The Paradox of Loneliness in the Midst of Community

(Thanksgiving, 2013)

From the confines of Tegel prison in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these moving words to his family:

“Three Alone But Together” – Carmen Guedez

It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people’s, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The ‘as though it were a part of me’ is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)

I often think that only a mother could understand these words fully, but then I must remember than Bonhoeffer was never even married, much less experienced the blessing of his own children. Bonhoeffer, who has been described as an ad hoc phenomenologist, had a unique and penetrating way of speaking about the experiences of the Christian life. While many readers of Bonhoeffer pay attention only to The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together or perhaps a devotional work that cobbles together some of his writings, most never delve deeper into any of his other material. Theological students may read his very short book on the Psalms or his treatment of Genesis 1-3, or even try to get through his Ethics. Perhaps they will read some of his sermons which are becoming more widely available. But most will never read his earliest works which set the stage for everything that is to come: his doctoral dissertation, published as Sanctorum Communio and his habilitation, published as Act and Being. In those texts Bonhoeffer laid a theological and philosophical foundation for his work that he would never stray from. Thus when we read his later and more well known works that are the favorites in the church, and for our purposes, the words above, we must recognize Bonhoeffer’s deep sensitivity to the social constitution of human life.

Bonhoeffer’s theology has been called a “theology of sociality.” For he recognized, as is clear above, our inextricable interconnectedness with each other. Bonhoeffer discerned the importance of the “others” who participate in the constellation of our social existence, for theirs is not merely a participation but a creative act in forming our very identity. Without them, we cannot even speak of our own individuality, for it is by them that we are constituted as individuals. It is in the connection, the distinction between us, that is, the relationship, that gives me my identity.

Bonhoeffer’s theology of sociality is indeed a theology for he was not merely speaking about sociological realities. He was thinking about the ultimate ends of humankind. What is true community? Where is it to be found? Bonhoeffer, of course, understood that the church was the truest form of human community. This is because the church is the living body of Christ on earth. For Bonhoeffer, the inextricable link that bonds human beings in the most perfect way is the bond that is created in the church when Christ unites them in the fellowship of his body. To live in the world, for Christians, then, is no longer to see “others” but always to see Christ in others since Christ now lives in them (Gal. 2.20).

Bonhoeffer’s theology of sociality is prescient for our time. Ours is a time of fragmentation and loneliness. Is there anyone who can express their loneliness like Bonhoeffer can in his words above? It seems paradoxically like the loneliness we experience we have sought for ourselves and continue to happily maintain, all the while articulating a story about ourselves that says we’re interested in community. Is this true?

A recent video making its way around the interwebs highlights the challenge of loneliness in our time and offers a few reasons for it that I think are quite apt. Take a look.

The creator of the video cites Sherry Turkle’s work Alone Together as inspirational (see also her TED Talk on the same topic). Turkle writes of the paradoxical nature of how our techological gadgets are fragmenting our basic sociality–the sociality that Bonhoeffer argues is rudimentary and constitutive of our nature as human beings, something God created us for. In some sense, our engagement in these technologies means we’re fighting against who we “really” are. Turkle writes,

The network’s effects on today’s young people are paradoxical…Teenagers turn away from the “real-time” demands of the telephone and disappear into role-playing games they describe as “communities” and worlds.” And yet, even as they are committed to a new life in the ether, many exhibit an unexpected nostalgia. They start to resent the devices that force them into performing their profiles; they long for a world in which personal information is not taken from them automatically, just as the cost of doing  business. Often it is children who tell their parents to put away the cell phone at dinner. (emphasis mine – children after all, learned to use cell phones from their parents) [Alone Together, 169]

Speaking of putting away the cell phone, there’s another video that’s made it’s way across the interwebs. I was made aware of it early this Fall by an NPR story I read (I don’t listen to the radio). The video illustrates this issue well, and it does so from the perspective of adult social experience, as Turkle subtly notes in the quote above.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something like this. It’s not an exaggeration to say the least.

As we begin the present holiday season, we’ll be surrounded by family, friends, and many loved ones. The temptation will be what it always is every other day of the year when we’re surrounded by flesh-and-blood people. Even when I have a real, living person sitting next to me, there is a compulsion to pull out a device and check something–anything. It’s as if the reality that I find there is more compelling that the reality I find next to me. Why is that? And why, in the midst of their presence, does this compulsion dominate my life? Why do I steal from them my presence when in fact they might be needing it? At the holidays especially, Bonhoeffer’s words of interconnectedness ring with so much more clarity and urgency, for people tend to feel the pangs of loneliness with greater sensitivity, rising up from the pain they feel in their soul and in their bones. Loss, grief, hurt, hunger. You might be the one who is there for them, if only you could be there for them.

Or maybe it is more simple. Maybe you or I just need to practice putting the compelling reality down and realize “my identity exists ‘in the other’ because they are a part of me.” So when you go to reach for your device–a kindle, a phone, an iPad–if it isn’t downtime when everyone is not together, think twice. We were actually made for others, not devices. Don’t justify yourself by telling yourself that you’re “connecting” with other others by using your device to send messages on Facebook, Twitter, or text. They can wait. You’ve got flesh and blood right in front of you. In fact, you’re staring into the eyes of Christ. Serve him. Be present “with” others this holiday season. For that is what he came to do for us (Rev. 21.3).

**The irony of all this is that you’re probably reading this on a device (computer, slate, phone) and you’re likely doing it alone. I encourage you to read it with someone else and to share this experience with them. Discuss it and perhaps consider together how to change your device usage habits when you’re with others.

  • roselyn drake

    it seems likely to me that Dietrich Bonhoeffer perceived the connections of society more vividly than others because he had no wife or child when he wrote. Those with families may see the connections in terms of family relationships whereas he observed the pattern.

    • ChadLakies

      Hi Roselyn,

      Thanks for your comments. I think
      Bonhoeffer was quite observant of his particular society and time. He read much of the history and philosophy which led to the production of the society in which he lived, and subsequently, also produced our own. Much more than just the personal relationships he observed–which were clearly important to him (and to me, as this post makes clear)–he noticed cultural phenomena which influenced the way our relationships tend to be structured by forces we don’t tend to notice. We engage in practices that regularize our lives, much like rituals, and this orients our values and gives us a sense of being and compels us toward a certain vision of what it means to live well. We take this way of being for granted. We don’t question it. Bonhoeffer’s considerations and reflections of his own time are so penetrating that they reach into our own time. He raises questions which ought to give us pause for how we conduct our lives. Bonhoeffer is, as Eric Metaxas has related, borrowing from a philosopher/theologian friend of his, a theologian for postmodern times.
      I think this is exactly right. For he speaks clearly into our times, where religious influence is waning in the traditional sense, but is still very much present in new forms. And he called for and sensed a need for it’s renewal, but in a manner that was yet unimagined, but nevertheless in an unquestionable Christ-confessing form.

      For the purposes for my post, Christ establishes the true community of
      humanity. In fact, the church exhibits that community, even if it is “not yet” fully manifest. Bonhoeffer’s contribution to thinking about our sociality is particularly relevant in our age of social fragmentation where so many experience a deep sense of loneliness while having the ability to be more radically “connected” than ever before. Your comments recognize the primal nature of Bonhoeffer’s sense about this, in the fundamental connection he felt to his family while apart
      from them, as well as to colleagues and students in whom he had invested
      himself in significant ways. His own identity was outside of himself, in those “others” with whom he wished desperately to be present. In our time, we forgo “being with” for the sake of quantity of connections. This is a tragedy.

  • ryanbrymer

    First off, Chad, great post!

    Beyond that, I think that the words from Bonhoeffer are quite prophetic not only in his time and today, but for the generation in between.

    What the first video says about our interactions via online social networks could also be said of any social network of the past. Consider the church of the last 50 years (disclosure: I’m a Southern Baptist in Texas, so my experience may be skewed). Just as people “fabricate experiences” and post them on Facebook, look back at how many families masked abuse, infidelity, alcohol and drug use by putting on their coats, ties, bows and bonnets every Sunday morning.

    As the individualism of modernity has reshaped our views of community, so has it affected the church. However, how much more does the Bible speak of God’s “people” rather than God’s “persons”. As Christians we are called to individuality, not individualism. In my opinion, for the church to thrive and be a safe-haven for the community that is rising up around us, it (we) must cast aside the lie of self.

    The New York Times has a great article today about this generations search for meaning. As you read it, many will see that what is described is not something found in our churches. Even where you see “missional”, “service”, and “community-centered” ideas in churches, these efforts are merely an attempt to offer something appealing to a certain demographic – the same way electric guitars and V-neck t-shirts were a decade ago.

    I’m rambling, I’m sure, but I wanted to affirm your point, while placing it into a much bigger context. Here’s that NY Times article: