Updated: Sep 18
“Lonely. I am so lonely. I got nobody to call my own.”
Bobby Vinton wrote the song while serving in the army. It’s not surprising that the song describes a soldier in a distant place with little or no communication with loved ones at home. This song “Mr. Lonely” was released just as the war between USA and Vietnam was escalating. No wonder it became very popular in the 60s.
Today, I sit in my office here in Vietnam, far away from Singapore where I called home. While the singer laments his condition and wishes for someone to talk with, I reflect on the lessons I can draw from being lonely. Yes Covid only makes it so much clearer. Zoom doesn’t soothe the loneliness. Whatsapp, Telegram, Messenger, Facebook or what have you only exasperate the feeling of loneliness.
In fact, the “Mr. Lonely” song has been ringing in my mind even before Covid. Actually, it was nearly 20 years ago that I truly experienced loneliness. My wife and I, together with our daughter, quitted our jobs and moved to Vietnam. She was a teacher and I was a social worker. We ventured into Vietnam to pursue a dream; one that would bring healing and hope to those who are hurting.
Little did I know that the dream to bring healing and hope to the hurting would mean that I too must walk that journey first.
In some language, it's called purgatory. In another, it's called trial. Yet again, in some other jargon, it’s called sanctification. I like to go with the word “journey”; a process of walking into a situation and coming out of it, refined! Hopefully but not necessary. Certainly broken.
I remember those early days when my family relocated from Singapore to Vietnam. I could not understand any words on the Vietnamese news. I walked into a lecture room filled with young, fun filled and energetic Vietnamese college students but I felt lonely. I sat at lunch gatherings with my Vietnameses colleagues but I could not understand their jokes. I put on an awkward smile as though I understood them because everyone else was laughing. Because of my lack in the Vietnamese language, I was not able to have any small talks, let alone meaningful conversations. I was stripped of the basic form of communication; language. I was blinded by one of the darkest filters; culture. I was robbed of one basic human need; connections. I was lonely.
After spending a year in Vietnam, we returned to Singapore for a short break. Friendship deprived and eagerly looking forward to talk about the experience I was going through in Vietnam, I experienced reverse culture shock instead. I could not find any oasis for my parched soul back home in Singapore either. Friends have moved on with their lives and they just have no idea what I had experienced in Vietnam. It’s like the scene when Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia tried to explain to her siblings about her first encounter in Narnia. Her siblings could not believe her no matter how hard she tried, not until they too encountered their first trip to Narnia. But for that moment, I have to content with being lonely.
My daughter and I love to read the book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.
We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared. Uh-uh! Grass! Long wavy grass. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it! Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy!
The story continues. The daughter and father came out on the other side of the long grass. They continued their mission on the bear hunt. Before long, they came up to a river. And the next obstacle, mud. And the next. And the next. They were on a bear hunt. A big one they were after. Each time, they came up to something that blocked their way. They can’t just go over it. Neither can they go under it. They have got to go through it.
“Loneliness is like going for a soul hunt”. I can’t go over it. I can’t go under it. I’ve got to go through it. That’s when I decided to befriend my loneliness.
Like Narnia, as I walk through the wardrobe of my soul, what was loneliness became the precious gift of aloneness. Loneliness and aloneness are but the different sides of the same coin. Loneliness invites me to enter into my soul. To explore the yearnings that are calling out within my soul. For too long, crowded gatherings, meaningful busyness, impactful engagements have drowned the gentle call of loneliness for me to simply “Come and Sit”. Deeply broken I was. But dearly loved I am. When I experience what it means to befriend my loneliness or to be still, something special and amazing happens. I should say, someone special and amazing appears. My God!