Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The loneliness at the heart

I have become convinced of late that there is one major driver for social media and many other uses of the Internet: Loneliness.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. When I am old, perhaps physically infirm, and many of my nearest and dearest have passed away or moved away, I earnestly hope that I have Internet access, because it will leave me less isolated than I otherwise would be. If my children are married and living far away, perhaps I can see my grandchildren's pictures electronically, or talk to them on Skype or whatever equivalent has sprung into being by then. I've actually tried to do a little research to see if nursing homes are getting with the program and getting Internet for their residents. (Answer: Not very widely yet, but some are. Hopefully the practice will spread.)

There is nothing wrong with using the Internet to keep in touch with family and friends who are far away, to read up on what is happening in the world, to participate in discussions with people you would otherwise never meet. This can actually be a healthy thing.

But it isn't enough. Since man left the Garden, he has essentially been a lonely creature. Those of us blessed enough to be happily married have communion with our best beloved, but that only mitigates the essential human loneliness. It does not entirely take it away. This may well be the phenomenon that Augustine describes when he says, to God, "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee." But what it feels like is something more ordinary and human, less mystical.

The Internet simultaneously (partially) relieves human loneliness and exacerbates it. If one spends a lot of time on blogs or on Facebook, one gets used to an extremely high level of interaction. At any time one can get on-line and agree or disagree with someone, somewhere in the world. One doesn't have to stop and face a sense of loss or of lack, a sense that nothing else will fill. One doesn't have to listen to the clock tick. If one never stops to listen, if one always turns to the Internet so as not to hear the silence, then that is a bad thing. That is an addiction. And it is well known that addictions do not satisfy; they only produce more craving. In this case, the craving is for communication, especially with people who agree and are kind, for happiness and a sense of friendliness and community, even if only a virtual community. Therein lies part of the problem. A virtual community neither makes the demands nor offers the satisfactions of hands-on friendship. And, while it may seem that virtual friendships are easier to lose (because we get so many more opportunities to annoy one another and to disagree on the Internet), there are other ways in which virtual friendships are easier to keep. We can put our best foot forward, not be annoyed by each others' in-person habits, and nobody moves away from Facebook. Thus we think (at least for a moment) that we are being satisfied by something that is, at best, a shadow of the incarnate, in-person presence of those we love.

Loss--by death, by moving, or by a falling out--forces us to realize that nothing and no one can take the place of those who are gone. Loss is a fact of reality. The Internet encourages us to forget or ignore that reality.

In the end, in this life, we each go on alone. At some level, despite the dearness of our dear ones, despite friendship, despite the fellowship of Christian love, despite the Communion of the Saints, and, God knows, despite Facebook, we live alone. Even more: We die alone. There is only One, whom we love without having seen, who is with us always, even unto the ends of the earth. That promise, however, gives less comfort for human loss than one might think.

People talk as if grief were just a feeling--as if it weren't the continually renewed shock of setting out again and again on familiar roads and being brought up short by the grim frontier post that now blocks them. I, to be sure, believe there is something beyond it: but the moment one tries to use that as a consolation (that is not its function) the belief crumbles. It is quite useless knocking at the door of Heaven for earthly comfort: it's not the sort of comfort they supply there. (Letters of C.S. Lewis, 3 December, 1959)

We await a day when there will be no more loneliness and no more loss, when we will be forever with Christ and with those others whom we love in heaven. We cannot have it now, and to try to mimic it is almost certainly a mistake. Listen, then, to the ticking clock, listen to the silence, submit with patience and without bitterness to Time and Change, the reapers, and live in quiet hope of the day when death itself shall die, when we ourselves shall be changed, and when we will be alone no more.


Beth Impson said...

Lovely, Lydia. These kind of true thoughts are themselves a comfort to me when I find myself missing my daddy, or wondering at the oddness that my brother is no longer here, and anticipating the not-that-far-off loss of my mother. It is good to feel such things, good to feel lonely and lost at times, to be driven to the only One who can carry us through it to a better eternity.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Beth. There just are no easy answers. One struggles not to be indulging unhappiness, yet at the same time one struggles just to let reality, including loss, be what it is, not to try to get around it with quick fixes.