The Deep Loneliness of Humanity

Posted on: March 13, 2020, by :

I have never actually watched Married At First Sight so I may not be qualified to comment, but I have seen the ads and I’ve read a few Facebook posts so I have some idea of the premise of the program. What really fascinates me is the popularity of this bizarre (my evaluation) reality TV show. I wonder whether the fact that so many tune in to watch the show might be an indicator of some deep longing for relationship or intimacy or companionship within western culture. Research tells us that loneliness has reached epidemic proportions within our society and perhaps this is behind the burgeoning popularity of relationship-based reality shows. It is strange but true that people can live, work and play in high-density urban centres and still feel lonely. Even high-profile AFL footballers, people who spend their lives immersed in a team context, have spoken of feeling lonely and isolated. Mental health has become a primary focus for young people, for elite sportspeople, for teachers, for politicians, for minority groups, … … for everyone.

I recently read an article by Tricia Gates Brown in The Christian Century with the rather long title of Our Problem Isn’t Just Loneliness, It’s Species Loneliness and it was one of those ah-ah moments for me. Drawing on the work of novelist Richard Powers, Brown posited that human beings have cut ourselves off from the nonhuman species inhabiting our world. In our desire for dominance and selfgratification we have put ourselves in solitary confinement, and in the worst cases become the tormenter of all things nonhuman. We have deprived ourselves of love relationships with nonhumans.This ‘species loneliness’, says Brown, is making us sick. We were never meant to operate as an autonomous and independent species. We desperately need the full cooperation of other species to survive, from large mammals that maintain a crucial balance within ecosystems to microbial communities in our own guts. As a result of our non-cooperation, interspecies disconnection is breaking down the systems humans depend on. This disconnection is deeper than the interdependence of biological systems; it is also theological. That’s why, to my ears, the word loneliness gets at the issue with such scalpel-precision. Loneliness has been defined as being “destitute of sympathetic companionship.” It is a sickness of the heart and soul, the parts of ourselves we cannot see yet know to be our very essence.

It is a powerful and thought-provoking concept. I certainly know from my own experience how a day spent immersed in nature can be restorative, or how a walk with the dog can refresh my weary spirit, or how a moment spent contemplating a dragonfly can nurture my soul. I wonder how much more effective this connection with non-human species might be if I were really intentional about it, genuinely attended to the relationship by looking into the eyes of the bird as it watches me go by, or felt the pavement under the feet of the slater as it scurries out of my way, or took notice of the grass as it bends beneath my feet. Maybe, just maybe, the antidote to the loneliness of our lifestyle is closer and simpler than we thought.

A final word from Tricia Brown who closes her article with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas:

“Split a piece of wood; I’m there,” says Jesus in the gospel of Thomas. “Lift up the stone, and you’ll find me there.” God as immanent companion encountered in nature—under a stone or in the eyes of a hummingbird or a dog—is wonderfully good news for people sick with loneliness. Love is abundant and waiting for us, right there in nature.

David Brooker.

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