I recently read a post by Suzannah Paul, in which she reflects on her own experience of living in a culture of isolation. She describes the present era as one in which our common experience is intense loneliness, where genuine community seems always out of reach. Of course, most of us have become quite adept at hiding our anguish. Judging by photos on Facebook, one would imagine that almost everyone has dazzling social lives! The illusion that everyone else is doing great only intensifies the alienation we feel. Paul writes:
I suspect that there’s more of us [lonely, isolated folks] than we realize. Digital connection bridges some divides while camouflaging–and widening–others. Is loneliness the ironic, invisible thread connecting so many?”
In my city, we are constantly surrounded by people, and yet the social emptiness can be almost palpable. Most of us self-medicate, in one way or another – typically with a burnout-enducing cycle of overwork and substance abuse. It doesn’t help that many DC residents are transient professionals who expect to be in the region for only a few years. Why bother putting down roots if they’ll all be ripped up the next time you switch jobs?
Suzannah Paul’s description of kids in her youth group sounds pretty familiar:
Getting [them] to come to stuff is harder than it used to be… They keep their options open, never committing; they’re averse to taking social risks.”
In our city, social interactions are often transactional; even our friendships can come to feel like thinly veiled commerce. At the end of the day, what does it matter whether we are trading in money, influence, pleasure, or even the illusion of genuine care and friendship? Business is business. There will be time for real friends after the next move – right?
In a society where so often we are judged by our résumés, productivity, and reputation, unconditional love is unspeakably precious. Our hearts yearn for an experience of the economy of love that real community makes possible. Yet, this kind of love is impossible as long as we stay locked into the race for personal excellence. So long as we are held captive to the fear of missing out – of being left behind – we will never be able to truly meet one another. Real friendship is impossible as long as we relate to others as obstacles to be overcome or resources to be marshaled on the way to success. Could we discover a way life that is less about winning and more about giving?
I believe that answering this question – not just with words, but with lives of love, presence and generosity – lies at the heart of our mission as a community gathered in Jesus. How can we be truly present to those around us? What would it look like to step off of the success treadmill and embrace a life of service to others? How can we become agents of the kingdom where loneliness will be no more?
If we are to live fully into these questions, we will be forced to accept that we can no longer keep our options open. To live in love means to embrace limitation, to be made vulnerable, to take risks. Suzannah Paul writes that everyone long[s] for someone to reach back. Rather than waiting for others to reach out first, what if God is calling us to preemptively engage others with love and presence? What if, instead of looking to have our own loneliness cured, we focused on speaking to that same loneliness in the heart of another?
When we live into this kind of love and presence for others, we can be sure that we will no longer be alone: Christ will be in the midst with us.
Micah Bales is a founding member of Capitol Hill Friends, a new Quaker Christian community, and has been an organizer with Occupy Our Homes DC. A communications and web strategist by trade, he is employed by Friends United Meeting – an international Quaker denominational body. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Lamb’s War or follow him on Twitter.