Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reflection on lonliness

The other day, a student from the school's journalism class interviewed me for my point of view on a certain news story. Some researchers discovered a positive correlation between loneliness and belief in God. The student asked me why this might be so. My official answer was that, perhaps, lonely people spend more time in the absence of the distractions of company, and thus God becomes more visible and clear.

Another possibility is that loneliness is not the cause of the belief, but vice-versa. We live in a largely atheistic culture. Belief, if it is real, is an alienating factor. In a random assortment of cafe-dwellers, the believer will more typically be the outsider. He is the one with the burden of explaining himself; the one reduced to silence by casual stories of casual sex. Being a minority of any kind has a correlation with loneliness. We only have not widely not recognized the minority status of real religious belief.

Loneliness is universal, and I am well enough acquainted with it. Understanding it more deeply might unlock a better sense of its purpose, of its disordered forms, and of its treatments. This feeling is never pleasant. At best it provides a momentary impetus to call a friend, like being hungry. At worst, one joins a growing epidemic of non-people who isolate themselves into nothing.

There are many treatments for loneliness, and (speaking for males) female attention is only one. It is, perhaps, the most immediately attractive in the same way that red meat satisfies more than a salad; but it is hardly the only nourishment that satisfies and sustains. In that respect, celibacy is not analogous to starvation so much as to a kind of relational vegetarianism. Just as vegetarianism is (in some ways) healthier for eaters, celibacy has been found to be healthy for lovers--just ask Fr. Andrew Greeley in his many reports on the subject.

Loneliness is a hunger which is not fed by genital love, and in fact has little to do with the lack of it. The genuinely lonely person longs for something, but it is not the mere release of endorphins. I believe that a more accurate understanding of loneliness is that it is a kind of relational claustrophobia. One finds themselves inside of the very small room of their own consciousness, where everything is familiar and little is ever new. Outside of the window, one glimpses the wonder of a world not of one's own creation, and one longs for the adventure of the interplay of the Other and I.

Some of us are marginally gifted with an ability to discover the continually new within the small room, even if that is a mere facsimile of infinity, achieved by division rather than addition. Yet this is a mere temporary consolation. Rationing one's meals does not make the larder more full. Larger lungs enable someone to hold their breath underwater, but they are not gills. I must break out of the room. I must find the Other, be discovered by the Other, be welcomed by the Other; enjoy and be enjoyed by an Other.

I believe that my description here is validated by a horror reproduced in popular culture. The film "1408" is the most recent example; the video game "Silent Hill 4: The Room" is another. Both pieces conjure the claustrophobic nightmare of a room that cannot be escaped, even while the evil of the room offers the prisoner the illusion of escape (indeed, the illusion of a world outside). The most gut-wrenching moments are not conventional Hollywood "boo!" scares, but the moment when the protagonist tries to wall-crawl to another window only to discover that there are no other windows, nor corners, only an infinite 2-D plane of bricks. Akin to this is when the fire-escape map depicts "the room" within a sea of black ink, and the words: "You are here." Again, the protagonist has a prolonged dream of having escaped, only to be dashed when devils rip away the illusion and only the room remains. Again, when the protagonist thinks he has done the impossible (surviving more than 24 hours), and the room is in shambles from its own tortures, suddenly it resets itself, and all is the same as before, ready as ever for another round, and another, and another (the temporal analogy to the endless, windowless wall).

To be alone itself is no great pain. We all enjoy the moment of decompression when entering our private spaces at the end of the day, and our exhausted social selves can find respite and peace, asleep within our private wakefulness. The anxieties of disapproval, of social faux-pas, of awkwardness, now melt away as I sink dreamily into the warm bath of solitude. This is the bath I do not want to leave, even when the water now feels tepid and stale, even when the comfort is gone,because the security remains, and fear keeps me anchored within.

But in time, one of two things will draw me reluctantly from this solitude--the loneliness, or more commonly, brute necessity; my warm bath must be paid for.

Because only the necessity of work brings me outside of my solitude, and not the hunger of loneliness, the hunger is never addressed; only the necessity of work is addressed. And so I shuttle between the necessity of work and the warm bath of solitude, while the loneliness grows and the walls of my personal room 1408 draw in closer. Now I have an artificially self-sustaining cycle of material well-being, and my interactions with others (business and social) are perfunctory and utilitarian, not truly relational, meant only to preserve the warm bath (to 'pay the water bill', as it were) and insulate me from the terror of the disapproving Other.

Meanwhile I become truly starved, and two things happen. First, my hunger for relationship grows beyond the tight control of finely-honed social skills meant to lock it silently in my bomb-shelter/dungeon where it "belongs", safe from harm, safe from exposure. It begins to pipe out of the cracks like a tea-kettle under pressure, always embarrassing and inappropriate, never under control. After some time this leads others to sense that I may be dangerous--that I am intense, relationally immature, codependent or desperate. And so follows a mutual withdrawal, strengthening the anxieties, reinforcing the dungeon, and prepping the psyche for another cycle, and another, and another.

The second thing that happens is that my desperation refuses to be ignored indefinitely. My life knows no shortage of interactions, most as deep as a thimble. My eyes widen at every potential friendship like waif before a bowl of beef stew. I respond to new friendships, compliments, gratitude, appreciation and invitations with unconcealed, ecstatic happiness (but informal, personal invitations only; invitations to large and formal events via cards revive my anxieties and cause me to shut down). I draw out coffee-conversations with one or two people as long as they will go, and I push romantic relationships too far, too fast. I experience every relational moment as if I had been holding my breath for 90 seconds; I gasp it in greedily, thoughtlessly and instinctively.

If others withdraw from me because they perceive this, they are not wrong to do so. We who are well-fed tend to withdraw from those who are poor and hungry because we fear they will ask more of us that we can appropriately give. This is as true for the relationally poor as for the monetarily poor. Yet let others not spurn me too much. I am trapped in room 1408. I pursue every hint of escape with the determination of someone locked in solitary confinement and forgotten. Can I be blamed?

In the film, the protagonist escapes by lighting the room on fire, nearly killing himself, only not quite. This ending reveals only a part of the truth--the truth that I will not be able to escape but painfully. What the film forgets is that I cannot liberate myself from myself. I am the room. Only the Other can break into my cycle of anxiety and withdrawal. No mere human other will do, neither a healthy nor a desperate 'other' like myself, for I will only draw them into the room with me, and if they are wise they will run away. Only an Other who is infinite, in and through a host of human 'others' in his service, who rely not on their own strength but on his, can light my 1408 on fire, drag me from the ashes, and tell me finally: Welcome. We love you. Everything will be all right. We are your friends. Stay with us.

Maybe that is why there is a positive correlation between loneliness and belief in God. The lonely have no other hope.

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