The Soul-Shattering Sting of Loneliness

Ryan Hua (flickr)

The online video is stirring. A young man, Karim, approaches a middle aged homeless man on the street, and holds out cash. The homeless man is startled from a drowsy sleep state, flinches in self-defense, but then takes the money from the kind young man and shows gratitude.

They begin to chat.

In the next moment, the homeless man, Mark, asks for Karim to wait, to stay put for one moment. In a role reversal, Mark grabs his grubby backpack, stands up, and walks off, leaves Karim alone on the street, only to return a moment later with a plastic bag with two Styrofoam boxes.

Mark used the generous money to buy two dinners — one to share.

“Please sit and eat with me for a little bit?” Mark asks.

Karim agrees and sits on the concrete.

“I’m glad you’re here with me,” the homeless man says as they sit on the sidewalk and unbox their dinners together. “It’s lonely out here. People walk by and they ignore me. They could care less if I was dead or alive.”

“It’s great just to sit out here with somebody.”


One can never know if these videos are real, but the video spread virally this summer nonetheless, and it’s easy to see why. This is the side to homelessness that rarely is captured beyond the need for money and food — and it’s the need for human friendship. We were made to connect with other humans, this is part of what it means to be made in the image of the triune God. And this explains why loneliness hurts like a knife, and often why our relational losses are most intensely felt at Christmas.

Peter Leithart introduces a theology of loneliness in his new book, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience.

There he quotes the late Dutch psychiatrist J.H. van den Berg, who famously wrote: “Loneliness is the nucleus of psychiatry.” This is the same man who also wrote: “If loneliness didn’t exist, we could reasonably assume that psychiatric illnesses would not occur either.”

And to those stunning quotes Leithart adds this interpretation: “Humans connect to other humans at so basic a level that when we disconnect, our souls shatter into a thousand little pieces.”

Strong words.

I asked Dr. Leithart to expound on this in a written interview.

Dr. Leithart, thank you for your time, and thank you for your wonderful new book. So why does loneliness shatter our souls into a thousand little pieces? Why does loneliness shake us to the root of our existence?

Robert Okin has studied homelessness for a long time. The idea is out there that we created a homeless problem when we forced people out of mental hospitals into the streets, but Okin sees the causation going the other way. It’s not that crazy people are homeless; it’s that homelessness makes people crazy. They have no stability or settledness in life, no place they can call their own, few constant friends.

A similar thing happens to people in solitary confinement. Deprived of interaction with other people, sometimes for decades, they begin to doubt everything, including their own existence. Or, think of an infant in isolation, who never hears her mother’s voice, never sees her mother’s smile. I know folks who have adopted children from Russian orphanages, and the kids are terrors, wholly disoriented and sometimes violent. It’s as if they were born in solitary confinement, and they never develop any sense of who they are.

Those are just illustrations, but they highlight the deeper question about what kind of beings we humans are. Americans tend to think of ourselves as self-standing, self-made individuals. But that’s not really true. God calls us into existence — he calls us. We don’t make our identity; we receive it. He created us at the beginning, and he keeps us in existence by continuing to call us to new tasks and missions. We are utterly dependent on God’s continuing summons to remain in existence.

At another level, other human beings play a role in keeping our sense of identity intact. We know who we are because our parents give us a name and keep calling us by that name. Unless we continue to be called, by name, our sense of identity dissolves.

Interesting point. So explain this more. How does a false sense of personal autonomy multiply our loneliness (even if we have a large network of friends)?

Milton’s Satan is the great example of the notion of self-creation. He wants to stand “as if author of myself.” That, of course, is insane. Even the most secular of us don’t really believe that we created ourselves. We all have parents, and we come into the world completely helpless and needy. But we often forget that fact about ourselves. And modern political ideologies can seduce us into believing we’re autonomous.

That has to be a factor behind the peculiar loneliness of modern societies. A friend tells of his visit to India, where his introverted wife had trouble being alone. She’d try to go off and people would follow her and want to talk with her. They didn’t want her to be alone. Modern societies aren’t like that. We want our personal space, and we create institutions that allow us to be isolated.

What does the inter-trinitarian relation of God say to us about the importance of fellowship and joy — of true flourishing as a being?

The reason we’re created as social or relational beings is that we are created in the image of a God who is an eternal fellowship of Persons. The life of God is a life of continuous love, fellowship, communion, a continuous round of conversation and intimate communication. That’s the God who made us, and he made us to resemble him. We live fully human lives only when we live in communion with God and with other human beings.

No surprise, despite the rise of social media and digital communications, these technologies cannot end loneliness. We could always be lonely in a crowd — and especially now in a digital crowd. Many are asking: How can we be so deeply digitally connected, and yet so lonely and isolated at the same time? How would you answer?

Technology is never neutral. It always has a bias, nudging us to pattern our lives in one direction or another. It never leaves the pattern of life untouched, and a lot of modern technology encourages individual isolation. Prior to the rise of newspapers, you got your news by going to the pub. News was gossip. Once newspapers are readily available, you get your news by yourself. You don’t have to leave your home because the paper gets tossed on your front porch, and you don’t see Dad’s face at the breakfast table because he’s hidden behind the paper.

Another example: One historian of technology points out the effect of central heating on family life. Time was, unless you were very wealthy, you had one heat source in your home: the fireplace. If people wanted to be warm, they had to be in the room with the fireplace, and so the fire became a gathering spot in the house. Now we get heat to every room of the house simultaneously, and we can stay warm all by ourselves.

No one wants to get rid of newspapers or central heat, but those illustrate the way technology affects the way we live in very specific ways. The point is not to oppose the innovation. The point is that we need to think about and recognize the consequences, and take deliberate steps to counteract them. We can’t rely on the fire to bring everyone into the same room, so we have to consciously design our lives to resist this isolation.

Communications technologies have similar kinds of effects. Not too long ago, the TV played something of the role of the hearth. It was a gathering place. It wasn’t ideal, since TV directs us all to look away from each other, and passively watch what’s happening. I’m not anti-TV; I enjoy TV. But we need to design times for face-to-face activities in our families — games, worship, dinnertable conversations, etc.

Anyway, the time when the TV was a focal point is gone. Everyone with a computer or a phone can watch his own shows, listen to his own music. We can create our own personal culture. That’s really anti-culture, since culture is something shared, and shared over time. It’s not a culture when each of us changes musical habits every time a new album comes out.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize the plus side. Communications technologies connect us too, in ways that we’ve never been connected before. We can have friends — even good friends — in every part of the country, even every part of the world. We can keep in touch with distant family members.

So, the key is to be aware of the downside, to take steps to minimize the damage and counteract it, to teach our kids of the glories and limitations and biases of our technical prowess.

So we really don’t need to be around people any more. Social media is a meeting of minds that is often very powerful. But what role does our physical presence play in true friendship/fellowship?

I responded by email (remember email?) to someone recently with a snarky comment. He wrote back asking whether I was serious or not. We’ve all had that kind of experience. When we’re physically present with one another, we communicate in all sorts of ways beyond the content of our words. Listeners know that we are being sarcastic by our tone of voice. Our bodies communicate, too. Plus, human beings reveal the glory of God, so there is a force, a form of persuasion, when you’re in someone’s personal presence that can’t be communicated over the Internet.

All that also applies to friendship. Think of the difference between a mother mothering an infant and a mother communicating with her baby through a screen. Mothers touch, hold, hug, kiss, caress their little babies, and babies need that. Without that physical contact, infants don’t thrive. Or, for an extreme example, think of the difference between sex and viewing pornography. Adults can pretend to thrive better than infants can, but we don’t thrive either without physical contact with other people.

In a world of digitally connected, tech-savvy loners, what does the local church offer?

One important part of the answer is that churches have to be much more careful about making use of technology. It’s possible for churches to reinforce all the problems of technology by what they do in worship and in their body life. Of course, like everyone, churches benefit from communications technologies. But we need to make sure we use them wisely.

Size can also be a factor. Lonely people can get lost in huge churches. Larger churches know this, and put a lot of emphasis on small group ministry.

The more basic answer is that the basic practices of the church counteract the isolation of modern culture. Worship is the center of it. In worship, Jesus comes to be present by the Spirit to speak to us and to offer himself as food. He is present with his people, and intimately so. As we listen together and eat together, we are formed into a body, each member an essential organ to the body, gifted by the Spirit to contribute to the common good. Outside worship, churches can and do provide all sorts of opportunity for intimate personal connections, opportunities for shared ministry. They incorporate people into a mission larger than themselves, a mission as large as the cosmos.

Thank you Dr. Leithart. Leithart is the author of the excellent new book, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience.