

Whyte writes:

Longing is the transfiguration of aloneness … like a comet’s passing tail, glimpsed only for a moment but making us willing to give up our perfect house, our paid for home and our accumulated belongings.


In the longing and possession of romantic love, it is as if the body has been loaned to someone else but has then from some remote place, taken over the senses — we no longer know ourselves. Longing calls for a beautiful, grounded humiliation; the abasement of what we thought we were and strangely, the giving up of central control while being granted a watchful, scintillating, peripheral discrimination. The static willful central identity is pierced and wounded, violated and orphaned into its own future as if set adrift on a tide.

Perhaps most disorienting of all is how longing imposes its own rhythm and pace of expectancy, suffused with unbearable urgency — an hour spent in waiting feels like eternity, at once utterly deadening in its dread and utterly enlivening in its potential for ecstatic relief, calling to mind Virginia Woolf’s enduring insight into the elasticity of time. Whyte captures this beautifully:

Longing has its own secret, future destination, and its own seasonal emergence from within, a ripening from the core, a seed growing in our own bodies; it is as if we are put into relationship with an enormous distance inside us leading back to some unknown origin with its own secret timing indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity, to a lover, to a future, to a transformation, to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us.

In a sentiment that calls to mind psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the relationship between risk and solitude, Whyte adds:

Longing is nothing without its dangerous edge, that cuts and wounds us while setting us free and beckons us exactly because of the human need to invite the right kind of peril. The foundational instinct that we are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world, that we are a form of invitation to others and to otherness, that we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds. In longing we move and are moving from a known but abstracted elsewhere, to a beautiful, about to be reached, someone, something or somewhere we want to call our own.

Clouds by Maria Popova

Because of the irrational intensity and urgency that longing imposes, its exasperation crescendoes in the face of silence — that maddening gap between stimulus and response, filled with uncertainty oscillating between desire and dread. “Silence,” Susan Sontag wrote in her superb meditation on the aesthetics of silence, “remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.” But to the person bedeviled by longing, the speech of silence is the shrillest sound of doom and rejection. Whyte writes:

Silence is frightening, an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame; orphans us from certainty; leads us beyond the well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable conversation about to break in upon our lives.

And yet surrendering to silence is how we befriend the very uncertainty that makes longing so unbearable:

In silence, essence speaks to us of essence itself and asks for a kind of unilateral disarmament, our own essential nature slowly emerging as the defended periphery atomizes and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.


Reality met on its own terms demands absolute presence, and absolute giving away, an ability to live on equal terms with the fleeting and the eternal, the hardly touchable and the fully possible, a full bodily appearance and disappearance, a rested giving in and giving up; another identity braver, more generous and more here than the one looking hungrily for the easy, unearned answer.

Consolations remains one of the most luminous books I’ve ever encountered, filled with Whyte’s spiritually sumptuous meditations on such perennial human concerns as ambition, despair, honesty, heartbreak, and joy. Complement this particular portion with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why we fall in love, John O’Donohue on the pull of desire, and Margaret Mead’s magnificent love letters.

Published October 8, 2015




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