When we picture the face of loneliness, it is usually the face of an old woman, lying in the back corner of a darkened room, with a shaft of dingy sunlight sneaking past the security bars of a home for the elderly and disabled. Or it is the face of a homeless man clinging to his Styrofoam cup and looking forlornly at the ground while the rich and righteous of the world shuffle past.
These images are true enough, but they miss the fact that loneliness is epidemic at this time in Western society — and that its face is usually young and superficially successful.
The loneliness of modernity is the loneliness of Babel.
Its foundation is a breakdown of the means by which people enter into each others’ lives in a meaningful way, a replacement of genuine communication with superficial substitutes. Whether it is the substitution of “open relationships” for marriage or the substitution of “family TV” for time spent together, the effect is the same: The existentialist nightmare pictured in Sartre’s “No Exit” has come to pass.
We live and breathe and move through life surrounded by other people and yet remain in lonely isolation.
Perhaps the greatest culprits are the World Wide Web and the cellular phone. I have walked in on enough MSN chat conversations and looked at enough tweets and posts to know that for the most part, Internet “communication” is well described by Macbeth’s epithet: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Only perhaps without the fury.
The palliative consolation of a thousand Facebook friends is no panacea to the soul that craves for a single one before which the heart can openly reveal herself. The surfer of profiles and chronic poster on the walls of acquaintances is like an orphan drifting through Dickensian streets, pressing his nose against the windows of pastry shops and staring dreamily at families around the Christmas table. The imaginary delights of the feast might temporarily distract him from his hunger, but it will do nothing to stave off the doom of malnutrition.
Indeed, all the electronic placebos for real human relationships present a genuine danger to the life of the soul.
The constant babble and twitter of vacuous words not only prevents the formation of real relationships, it also chokes out solitude, which though closely akin to loneliness, is almost its opposite. Without solitude the soul cannot enter into intimacy with herself or with God. Thus, the person is reduced to a shallow imitation of himself and really is brought to the point where he has little more of substance to say than “’sup? I M :) 2day.”
At the heart of this cavalcade of meaningless blather, there is fear.
Like Adam and Eve cowering behind fig leaves, we clutch at Internet avatars and emoticons to cover up the nakedness of our interior selves and to conceal our shame.
In a world where everyone except the monstrous few are supposed to be okay and where there is no sin or guilt, it is necessary constantly to conceal the truth with a mask. Underneath the social reassurances that we are all good people, the constant pressure to keep up appearances, and even the attempts to distract ourselves from self-knowledge, everybody knows that we are broken, that we don’t measure up.
Yet, the heart longs to be loved in spite of this — to be loved and to be forgiven.
The soul craves true friendship: the friendship of one who continues to love the broken sinner even when his sins have been revealed.
Yet, this sort of friendship is terrifying, because it always carries with it the possibility of rejection. How much easier it is to carry on a series of pleasant, shallow relationships and leave the old wounds to fester in secret.
Christ rails, more than anything else, against the sins of the Pharisee. It is precisely because the Pharisee’s sin is to lock up other sinners in the dungeons of their own hearts that he was most acerbic with the superficially righteous men of Jerusalem.
It is the experience of other men’s judgment, of a coldness in the eye, of a snide “I can’t understand how anyone could do that ...” snorted out of an upturned nose that makes people afraid to be honest with one another. It is for the sake not only of the loneliness of the world but also of our own loneliness that we are called to entirely shed the serpent’s skin of Phariseeism from our souls.
For the Pharisee is always lonely.
The person who could not imagine being friends with a homosexual or an alcoholic or a thief cannot, ultimately, imagine being loved and forgiven for his own sins. He must always maintain the illusion that he is a good man — and must bear the cross of his own transgressions with special bitterness in the darkness of his heart.
The key, then, to our own loneliness and to the loneliness of others lies in forgiveness — and in honesty. It begins in solitude, with the recognition that all are sinners, and ends in a love that can extend, with the love of Christ, to all of the abandoned, the forsaken, the suffering, and the lonely of the world.
Next week: our mission
to the lonely.
Melinda Selmys is staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.