February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
February 9, 2011
“The Social Network” was one of the big winners at the Golden Globes on Sunday, picking up Best Picture, Best Director (for David Fincher, best known for his notably darker films “Se7en” and “Fight Club”) and even Best Score for the moody electronic soundscape conjured up by Trent Reznor (aka Nine Inch Nails). It is a powerful film, about much more than the back-room dealings that gave rise to the monolithic Facebook phenomenon; in this postmodern fable, technology is a sophisticated way to conceal a deep, abiding loneliness. We are drawn into the tragic story of a young man who has 500 million “friends” and yet has betrayed or alienated all those who were once closest to him.
The story is a simple one, but it has resonances in Western art and literature. King Midas can turn everything he touches into gold, but because of this “gift” he can no longer even hold his daughter in his arms. (More recently, there is the commercial where everything a man touches turns into Skittles, with similarly tragic but delicious results.) The paintings of Edward Hopper often deal with loneliness and isolation, depicting a solitary man or woman alone in an urban environment (a sparsely decorated apartment, nondescript downtown office, late-night diner, etc.). His “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963) even dispenses with the human presence, leaving the viewer to contemplate an empty space. Even in a modern city where millions of people live, work and play, many of us feel profoundly disconnected, isolated, alienated from not only the “conditions of production” but from each other.
Loneliness is a basic human emotion, but it is particularly common in a contemporary age full of technologically mediated “social networks” that quantify the number of friends a person has rather than bringing individuals together into a shared physical space. (Pressing the “like” button is not the same as embodied, person-to-person interaction.) Making and keeping good friends in the transitory social arrangements of postmodernity is perhaps just as difficult as finding a potential spouse or soulmate. This is why, now that the technology is available to do so, both of these processes are often initiated and developed online; the changing ways our society is structured make it hard to meet and relate to people in such a way as to cultivate spiritually nourishing, long-term friendships. When it comes to the omnipresent Facebook, technology is thus a double-edged sword. It can help connect people, even across great distances, and for this we should be thankful; however, over time, mediated interaction is a poor substitute for “life together,” and can make the loneliness we all feel even more acute.
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen drew on the spirituality of the Desert Fathers as he struggled through the depths of his own loneliness.
“The spiritual task is not to escape your loneliness, not to let yourself drown in it, but to find its source.” (36)
When we find the “source” of our emptiness, we can open it up to redemption. Our desire for communion with other people – our deep-seated longing for friendship, to be loved and understood – is ultimately oriented towards God. This does not invalidate our loneliness – even Christ felt “forsaken” – but reminds us that God meets us at our place of deepest brokenness.
“The pain of your loneliness may be rooted in your deepest vocation. You might find that your loneliness is linked to your call to live completely for God. Thus your loneliness may be revealed to you as the other side of your unique gift.” (36-37)
Some of the Desert Fathers went to extremes in their pursuit of a holy loneliness. Simeon Stylites lived on top of a pillar. Other hermits such as St. Antony isolated themselves in caves, far away from the temptations and trappings of society. It is difficult to imagine the extent of the loneliness of these men (and women) who lived their lives in such a wilderness. But yet their openness to the presence of God helped sustain them even in the absence of friends. In an urban or virtual wilderness, we too can find our “deepest vocation” revealed to us in our experience of loneliness; instead of despair, we are offered a love that will transform us and our relationships at the most intimate level.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love (New York: Doubleday, 1998).
Brett David Potter