A Review of
The Great Belonging:
How Loneliness Leads us to Each Other
Reviewed by Jo Kadlecek
Usually, if Lauren Winner, author and associate professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke University, writes the foreword to a new book, it’s worth paying attention to. After all, Winner’s best-selling memoirs and numerous articles on the tensions within contemporary Christian faith have positioned her as a trusted and honest guide. So lending her name to an author’s first book sends a loud message.
In the case of Charlotte Donlon’s memoir, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, however, it would have been helpful for Winner to have included a warning: proceed with caution. Because this is not a book for the flimsy-hearted looking for easy formulas about Christian living.
Then again, Winner’s mere association signals something provocative and deep will follow: “Donlon’s insistence on framing loneliness as something that might come to us all is helping me see more clearly that loneliness is not principally a feeling,” Winner writes. “Rather loneliness is a right response—an insightful response—to the ways intimacy and distance are insistently threaded together in all our lives.”
Such a comment also prepares readers that something will be required of them as Donlon wrestles with isolation, depression and the ‘stigma’ of mental health in Christian circles. Consequently, Donlon’s memoir-ish book offers a thoughtful but anchored frankness that often goes missing in today’s first-person narratives. And while it sneaks close to the cliff of self-indulgence, it never, happily, jumps over. Instead, there’s a point to Donlon’s raw vulnerability: If she can navigate these challenges, we can too.
Donlon, a writer, spiritual director and podcast host from Birmingham, Alabama, divides her book into five parts, each comprised of short (some only two pages), sometimes pithy, sometimes academic essays and anecdotes. Mining her life in each, Donlon explores the many layers and nuances of the loneliness and belonging she’s experienced as a white Southern Christian writer, mother, wife and observer of life.
In Part One, Belonging to Ourselves, she frames her approach, “If we believe we are children of God and united with Christ, then we trust that our other belongings, un-belonging and isolations are all wrapped up in a Great Belonging: this most significant belonging that exists because of the love, grace and mercy God lavishes on us.”
Getting there, though, means first recognizing the loneliness. When Donlon does, she meditates on a psalm, participates in the liturgy, sees a therapist or connects with others. Her trademark honesty (which her Twitter followers know) about her mental health challenges—manic episodes, depression, bi-polar—reduce the stigma and invite necessary conversations. Likewise, she doesn’t shy away from staying in the loneliness—“what if there is something in it?”—rather than trying to escape discomfort and difficulties, recognizing loneliness can be as instructive, as Flannery O’Connor once said, as illness.
“What would happen if we had a curious posture in the midst of hard things? When we sit with it, sometimes it can teach us other lessons: about our fear of rejection, of needing to sit and slow down and encourage us to reach out to someone. Sometimes it invites us to grieve the loss of a relationship or the loss of what I hoped a relationship might one day become,” she writes.
Here she encourages readers to pay attention to their physical responses if they are to grow. “It’s as if our bodies are thermometers, registering in bone and skin and muscle the temperature of our lives and the condition of our inclusion. We want to feel warm (included) but someone who is chilly, cold excludes others.”
Since we’re made for relationships, Donlon wonders in Part Two, Belonging to Each Other, if loneliness runs in families specifically or if it’s part of humanity’s spiritual DNA. She notes her mother’s alienation in a small town, with different aspirations from hers, yet sharing what she calls a ‘core loneliness.’
There’s a “wisdom that comes with loneliness in perspective, from lived experience so that those of us turning the corners of age can feel less lonely and more excited in anticipation of the life to come. The already and not yet becomes more real for those whose resilience was forged with years of disconnected relationships and broken community”.
Donlon moves easily from the big questions of Belonging to Each Other to Part Three, Belonging to Our Places, suggesting a park for a picnic or a hike is a natural extension of connection with others.
But this is not a chronological narrative—the chapters in this section (like the others) while thematic, don’t build on each other or move toward an arc. At times the seeming randomness of the chapters can feel like a popcorn flight of ideas. Each essay, though, in this section reflects how random encounters of place can be.
Donlon is just getting started in these chapters—on the concept of buddy benches, for instance—when she ends the section abruptly. If she’d have teased out such landscape narratives with more description or scripture or research, she’d have reinforced place as a conduit of connection.
Still, there’s something to be said about her shorter chapters, where less is more as readers are challenged to explore how space in their own corners of God’s Earth can alleviate their own loneliness.
From the external to the interior, Donlon next takes readers into Part Four, Belonging through Art. This section alone is worth the book as she reminds us of the power of music and memories, photographs and poetry, and how each artistic effort invites a practice of divine seeing and hearing and awe at the gift of creative ventures.
“Poets see more clearly the spaces that terrify us and they are more equipped (or perhaps just more willing) to enter those spaces. . . . Their poems give us language for the haunting elements of unbelonging that we are unable to put words around on our own. Their poems open us to truths we would rather turn away from, to truths we wish were false.”
Ever the spiritual director, Donlon ends her book (in Part Five, Belonging to God) guiding readers through the journey of loneliness toward belonging, noting it’s messy but natural path this side of heaven, marked, thankfully, by the Incarnation. Never are we truly alone. Never do we not belong, if we embrace a “a common desire for the everlasting goodness, peace, and rest we know is coming.”
Until we get there, we continue to reflect and meditate on the challenges of a human loneliness subservient to the Great Belonging. And Donlon provides plenty of reflection questions, meditations, and references for the journey.
As readers turn these last pages, they’ll likely feel reassured that Charlotte Donlon has helped them better appreciate that, in Winner’s words, “Being human requires a touch of loneliness. None of us will ever be fully known by another person. . . Rather, it means we can accept loneliness as a normal companion. We can inhabit a posture of curiosity when we recognize loneliness, and our responses to it, as part of the human condition.”