Updated: Nov 29
James M. Houston
If you have seen the film The March of the Penguins, you can visualize the extraordinary instinctual behaviour of penguins in the most hostile of environments, the ice-bound
continent of Antarctica. Their march has been recorded as follows: some seventy kilometres to their breeding grounds, their mutual care of the one egg, the march back of the females to the sea to be replenished, their return to feed the hatched chicks, then the need of the males to take the same march to the sea and back for their replenishment of food. All this is a march of over 350 kilometres, just for the purpose of the reproduction of one chick for each couple of penguins. Yet we do not use the category of “loneliness” for all these efforts of penguins in the isolated continent of Antarctica. For animals live instinctual lives, not fully conscious as human beings are. They have very limited thinking, and very limited desires. What enlarges human consciousness so much more is that we both “think” and “desire” so greatly. It is inner thought and desire which isolate human beings so much from each other, like a vast interior “continent,” which can often be metaphorically “frozen.” Indeed, philosophers can speak of the unutterable and the unbreakable isolation of human consciousness.
The metaphor of “a continental condition” contrasts with that of being “oceanic.” For even a “continent” has limits to be mapped; it is not boundless and therefore chaotic, like “the sea” as interpreted in biblical imagery. Then indeed, only Christ can walk on “the
sea”; it is beyond human control. Vast as the exploration of loneliness may be, we are still able as moral agents to face its challenges. But in the Eastern religions of pantheism, there is the absorption of “the one in the many,” as if the human being
is drowned in an infinite ocean. This cosmology makes such an exploration of loneliness meaningless. For there can be no legitimacy to desire, nor to think as a unique individual (ipse), which are what makes loneliness such a powerful and basic reality of the Western human condition, despite our sharing “sameness” (idem) as human beings.
Contemporary Features of “the Lonely Crowd”
In contrast to so many aspects of the human condition that have been extensively studied, loneliness has received relatively little attention until now. Perhaps the first significant study was that of David Riesman in 1953.1 It seemed prophetic of the impending loneliness that technology would produce through urbanization and other cultural forces of the modern world. More restively in recent years, churches too are being afflicted by the crowd mentality of feeling aloneness among its members, perhaps in reaction to our move away from modernity as featured by “mass culture” and our entrance into a more intensely individualistic culture with the “Electronic Revolution.” Christians then, like the rest of society, do not like to be “programmed,” in what portends to be a “community.” To pun famous lines of the poet T.S. Eliot:
Where is the friendship I have lost in
Where is the mutuality I have lost in
The cycle of the church’s calendar,
Takes me further from God and nearer to “success.”
Within the broader dimensions of the secular world, we see the innumerable consequences of the alienation of the human spirit. To defend against it, we have multi-billion-dollar industries of therapy, dating services, entertainment, drug addiction, pornography, and much else. Too many marriages are panaceas for loneliness, and then fail for this reason. So we may state it as a principle that “a marriage started in loneliness easily ends in the loneliness of not being known.”
The fear of loneliness can inhibit solitude, driving us into a continual motion of busyness, of impulsive behaviour, and of irresponsible sexual behaviour. Indeed, pornography is a clear index of loneliness in society. Wounded loneliness can desensitize people by making them embittered, wholly self-centred, hardened, and even criminal in the quest for revenge. We have probably little idea how much loneliness there is within our criminal sector of the population.
We must also recognize the great significance of being unforgiving in wounded loneliness. This does not only isolate us from each other, but from ourselves inwardly as well. For those who cannot forgive themselves tend to deepen their own sense of worthlessness, which isolates them and inhibits connectedness with other people. At the same time, a bitter spirit toward others also intensifies loneliness.
Loneliness is frequently identified with a sense of personal failure, so it is denied perhaps, or at least viewed as something that would be painfully exposed. It is
also multiple in its aspects, and therefore a “slippery” connotation, with many ramifications. Thus to assert loneliness has become a premise for the need of the study of psychiatry. This indicates how basic and wide-ranging its pathological manifestations are within us all. It reflects also on how intrinsically social we are as human beings to feel the converse adversity of feeling “alone.” We know well the illnesses associated with
loneliness, such as depression, hostility, alcoholism and other forms of addiction, poor
self-esteem, psychosomatic illnesses, as well as the pathologies of paranoia and
schizophrenia, and most tragic of all, suicide.
In our contemporary world, the more we live technically, the more we exaggerate all these expressions of being “the lonely individual.” We may shudder indeed, at the
prospects around the corner of entering into a “robotic society” as Japan appears to
be the first to face that by 2015/2020.
In contrast to all these contemporary expressions of loneliness, previous cultures
provided more shelter from loneliness, such as extended family life, kinship or tribal
bonds, roles of patronage, mutual obligations, interdependence due to sharing of limited tools, and so on. Thus we can still map geographically, by coefficients of loneliness, its differing intensities. Perhaps Japan and North America today exhibit the
most intense forms of loneliness, whereas rural Africa has the least. Urbanization explains much, but today, the global spread of electronics makes problems of loneliness
more ambiguous and more complex than ever. For if Charles Dickens saw that he was living in the best of times, as well as the worst of times, whatever future prognostications we can make, that is surely the most certain: the future will become increasingly more ambiguous. So this now challenges us to examine and to explain the features of loneliness, both positively as well as negatively.
Within the broader dimensions of the secular
world, we see the innumerable consequences of
the alienation of the human spirit. To defend against
it, we have multi-billion dollar industries of therapy,
dating services, entertainment, drug addiction, pornography, and much else.
To Be Alone May Not Mean Being Lonely
In 1972, Clark Moustakas was one of the first writers to distinguish two categories: of being “alone” and being anxiously “alone.” The former is the objective reality of being without others, without company; the latter is what he called “the anxiety of loneliness.”3 The latter puts up many defenses that attempt to eliminate loneliness, or by constantly seeking remedies. In the Western world this has become a multi-billion-dollar industry of many professional activities: the whole music industry, film-going, therapy and counselling services, addiction treatment centres, old age retirement homes, suicide hot-lines and prevention centres, spa-clubs, matchmating services, art classes for self-esteem, self-help books, and so on.
Yet visiting a retreat centre, perhaps a monastery, or a health spa for spiritual or physical renewal are positive ways of needing to be alone. Artists, musicians, writers, all know the importance of being alone to further their creativity. As the former Archbishop of Westminster Basil Hume used to say, “no one can afford to live in the market-place of life, who does not spend time in the desert.” Gaining insights for reflective conversation, or depth of character, or for communion with God, all require that we cultivate interiority of character. Indeed, only those who can cultivate solitude in creative ways can overcome loneliness. So not only is there a “basic existential loneliness” for all of us,
but there is also “the anxiety of loneliness,” which is a defence against feeling socially
We can all become “peopled-out.” Interactive social exhaustion can shallow our lives, and make us superficial and unreliable. Words become cheap when they are unreflective and incessant. The Desert Fathers exemplified for us the value of solitude and silence. They did this to “know themselves,” cultivating the “double knowledge” of “knowing God” and “knowing themselves in his sight.”
Then they could progress to experience “vomiting the false self.” In such ways, we too can begin to cultivate more self-understanding, as we reflect upon and face more honestly our own inner lives. This is how we gain wisdom in the cultivation of more self-understanding under God.
Conversely, we can intensify our loneliness when we do not know how to appreciate and to live with our own inner solitary condition. Perhaps we are afraid “to be with our selves” because we lack the humility or the moral courage to face ourselves, or indeed do not wish to know ourselves more truthfully. Then inner, personal loneliness can be much worse than having to cope with social loneliness.
So we need to trace the differing human categories of “loneliness.” Basic factors that tend to promote human loneliness are our very abilities to think, to desire, and to seek power. Indeed, we observe that to be human is intrinsically to experience diverse forms of loneliness. But why do we call it “the continent of loneliness”? Or why do we ever want to map it out? Perhaps it is because we live in a therapeutic culture that publicizes as never before such emotional disorders as “attention deficit.”
For to enlarge self-consciousness is to exaggerate the dimensions of loneliness we
may experience. Worse still is the terrifying record of the past century. For in our times, a “black hole” has appeared on our cultural radar screen, in the ghastly inhumanity to other human beings, of the Holocaust; it will not disappear! At Budapest a few years ago I met a Christian psychiatrist who specializes in autism in children.
She began to share with me her story, as a Jew, both of whose parents perished in the gas chambers during the Holocaust. “Oh yes,” I responded, “will you not then be exploring this continent of loneliness for the rest of your life?” “Indeed, I am in constant exploration,” was her response. She was bereft as a small child in being an orphan, telling me, “that’s my name, Loneliness; I have no other name.” Then she added, “the fact I became a Christian only intensifies what the meaning of the Holocaust must mean for me, isolated within my own people, as well as from the rest of the human race. For I suffer also the guilt of being alive, when all of my immediate family perished without a trace.
I shall never fully end in this world what that journey means to me, across that vast continent within my inner life.” She then began to write to me of the utter emotional
exhaustion that each letter caused her to experience, in describing her journey of
remembrance. Yes, she knew, more than most of us, what it means to explore that
continent of loneliness.
Here we shall explore five aspects of human loneliness:
1. Personal experiences of loneliness that help us map out categories and causes
2. The existential condition of our “fallen nature”
3. The rational and philosophical exploration of our isolated consciousness as a “thinking self”
4. Desire and loneliness
5. Contemplation as the “divine end” of loneliness
Personal Experiences of Loneliness
As soon as we begin to reflect on the question “how lonely am I?” we recognize it has a context, and indeed a narrative, or a series of narratives. The following are some I have personally encountered.
The first time I ever publicly addressed a group on loneliness was in 1976, at the home of Mrs. Mary Rockefeller in New York, at a weekly women’s Bible study she shared with a group of her friends. As very wealthy ladies, they all shared the distrust of many who claimed to be their “friends,” when wealth created such a barrier of distrust. Years later, I met again a member of the group in a very different setting. “Oh, you are the speaker that spoke on loneliness,” she remarked, and encouraged me to explore this topic further, which I have now done, half a century later!
Soon after 1976, I spoke with a very beautiful Australian student at our college, and commented that she must be very lonely. “How do you know me so well, when we have only just met?” she responded. “Because beauty isolates you,” I replied. “Men will misunderstand your desire for friendship as the desire for sex, and women will be jealous of your looks.” A similar story was told me by a handsome Brazilian student whose mother had fussed over her “beautiful boy” ever since he was a child. “I never felt that my mother knew who I was,” he told me, “since she was only concerned about my outward appearance.”
A third feature of loneliness is illustrated by a brilliant surgeon who responded
positively to a sermon on loneliness that I had given in a local church in Vancouver. Over forty years later, this friend commented to me that this was an address he had never forgotten, for it had helped him to understand his own laconic behaviour. His academic brilliance bored him, making him feel indifferent about his career. Why? As a precocious child, this had rapidly separated him from his family. He never felt that those nearest and dearest to him really knew him, and their admiration of his outward successes
seemed only to intensify his loneliness.
A fourth occasion was in Washington, DC, when my friend and I were in line, waiting security clearance to enter the White House for a Christian gathering of some of its staff. “The security police must have been given very high authority to let you in,” I joked. For my friend had been a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s in Mississippi, where the F.B.I. had determined the chaos was at its worst. Having attempted to lay a bomb at the home of a Jewish banker, this man and his companion were gunned down by F.B.I. agents. His friend was killed, and he was sentenced to thirty-five years, with three years in solitary confinement.4 He still carries an inner capacity for loneliness—
far greater than most of us—which is sensed even in the way he talks slowly, as from inner caverns within his soul.