The solution to loneliness is not connection. Or to put it more correctly, deep social connection is not, by itself, the complete answer to our predicament. This is partly because loneliness is not simply a problem to be solved.
As one reads more and more about the ‘epidemic‘, it is worth considering whether the problem stems, in part, from our headlong flight from what we cannot flee.
I am making a complex argument. On the one hand, we are created for connection (as the Bible, research, and our hearts all confirm). On the other hand, we are not made to be constantly ‘social’ or even fulfilled by the social. If we disregard this fact, we undermine our capacity for connection.
We are Lonely
The first part of this argument hardly needs to be made. People are lonely and need connection. Further, people misdiagnose loneliness and misunderstand the nature of connection. We need to be taught how to connect and even how to recognize this need!
This confusion and need is the very thing that makes social media problematic. Inauthentic connection magnifies our isolation, but we don’t know what authenticity is or how to ‘do’ it.
Each and every one of us needs to intentionally pursue vulnerability and real social intimacy, and we need people to guide us how to do this. In fact, even the healthiest of us take turns in giving and receiving, in learning and teaching in this respect.
The Meaning of Loneliness
The second part of this argument is less obvious, but no more original. While alienation and isolation can be greatly diminished by rich social connection, loneliness in all its forms never fully disappears, nor is it meant to!
Loneliness is part and parcel to being human–it is not simply a problem for ‘modern man’.
Perhaps I can now put the problem of social media more radically, but also more in harmony with the truth: Social media helps us forget how to be human and what being human means.
Certainly, being human means having relations with each other–needing, pursuing, delighting in deep meaningful social relations of diverse kinds. And certainly, being human means experiencing all kinds of disappointments and hurts in the pursuit of and as a result of connection. And even more, many people who suffer from addiction, mental illness, and even physical illness suffer to a large extent because they lack these necessary relationships.
Again and again, one can watch how the suffering addict, the mentally unwell, the hurt individual is transformed by entering into healthy, safe relationships. But there is something we leave out of the picture if we end our conversation here.
Before I say more, let me just reiterate the absolute necessity of relationships. We do ourselves great injustice and harm if we try to get well by being spiritual or human in isolation! Chapter Seven of 12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy gives a great example of how dangerous it can be to think we need God, but not people! (The book is well worth reading.)
The Limits of Connection
Yet if we are to pursue what is a fully human life, if we are to deeply experience the joys and benefits of human connection, we must indeed be open to the reality that such connections can never fully meet our needs for connection.
As Pope Benedict XVI put it, there is a promise in every human face, something we long for in every human encounter, but which that encounter itself cannot provide.
All of our relations taken singly or together will not and cannot produce a fully human life. Our longing for connection outstrips what is offered to us here. If we pursue such fulfillment in our relationships, we will not only be disappointed, but will be reduced once again to consuming–plugging in to get our fix.
In such cases we are like the person C.S. Lewis describes as desperate for friendship whose very desperation and lack of interest in the world guarantees his failure. This has certainly been my experience.
We cannot and should not attempt to exclude the possibility of and experience of loneliness, boredom, sadness, and longing from our lives.
What this means is that part and parcel of our existence is the acceptance of unfulfillment. Without quietness, silence, meditation, prayer, and reflection, without developing an apartness from the social (even as we seek to deepen our social relationships), we will inevitably corrupt the meaning of human sociability and coerece those we connect with.
Jean Vanier of L’Arche, talks about cultivating our “natural loneliness.” This is not a morbid isolation, but the inner life from which springs forth all true creativity, the center from which comes the ability to love and enter into communion. It is in this vulnerable depth that we often come closest to God and in which we experience real creaturehood.
Paradoxically, it is the experience of love which gives us the courage to enter into such an experience. But what or who can make us capable of receiving such love?
What appears to be a vicious circle is broken into by the order of grace–both the grace of God’s unmediated love and by his love made known to us by others. Therefore, we enter into this quiet, we gain the courage and compassion to enter into our own unfilfment and imperfection (as well as that of others), by experiencing a love which first loves us!
In the experience of unfilment, of natural loneliness we discover two things. First, that our innermost self testifies to the truth of Augustine’s words in the Confessions, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” There is no perfect rest in this life. But second, that God is mysteriously near to us in our recognition and acceptance of these very human limitations and longings.
Therefore, if we wish, not to overcome, but to correctly address loneliness, we must not only forge meaningful relationships, we must cultivate an inner life. Such an inner life fosters and protects the possibility of all relationship because it enters into a relation with One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
The solution to the lonliness epidemic is not just unplugging from Facebook and plugging in elsewhere, though this is an excellent first step. It is also to cease plugging in! One must know and accept oneself as a limited creature who longs for the infinite God. Sometimes our longing for God, for perfect happiness, is signified by unrest, disquiet, irritability, and disconnection, sometimes by boredom. Woe unto us if we seek merely to deafen ourselves to this outcry of the soul. It will not harm us, it will enrich us and all our relations. Was not this the source of the riches which poured out from the monasteries?
Only in the mindset of unfulfillment, of man as viator, will we have the courage to unplug, to cease thinking of people as things to plug into, and to relate to God, to ourselves, to the world, and to others in new and delightful ways, sometimes serious, sometimes sad, often joyful, but ever open to life in all its meaning.