Thursday, February 7, 2008
Loneliness at the Heart of the Human Condition?
A good conversation that I had with a good friend last night caused me to think back over some reading (Henri Nouwen and Blaise Pascal) I had been doing over the summer. My friend and I were talking, and I mentioned what I perceived as the essential “aloneness” of the human condition—that we are trapped within our own individual “conceptual frameworks", that no other human being can really understand the way our narrative has woven itself together. But can even we understand the events of our lives, our responses, how we are constantly changed and changing, and how all this fits together to form our “story”? We seem to be isolated from ourselves in our lack of self awareness and constant desire to deceive ourselves. Even when we desire to be honest, we have problems interpreting ourselves. I guess I basically agree with my dear Blaise Pascal that both the self and the other are mysteries, full of contradictions. He also says that in recognizing this we are led to a point of despair that leads to faith rather than “scientific” certainty, faith in God and in others—both evidenced not in “knowable” data, but through relationship.
In his book Reaching Out, Nouwen observes that our culture continually keeps us in a “state of anaesthesia” so that “ we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us”. The source of this panic is a debilitating fear of loneliness, a fear that causes us to run to people, planning, activities, books, anything to keep us from dealing with our “human predicament”. Nouwen refutes the cultural assertions that being lonely means that you aren’t around the “right” people, haven’t found the “right” partner--loneliness, he says, is at the core of the human condition--and people, things, special experiences can’t take it away. He even makes a fascinating claim that this paralyzing fear of recognizing our own aloneness has led to a decline in cultural creativity. He asks:
“Does not all creativity ask for a certain encounter with our loneliness, and does not the fear of this encounter severely limit our possible self-expression?”
Nouwen also claims that when we cling to others to rid us of our loneliness, “we are, in fact, driving ourselves into excruciating relationships, tiring friendships and suffocating embraces”. He claims that we often burden others with “divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often partially aware”. When these “Messianic expectations” are not met by another person, we resort to what Nouwen sees as a “violence of thoughts--violating the mind with suspicion, inner gossip or revengeful fantasies”.
Okay, enough for today…