"Every life deals with loneliness at some point or other: Our partner dies; sickness sets in that makes the old social calendar impossible; we find ourselves in a new job, a new town, a new country, a new world. More than one person who was once naturally outgoing and apparently self-confident has succumbed to all of those things. The problem is that the more we withdraw, the more withdrawn we become. People stop calling. No one stops by. I never meet anyone new. I never do meaningful new things. But then is not the time to hide from the world; then is the time to strike out in totally new ways to find the rest of the self in the rest of the world.

"It is the opportunity we do not seek, to do things we never thought of doing, and in the end it is an invitation to become new again.

"This is the moment the old frame cracks, the old certainties fail, the old patterns and habits and social clubs disappear. The tried-and-true are not only useless now, they are simply gone. The only possibility for emotional survival lies at a time like this in going out into a totally strange place, trusting ourself to new people. Not to burden them but to learn from them. It means that we must do something we have never done before — join a book club or a quilting group or deliver trays for Meals on Wheels — anything that provides structure and regularity until, suddenly, we have a new circle of friends to help us plan our own time differently.

"But loneliness is about more than simply figuring out how to use time while we try to forget the pain that comes when we're at loose ends. It is also a call to make other people's needs our own. What we learn in loneliness is that everybody needs someone. The question at a time like this, then, is, Who needs something I can do for them? It's time to get involved with someone else's emotional support in addition to my own. Which is why, perhaps, so many people who lose a loved one begin groups to support people in similar situations.

"Loneliness is not the end of anything. It is the starting point at which we are able, this time, to choose fresh ways of being alive. It's like being dropped down on the Planet Nowhere and told that you can do anything you'd like to do. And for the first time in your life, you must and you do.

"Most of all, loneliness is not a call for other people to take care of us. Loneliness is the call to ourselves, now that we have acquired a better understanding of it so well, to do something to alleviate the loneliness and needs of others. Dag Hammarskjold had a keen understanding of an affliction of the soul that easily keeps us awake at night and feeling hollow during the day. 'Pray that your loneliness,' he said, 'may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.' "