We're made for love and joy -- so why are we miserable?
If you’ve had the good fortune to listen to much of the better country-western music, or the misfortune of reading much of most adolescent poetry, you know that loneliness is painful, pervasive, and perennial. Yet the experience and awareness of loneliness seems to be accelerating nowadays. Psychologists talk about an epidemic of loneliness; mail carriers are trained to look for signs that a resident might have died alone (and been dead for some time); lifelike robots are being designed as companions for the elderly; the (wealthy) childless speak of their pets as their babies; and, of course, government bureaucracies are busy addressing the problem of loneliness—in 2018, the British government established an anti-loneliness department, appointed a “Minister of Loneliness,” and has begun producing annual reports on loneliness. What’s going on here?
I ask that question because yesterday I interviewed scholar and author Francis Etheredge, addressing the topic, “When Does Human Life Begin?” (You can find the audio and notes of the interview HERE.) The conversation evolved into a reflection on loneliness as a kind of mystery.
In short: We humans are created from absolute and infinite generosity in the image and likeness of God—that is, we are rational, free, moral, and social; our bodies and souls are abiding reminders that we are made for communion and community; reason indicates and Revelation confirms that we are made for a perfect fulfillment in love (that is, in communion with the life of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity). How then, can creatures of such origin, nature and destiny suffer from widespread and chronic loneliness?
Let’s start with the obvious and work our way to the roots.
A good place to start is with one of my favorite bloggers, Dean Abbott: “The ceaseless task of the modern man is to disguise how lonely, scared, and confused he is among all his trinkets.”
Both modernity and the Church’s perennial wisdom agree that we should not be suffering from widespread and stubborn loneliness. Modernity, promising to liberate us all from God and our soul, assured us that all our longings could be satisfied with toys and pleasures. When that doesn’t work, then the only remedy is to try harder, with shinier toys and more intense pleasures. We already know that doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because we are spiritual creatures, and not just bodily accidents milling around and waiting to die.
C.S. Lewis points us in the right direction: “The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”
That’s a big first step—we must admit that we live in a culture that facilitates (and even thrives on) the cultivation of pathological loneliness. When we arrange our individual and social lives around trying to be human on our own terms, rather than in harmony with reality, we become miserable, and, left untreated, we become peevish and spiteful.
Why do we do that?
Again, let’s turn to C.S. Lewis: “If we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
Lewis identifies for us the root of the problem. A culture that accelerates and deepens a loneliness at once as inhuman as it is ungodly is built upon an idolatry, a rebellious self-will rejecting what God offers. If we want to stop being miserable, and if we want to build families, communities, cultures and a civilization that is humane and humanizing—that is, leading us to our divinely-intended divine fulfillment—then we must be free from our delusions to become free for true and lasting happiness.
But how can we do that?
Our intellects are darkened, our wills are weakened, and it seems that our capacity for selfishness, addiction, and delusion are difficult, if not impossible to remedy. The Church has always known that human nature is compromised by Original Sin and therefore can have no true and lasting happiness in this life or the next—apart from the saving work of Christ.
The Church has been entrusted with the remedy for loneliness, namely, the Gospel and the sacraments. People who know and love Christ, who live according to the Gospel and meet him there and in the sacraments—they, and they alone—know who they are and whose they are. Being healed and perfected by grace, they can give and receive the love that God always intended for humans. Let the Church proclaim that the remedy for loneliness is Christ!
When I write next, I will offer a meditation on telling the truth and telling lies. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.