All Alone, All Together

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I tend to spend a lot of time in coffee shops. It’s probably for the obvious reasons: I like coffee and I enjoy talking with people. The whir of the grinder and the hissing of the milk steamer stimulates my creativity. But I’ve noticed a significant change happening in most coffee shops in our city. No longer do they seem to be places filled primarily with people chatting across small tables with warm mugs in hand. Now it’s more common to find most of tables filled with people working alone at laptops with earbuds blocking out the sounds of the coffee shop beats. I’m certainly not judging this (I’m currently typing on my laptop from Ultimo), but I’ve noticed that more often people show up in spots to be alone, with other people. It’s like we are all alone, all together.

It seems like there’s a difference between being near people and being with people. We can be in proximity with others without having any relational intimacy with anyone. While this is possible, it’s not ultimately what’s best for us. Being in proximity may give us a sense of being in relationship, but we were made for the real thing -- we are wired for relational intimacy. We are designed to be known and to know others. In short, we were designed for community.

Of course working in a coffee shop alone doesn’t equal a lack of relational intimacy. That would be a leap! My observation is simply to point out how it is increasingly more common to be around people all day long and still feel like we are alone.

While I am pointing out obvious things, let’s briefly look at social media. How common is it for us to “communicate” with others through posts on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, or Twitter and think of that as a relationship. Sure, it is by definition a relationship of sorts but can these digital communications satisfy the longing of our souls?

Our current social media reality reminds me of a quote from CS Lewis in his book The Weight of Glory:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Lewis paints a picture that I’d like to embellish. Social media and the desires that drive our use of it aren’t necessarily wrong or even bad, but they may not be strong enough. God created us not to settle for digital relationships alone (mud pies) when he is offering the fullness of relational intimacy found in being known in community (a holiday at sea).

Pioneering psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann defined loneliness as the want of intimacy. And I would say again, we are wired for relational intimacy. So, when we aren’t experiencing relationally intimacy (that which we are designed for), we experience some form of loneliness. And loneliness can be a very severe situation. Consider that “…long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”

We are designed for relational intimacy, yet many of us don’t pursue it. Why might that be? I realize the answers to this can be wide ranging (and some causes more serious than others), but I will share some of my experience in the hope it helps.

For me, the fear of being hurt or rejected has often kept me from risking being known by others. I know times in my life where I prefered the pain of loneliness over the fear of being rejected. I’ve been paralyzed by this fear. Perhaps you can relate?

What may even be worse for me is that there have been times when I have risked to be in relationships with others only to be terribly hurt. These situations would cause me to retreat back in fear while my inner-dialogue would repeat over and over, “You see, you’re not worth loving. You can’t trust others.” So, I settled with being all alone, all together.

I’ve since come to find there is a significant piece missing from the conversation of overcoming loneliness and finding relational intimacy in community. There is a way to move from all alone, all together into all together. That way is Jesus.

Because Jesus went to the cross alone to free me from being separated from God, by faith, I am welcomed into intimate relationships of love and acceptance with the Father. In Jesus, consider that the worst about me is known and forgiven. I’m free to quit wearing a mask, seeking to fit it or impress others so they will be in relationship with me. All I need is provided in Jesus. And now, I am free to risk being known and loved by others.

Jesus shatters the reality of loneliness so that in faith, we can risk moving into relational intimacy with others. Sure this won’t be perfect. We are human. We will fail and hurt each other, but when our ultimate source of identity is found in the love of God and not in the acceptance or love of others, we are free to be broken and intimate. All together.