“I don’t know what it is. . . . It’s like an awakeness in the world.”
We are told in the book of Genesis that it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Aristotle, likewise, asserts that “man is, by nature, a political animal.” In direct contrast, however, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous line that “hell is other people,” a line commonly hijacked from its original context and used as a slogan for introverts and cynics (Sartre himself was not as misanthropic as the line suggests). Nonetheless, taken together, these three statements suggest the inner tension that develops as we seek to fulfill our competing desires for solitude and companionship.
In his new novel The Lighthouse, Michael D. O’Brien explores this tension. Though shorter and to some extent lighter than many of his other books, The Lighthouse is no less masterful, and within its pages are insights no less profound.
In the opening pages, we are introduced to Ethan McQuarry, the protagonist of the story. McQuarry inherits by happenstance the job of lightkeeper on a small island in Nova Scotia, Canada. Now confined indefinitely, and by duty, to a lighthouse upon an island where he is the sole inhabitant, he finds himself secluded on most days from any human interaction. But he is deeply contented to be alone.
McQuarry has plenty of silence at his disposal. The island is an introvert’s paradise. Or almost. For although he is mostly happy, McQuarry still finds himself haunted by a whispering desire for companionship, a subtle longing he mostly forgets until he encounters the love and generosity of others. When he finds himself seen (and as such, known) by others—most often by strangers, but not always—something is awakened in him that is more basic and natural than even his desire to be alone. As the book progresses, McQuarry becomes increasingly haunted by his two-pronged desire for both the presence and absence of persons other than himself.
Too much solitude can give way to despair. “There’s an ocean inside [us],” McQuarry is warned, “and sometimes people drown in it.” O’Brien shows his reader just how fine the line can be between solitude and loneliness. In an age dominated by digitization and distraction, most of us could use more true solitude. Knowing its existential benefits, the great metaphysical poet George Herbert urges us to seek the solitariness we so often deprive ourselves of:
By all means use sometimes to be alone.
Salute thyself: see what thy soul doth wear.
Dare to look in thy chest; for ’tis thine own.
Along a similar vein, other sages of the modern period have urged us to seek silence—that which allows us to see ourselves while in solitude. “If I were a physician,” writes Søren Kierkegaard, “and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence.” In silence, we find ourselves. But that’s not all we find.
The struggle to find meaning in life is real for us all. We want to matter objectively or, in the words of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, “from the outside.” In The Lighthouse, O’Brien captures this struggle and shows it in its most vulnerable moments. He makes us see ourselves in Ethan McQuarry. For we are funny creatures, easily contented (at least for a time) with less than we are meant for; and though we are incessant seekers, we can be stubbornly blind to that which we seek. We do not easily wake up to the deepest—and often clearest—truths about ourselves and the world.
The first step toward the cure is solitude. Most of us have deprived ourselves of deep silence. Consider Blaise Pascal’s assessment: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Solitude is a human necessity; silence is a balm for the restless soul. But to be in solitude is not necessarily to be alone.
There is an obvious sense in which McQuarry has solitude on his island. But in another sense, we see that it is solitude he lacks. This is true insofar as he lacks—or perhaps fails to recognize—the real presence of the other. For the truest form of solitude is not pure deprivation. Nor is silence strictly the negation of noise. In solitude’s most eminent form, it includes something positive—that is, something present. As the Swiss philosopher Max Picard writes, silence “is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself. . . . A bird sings in the forest. That is not a sound directed against the silence; it is the bright glance falling from the eye of silence itself on to the forest.”
Through the experiences of Ethan McQuarry, O’Brien draws out the subtle distinctions between what we might call the quiet of absence and the silence of presence. After a chance experience of something approaching genuine friendship—something he has never really had—McQuarry notices something peculiar after his new friend departs. In one sense, he is relieved to be alone again. But he also experiences “a new kind of absence” that he does not like. He misses not the words of his new friend, but the thereness of him. “This first experience of companionship, he understood by hindsight, had not been in the words exchanged but in the presence.”
But there is another presence he comes to perceive and one that seems to break through every degree of human isolation. “Sometimes I feel a listening all around me,” admits McQuarry with a trembling voice. “It’s like an awakeness in the world.” He senses it is a someone; and it is someone good. In solitude, McQuarry begins to detect that still, small voice of the omnipresent God. It is an unsettling realization and, more than that, an acceptance; and it sets the stage for what comes later in the novel.
The Lighthouse reminds us that to be in the divine presence is what every human being seeks. Many just do not know it. As R.C. Sproul writes:
Coram Deo captures the essence of the Christian life. This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. To live in the presence of God is to understand that whatever we are doing and wherever we are doing it, we are acting under the gaze of God. God is omnipresent. There is no place so remote that we can escape his penetrating gaze.
Sproul is right. Our hearts will remain restless until they rest in the presence of the merciful God. To be with God and behold him in all his glory—that is the meaning of life. To rest in his presence—that is our final solitude.
This review was originally published by Plough.