I frequent a certain coffee shop during the week. Just about every time I’m there, I see two older men sitting in adjacent faded red chairs. They both usually have headphones on and are engrossed in a show or movie playing on their laptops. They sit quietly for the most part, laughing in short, distracting bursts occasionally (though never at the same time). I can’t be sure, but since I see them whenever I visit this coffee shop, I suspect they are there every day. Sometimes they talk to each other, suggesting a worthwhile new movie release or repeating a joke from a recently watched TV episode. They appear to be friends, or at least companions. It also seems that they both live alone (although, to be fair, I can’t say for sure). Everyday they come to sit in a room with quiet, indifferent strangers to watch movies by themselves, together. They participate in a paradoxical sharing of their aloneness.
There is something appealing about a life of “aloneness,” not to be—at least on the surface—confused with loneliness. For in our aloneness we can corroborate our capacity as self-directing agents. We affirm our liberation and ability to live a life geared toward our own, self-fancied end. We can come and go when we please, busying ourselves in whatever activities or hobbies that suit us without having to answer to anyone but ourselves. And to be fair, it’s a satisfying modality of life in some aspects. However, like the two men who make a familiar home of a public coffee shop, there seems an underlying need to be grafted onto something other than our own selves. In a culture that places so much stock in autonomy, we’re caught in the tension of enjoying unmitigated freedom while still identifying as part of a larger whole.
This type of aloneness, —which can be as appealing as it is dangerous—isn’t as obvious or striking as blatant isolation. It’s a type of pseudo-loneliness, where we are connected just enough to avoid feeling completely separated from others, but not enough to be adequately known by them. Today, it’s easier more than ever to settle grandly into this state with recourse to constant status updates and rolling tweets, streaming podcasts about next year’s starting twenty two, eclectic Spotify playlists for even the most mundane occasion and a plethora of (mostly mediocre) movies and shows on demand: all to fill up the empty space of our days and nights with vivid shapes and crisp sounds—to cast the illusion of real human relationships in our midst. Like my two friends at the coffee shop, we can be alone, as long as we aren’t alone in our aloneness.
An article in the New Yorker by Nathan Heller, titled “The Disconnect”, examines the increasing trend of Americans living on their own. The article’s purview is limited only to those physically living alone, yet his observations can be applied to a general current of “disconnection” that flows within our country in those who live lives of considerable independence.
“What turns this shift from demographic accounting to a social question is the pursuit-of-happiness factor: as a rule, do people live alone because they want to or because they have to? At one point, Klinenberg suggests that living alone provides ‘restorative solitude’; it may be ‘exactly what we need to reconnect.’ But most of the people he introduces seem neither especially restored nor vigorously connected. They are insecure, proud of their freedoms but hungry for contact, anxious, frisky, smug, occasionally scared—in short, they experience a mixture of emotions that many people, even those who do not live alone, are apt to recognize.”
It’s fair to assume the issue does not stem solely from living alone, but rather living without a strong bond to others—a grounding within the context of a communal setting. We all know of people who live physically alone who are still connected to others, living happy, fulfilling and healthy lives. Conversely, we all know people who are married or in constant contact with others who are anything but connected, drifting further and further into a hidden solitary confinement—the walled interior of their own limited vision of life, having the self as their sole company. And so we ask what really accounts for such mixed emotions, as Heller says, and a lack of “restorative solitude?”
All aspects of our life—emotional, spiritual, physical, etc.—call for deep relationships in order to foster healthy living. We can merely skim the surface of scripture to uncover the loaded truth that Man shouldn’t be alone in the Book of Genesis. Even during Christ’s three years of public ministry he surrounded himself with his disciples. He made sure to find a space for solitude to pray to the Father, but many of his waking hours (when he wasn’t preaching or healing) were spent in the company of twelve men—his friends. He walked with them. He ate with them. He lived with them. He was God, yet they aided and nourished his natural development, just like food, water, sleep and other natural things did. God, in deigning to become a man, allowed himself to be nourished by human relationships, by community.
And so that brings up a good question: what exactly do we mean by “community”? It’s an insipid Christian phrase that is thrown around all too often these days, usually without clarification or definition. What type of community breeds life within us and encourages us on our journey back to God?
In the spiritual life, we can’t only have friends, people with common interests who don’t necessarily draw us closer to our authentic selves and God. Such relationships can be a great gift, an oasis of refreshment throughout life’s arduous journey, but we have to be wary of only these types of relationships. The type of relationships—or community—that can feed us and lure us closer to God is the type that isn’t afraid to challenge us, admonish us, lift an unwavering mirror up to our eyes to reveal our faults in fullness for the sake of helping us overcome them through grace. These are relationships that bring discomfort.
True community embodies the type of relationships that ask us to relinquish some of our aloneness and autonomy. Community invites us to delve into the messy life of human relationships that won’t always make us feel good, shattering the ego-crafted mirage that we know all too well when left to our own devices. I struggle mightily with this because I take solace in my excessive aloneness. I can be quite fond of this state of lukewarm limbo, enjoying the benefits of being with others, having certain friendships, but not submitting myself to the type of relationships that will force me to be accountable. I can do as I please. And I can rest securely in the knowledge that no one else is keeping tabs. Yet, in isolation, slowly and inconspicuously, I begin to lose sense of who I am.
And so with great effort, I have to tear my white-knuckled clutch from the rails of my own self and reach out to others—and let others reach out to me. It requires a sacrifice, a vulnerability that isn’t easy to shed, no matter how many times I do it. But it’s these types of relationships—the ones that ask me to sacrifice my ego, time, comfort and a certain level of all-too-cherished autonomy—that produce the fertile grounds for healthy community. Whether it’s for a friend, spouse, or group of people, aloneness evanesces through a loss of self, through sacrifice. When we do that we become part of the community, and through our communion, we are able to draw others from their own aloneness into the union that we celebrate as Divine life. As Henri Nouwen beautifully shares with us, we come to see that we are—and never were—alone as God’s sons and daughters.
“That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone – a unique, special place.”
– Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World