On Loneliness And Love

Edward_hopper_3D_by_Ryo974Edward Hopper is the master painter of loneliness, capturing life in the city in the early part of the twentieth century. This is the historical moment when the culture began dramatically to shift in new directions: Young women were on their own in the city for the first time; Families began to scatter about; Massive demographic movement took place. There was this pervasive sense of a world splintering into chaos. As we began to hollow out the core of  any common meaning within the culture, people were tossed into a fragmented swirl of things. A new sense of loneliness began to spread.

Perhaps the powerful attractiveness of Hopper’s paintings is that each of us feels loneliness at times, even though most of us are not willing to talk about it much. Good grief, you don’t go around saying, “oh, I am so lonely,” at least not in the circles where I hang out. But I’m not talking about loneliness in any morose or self-pitying kind of way, just that we were made for connection with others, and yet we come away feeling that our connections are never quite complete. We have wonderful spouses, families, lots of friends, jobs surrounded by lots of people, and yet we are often touched by loneliness.

This can be agonizing when we are younger, like “why can’t I have the kind of friends everyone else enjoys.” One of the marks of maturing is finally accepting that almost no relationship is fully complete, even as we yearn for the completeness of connection. That discovery can be a painful part of growing up.

The Christian mystics knew this in spades. Their constant, sometimes ferocious goal was complete union with God. Sometimes the great ones reached that goal, often in fleeting, ecstatic moments, but even then, they would fall back to talking about the almost-there stage, often glimpsing the promised land of complete union all the while painfully peering over the abyss of loneliness in-between.

But the Christian faith calls us to a life of love, calls us out of ourselves, and therefore calls us out of loneliness. The swirl of our daily lives propels us the other way, toward self-love, self-protections, getting what we can from our relationships.  The Christian faith moves us radically in another direction, to give ourselves away, give away all the love we can muster, actually to empty ourselves as the path out of loneliness. That’s the heart of the matter for biblical faith, the paradox we finally endorse as the path to human flourishing.

And then there is this: Whatever we can do as Christians to facilitate supportive local culture–through our families, our churches, the organizations we lead–this is the call for Christians in a time of loneliness. Can we learn again how to support one-another, not just friend on friend, though certainly that, but through the organizations we build?

There is one more thing important here. Christian Wiman, in his fabulous new book called My Bright Abyss, believes that “Christ comes alive in the communion between people. When we are alone, even joy is, in a way, sorrow’s flower: lovely, necessary, sustaining, but blooming in loneliness, rooted in grief.” In other words, we were meant to be in communion with others, and without that communion, “one’s solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of the self.”

“You must not swerve from the engagements God offers you,” Wiman encourages, for “as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the great love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence.”

While we cannot always live in this open, sacred space of friendship and love, this is indeed the certain path for living fully human lives, the path out of loneliness, the place where we encounter God, where “Christ comes alive” in the ordinary “communion between people.”