September 24, 2012
It was said of John Henry Newman that he was never less alone than when alone. Newman liked the peace and quiet of isolation: it allowed him to read, to think and to write.
I confess to some sympathy for Newman on this. I do not like the hyperconnectivity of the current world. As an administrator at Westminster, I had a seminary cell phone. I had to upgrade it to a smartphone last year because Verizon indicated they would no longer support the vintage model I then possessed. I remember that, when I went in to exchange it, the man behind the counter looked at the phone, looked at me and then, choking back the laughter, declared "You're that guy!" Shamed into silence, I nodded mutely and mumbled my mandated request for a smartphone.
Now, having stepped down from the administration, I have rid myself of the thing and reverted to a phone that (and yes, this sounds terribly outdated, I know) simply allows me to phone people. You know, like they did in the olden days. Sadly, I am sure that the free market will ensure that it will be 'no longer supported' within a few years. At that point I will have to pay extra every month for a data package to provide data which I have no interest in receiving, but until then, I can resist, Canute-like, the incoming tide of things I really do not need or like but which others have determined that I apparently 'must have.'
There are other advantages to downgrading. If I receive an email, I am one of those compulsive types who has to read it straight away. Result: not just friends, but everyone from work to whackos and every point in between has been able to invade my privacy. Now, with no mobile e-mail facility, I am safe from my own weakness, at least temporarily. Further, while I have rarely ever answered my cell phone anyway (possibly the result of keeping it switched to silent), ditching the seminary's smartphone has allowed me to purge my contacts list. It is amazing how, over time, my number leaked out to all sorts of people, some of whom were simply miscreants that I would really rather avoid. At the time of writing, I now have a grand total of eighteen contacts: strange to tell, most have the same surname as me; and those who do not either serve with me at church as elders or deacons or play some part in paying my salary. In other words, pretty much the sum total of people with whom I actually need to have any regular contact.
Privacy and solitude has just about vanished from our world and the strange thing is that we seem to love that fact. Moronic tweeting about routine daily activities, the constant rattle of texts, planes full of people who can barely wait for the wheels to touchdown before they need to switch on their iPhones: it is surely strange that the idea of being alone with one's thoughts for even a moment has now become something which seems to terrify people or at least be most undesirable. I even see commercials which seem to think the ability to watch movies on cellphones while taking taxi rides is a good thing. Bizarre.
Of course, loneliness can be a terrible thing; but solitude can be incredibly fruitful. It reminds one that one is not necessary to the ultimate well-being of the world; it provides space for careful thought and reflection and often great creativity. Reminding us of our dispensability is important: it has always surprised me that, when I am out of email range for a few days, the world still manages to make it without me; rarely if ever is there anything not directly work related which arrives in my inbox which cannot wait for a few days. Some of our hyperconnected activity is surely connected to our own desire to convince ourselves that we are indispensable. Some of it, in an even more sinister way, is no doubt connected to our desire to be in control.
Solitude also helps prevent our lives becoming a permanent public performance. Constant public performing, from Youtube to blogs to Twitter, is a way of life for many people today. Now, public performing can be fun; it can also be helpful. Every book, every sermon, every lecture, every article, is a public action, a public performance. But so is every banal tweet and idiotic thread comment. I was struck a couple of months back when I wrote a short article on the public behaviour of a former Presbyterian pastor. His sad blog response, as forwarded to me, seemed to boil down to 'Trueman does not know me; how dare he comment!' Well, here is an off-the-wall suggestion: if you do not want complete strangers commenting on your behavior, you might want to try not advertising the events of your life as some kind of self-absorbed and histrionic soap opera in the public forum provided by blogs and tweets. Crazy idea, I guess, but -- who knows? -- it might be worth a shot.
One's Christian character can be measured by many things. I would suggest that one of the least noted is one's ability to be alone with only oneself and God. The hyperconnectivity of the current world seems to mean that it might actually possible to live for very long periods of time and never be alone, always be talking or connecting with someone, always be performing for third parties or passively consuming the performance of others. Pascal would have dismissed all of this as distraction or diversion, designed to prevent us from facing up to ourselves, our mortality and God's final judgment upon our lives.
I suspect Christians can be among the worst offenders. I hope that no Christians were lining up for the latest Apple iPhone many hours before it was released. It is, after all, just a phone - just a phone! - and not a cure for cancer, AIDS, poverty or the lack of clean drinking water in many parts of the world. But I am confident that my hope on that score is a vain one. Many Christians are as deeply embedded in the sad culture of consumerism as anyone. And even those of us who are not, who have phones that look as if they predate VHS recorders, can still con ourselves that all of our activity, all of that sound and fury in our lives, signifies something worthwhile. Yet how often does it signify nothing but the fact that we strut about on the stages we have made for fear not simply of loneliness but even of solitude; for solitude is the place where we have no alternative but to reflect upon the most serious realities of our existence.
If Newman was never less alone than when alone, it was said of British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George that, when he was alone in a room, there was nobody there. I wonder how true that is for many people today? How many are utterly dependent upon earthly distractions and public performances - their own or those of others - to make them feel as if they really exist? How many are ever alone in any meaningful sense whatsoever? Yet all of us will one day die alone and after that have to give an account for ourselves, and for no-one else. Perhaps we might prepare ourselves a little for that here and now.