May 21st – Steve Jungkeit
Texts: Genesis 1: 18-22; Romans 12: 3-18
“It Is Not Good For Us To Be Alone”
“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
-The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
“It is not good for man to be alone.” So states the book of Genesis, words spoken by God during the creation of the world. Thereafter, a quest takes place to find a suitable companion for the first human, a process of elimination that moves through the animal kingdom, and that culminates in the creation of another human being. It’s a myth, an orienting story, and it’s been used and misused over the years to justify this or that social arrangement. I don’t wish to rehearse those arguments this morning. I merely wish, on this Sunday celebrating membership, to recall the importance of those foundational words uttered at the beginning of the Bible: “it is not good for man to be alone.”
Cut now to a video shot from a film I no longer remember, capturing a suburban neighborhood from the air, in which all the houses are neatly appointed and evenly spaced from one another, a shot in which not a single human being is seen. The image then shifts, tracking a freeway system clogged with traffic on a morning commute. Individual drivers, alone in their cars, stare fixedly out the windows of their vehicles. Everyone is in proximity to each other, but they’re all alone in their cocoons. Cut once more, this time to a crowded urban coffee shop, brimming with tables and chairs. People sit at the tables, hunched over their computers, headphones on, staring into cyberspace. A few people talk, but most reside within a private funnel constituted by the space between their screens and their heads. The Beatles provide the music for this montage. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Paul McCartney sings. The song, of course, is Eleanor Rigby, from the 1966 album Revolver. It’s a lament for lonely people everywhere, describing Father McKenzie, writing a sermon that no one will hear (haunting words for a preacher), and Eleanor Rigby herself, staring out a window in isolation, and then, in a later verse, being buried, in a funeral that no one bothers to attend. “Ah, look at all the lonely people,” McCartney sings against orchestral accompaniment. It is not good for humans to be alone.
Images like traffic jams and suburban homes are easy targets for those wishing to depict loneliness, and those images may conceal a more complex reality, where genuine connections actually do occur. Those images may actually prevent us from seeing moments of conviviality that take place within those homes, or at job sites at end of a commute. But Eleanor Rigby haunt us all the same. Because we do sense that sort of loneliness around us and within us at times. We do sometimes experience an isolation that gives rise to the fear that we shall become Eleanor Rigby or Father McKenzie, gazing out a window alone, or writing a sermon that no one will hear. We value our independence, and we prize our ability to stand apart from a crowd. But we also wish to avoid the fate of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, for it is not good for humans to be alone.
I recently came across a study out of Duke University that reported that one in four Americans consider themselves lonely, having no one that they can talk to about their personal troubles or their joys. 25% of us. That number increased to 50% when the question became more focused, asking about whether respondents had people outside of their families with whom they could talk. One in two people suggested that beyond their families, they had no significant bonds, no one that they could call upon to share confidences. It’s a heartbreaking statistic. While I don’t know if those numbers necessarily hold for a community like ours, I’m also certain that many among us struggle with this particular modern affliction called loneliness.
Several years ago, a Harvard sociologist named Robert Putnam published a book entitled Bowling Alone, a book whose insights continue to resonate. Putnam charts the rise of loneliness and isolation in American life throughout the latter portion of the twentieth century, noting especially the precipitous decline in participation within communal forms of belonging. Think of all the organizations that once thrived in American life, but which are now forgotten, or seem quaintly anachronistic. The Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club, the Masons, the Elks Club, Kiwanis, Ruritan, labor unions, and bowling leagues – many of these have all fallen so far out of fashion that it’s hard to imagine an afterlife for most of them. It’s also true that the churches have mirrored that general trend. For many folks in my generation, you may as well be talking about the Elks Club when church is mentioned – it leads not toward disgruntlement, but bafflement. For every church such as ours that is doing well, at least for now, ten others are facing difficult questions about their future viability.
The causes behind it all are widely varied, and it would be wrong to blame that decline on any single factor. The causes are multiple. Surely it has something to do with technology, and the social isolation produced by staring at screens all day long. Surely it has something to do with economics, and with the privatization of public life, such that spaces for social gathering seem difficult to find. Surely it has something to do with the individuality prized by my generation, Gen X, and the generations following mine, which tend to look upon communal belonging with suspicion and wariness, fearing the social conformity that belonging might induce. Of course, there are signs that all of this is being contested and reformulated, as young people discover new ways of being together – moving into cities, joining gyms or hobby groups, flocking to funky and innovative coffee shops and cocktail bars. I happen to believe that those are important developments. But I also believe they prove the exception to the rule. We Americans have become, by and large, a lonely and isolated people.
If the causes of our isolation are varied, so too are the consequences. Among the long term effects of loneliness are a suffocation of spirit, depression, suicide, physical deterioration, and even heart disease. There’s evidence that loneliness is now becoming a public health concern, on par with tobacco or sugar as a cause of human decline. But it’s another consequence of loneliness that I’ve become most interested in of late, one first written about by Hannah Arendt, shortly after the Second World War.
Arendt was a German philosopher and emigrant who fled to the United States during the war. Her contribution to our moral understanding of the world is immense, and she herself remains an intellectual giant. It was Arendt who, while watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” as she and the rest of the world struggled to comprehend the enormity of the man’s crimes, especially when weighed against the backdrop of his gross sentimentality. But it’s her book The Origin of Totalitarianism that speaks most profoundly right now, for it walks through the circumstances that led to the worst authoritarian regimes throughout the first half of the 20th century. I pulled it off my shelf recently, hoping to find wisdom or insight within our particular American moment. Let me say that I have no idea if it’s possible to map the situations in early 20th century Europe that Arendt describes onto our own condition. I leave it to you to read it for yourself if you’re so inclined, and to make up your own mind on that question.
But I will say this: the final pages of Hannah Arendt’s book are as important a meditation for people of faith as anything I’ve encountered in the last six months. It ends in a way few would have predicted. In a five hundred page tome dedicated to tracing the rise of far right populism in modernity, the book concludes not with a warning about the power of crowds, or with a consideration of economic struggle. Arendt concludes her book with a powerful meditation on loneliness. The condition of loneliness, she argues, is what makes humans most susceptible to authoritarian leaders and to totalitarian impulses.
One of the figures that Arendt cites to make her case is Martin Luther. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine a more isolated figure in all of Western history, standing alone against the power structure of medieval Europe. Even so, Luther was a convivial, deeply social person, and he sensed the grave danger of isolation. In a sermon on the text “It is not good for man to be alone,” Luther notes the way the human mind, when divorced from social bonds, tends toward imagining dangers and catastrophes lurking everywhere. “A lonely man,” says Luther, “always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.” Arendt follows on Luther by observing that the root of authoritarian extremism consists precisely of this penchant for thinking everything to the worst, imagining barbarians at the gates of civilization, bent on destruction. There may really be dangers, Arendt suggests, but the lonely and isolated mind can see only the worst, without comprehending the strengths or virtues or graces that may also be present. Apocalyptic thinking, such as that which we witness now in certain quarters of our culture, tends to be the result of social fragmentation and isolation. It truly is not good for humans to be alone.
Luther’s insight, and Arendt’s, makes sense. It is true that when we’re most alone, our worries become magnified and nearly insurmountable. I remember long days in grad school when worries about money and bills gnawed away at me, to the point that I let myself consider, fleetingly, briefly, radically altering my vocational path. When I shared the problem with Rachael after she arrived home, she was so nonplussed and steady that I immediately quit worrying and began coming up with a solution. So too, I can recall sleepless nights on backpacking trips, when a storm, or a midnight visit from an unwelcome animal foraging for food sent my imagination looping in cartwheels. Alone as others slept, I often imagined the very worst – being mauled by a bear or a mountain lion, only to wonder, at daybreak and now in the company of others, how the sound of a squirrel or a raccoon could have unsettled me so. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience – few of us escape them. A stay in the hospital, the death of a spouse, a divorce, the departure of children for college – it often leaves us free to imagine the catastrophic and the apocalyptic. The company of others can be a check on the imagination of the worst, a soothing balm in Gilead.
Let me reiterate once more: I don’t know that we in America are living in a situation analogous to those that Arendt describes. I really don’t. I’ll leave it to you to decide that. I do know, however, that Americans have become an exceedingly lonely people. And I know that the consequences of loneliness can be truly malignant for individual and collective lives. Even if you don’t wish to overlay Hannah Arendt’s analysis onto our 21st century condition, her meditation is a cautionary parable that shouldn’t be ignored right now. It is not good for humans to be alone. We need one another, you and I.
That’s why communities like this one are so very important right now. That’s why the celebration of membership that we’re marking today is so very important. Yes, it’s a time to welcome new people to the fabric of our community, and yes, it’s a way of sustaining our ongoing work as people of faith. But it’s about so much more than that. It’s about discovering one another, in all of our human fullness. It’s about finding a place where we feel less alone. It’s about being touched, safely, appropriately, by other human beings. It’s about discovering others who will listen if you wish to unburden yourself of some inner struggle. It’s about raising children in an environment that helps them to experience intergenerational relationships, and that helps them to feel a sense of kinship and belonging. It’s about sharing questions, and wonder, and celebration and joy with one another. It’s about discovering, in the company of others, an ethical and moral sense that transcends our own private concerns.
And – this is not to be overlooked – it’s about guarding our minds from always thinking the worst, fearing the worst, expecting the worst, especially of one another. We need one another to guard against the apocalyptic mind, in which disaster is ever poised to strike. That’s not a recommendation toward a pollyannish or sentimental worldview. It’s rather an affirmation made possible by the bonds of affection that do exist in a place like this, an affirmation of the grace that is at the heart of things, a recognition of the good things that can and do take place around us all the time. Alone in the dreamland of cable news, we might imagine that Muslims here and abroad are intent on terror plots. When we’re drawn into community, we stand a chance of meeting Muslims all over the world who abhor that kind of violence, and are dedicated to upholding goodness within themselves and within the wider world. Isolated in the cocoon of Internet news feeds, we might imagine that black and brown neighborhoods in our cities are little more than places of carnage and warfare. In community, we come to discover lives not altogether unlike our own, filled with aspirations and fears and challenges and triumphs. Alone on Facebook, we might be tempted to imagine hordes of immigrants coming to take our jobs or to peddle drugs, whereas in community, we stand a chance of meeting those immigrants, and learning of the journeys that brought them here. And this needs to be said as well: alone, we might imagine those who chose to vote differently from us as somehow less than rational, less than informed, less than deserving of our attention or care. In community, we’re able to see and understand the life stories that shape those decisions, and to remain connected to one another, even if we diverge in matters of public policy. Together, we manage to remind ourselves of the dignity and worth inherent in everyone. It is not good for human beings to be alone. In bonds exhibited in communities like this one, we stand a chance of avoiding the pitfalls and paralysis of apocalyptic thinking, reminding one another of the capacities for grace and generosity that truly belong to us.
“Ah, look at all the lonely people,” Paul McCartney sings. He’s not wrong about that. But we need visions and enactments of human belonging now more than ever, to counteract the burdens and the dangers of loneliness. One of the best visions I know can be found in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, about a barber living in Port William, Kentucky, grown wise in his observations of human life, and of the ways we’re all of us bound to one another. It’s a vision for us, living in Old Lyme, struggling to figure out the life of faith together. It’s a vision for a divided and fractious moment of our history. It’s a vision for all of us who sometimes feel the loneliness of the world, and sink into an imagination of the worst. The concluding words on this morning, given to the celebration of membership, belong to Jayber Crow.
“What I saw was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”
May we become so perfected in one another’s company.