The Problem of Living in Isolation

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Humans are created to exist in community, not in solitude...


Have you ever wished you could get away from it all?

Perhaps it has been one of those noisy, difficult days when everything has consumed more energy than it ought, when people have been uncooperative and dilemmas resistant to resolution.  Where would your getaway place be? Some would name the beach or the mountains, others an art gallery or quiet restaurant. Yours?

Matley0/FlickrThough the urge to be alone is strong from time to time, research has shown we are not designed to live in isolation. Sensory deprivation studies invite subjects to float in a warm, dark tank of water. Every effort is taken to shut out smells, sounds, and taste.  Lots of people who volunteer to float in the dark find they begin to hallucinate in a relatively short time. They report sounds that aren’t there, visions artfully crafted by the brain, the scent of a favorite food or flower. Why? Humans are created to exist in community, not in solitude, and the mind creates sensation to fill the void when none is present.

In his best known Meditation, John Donne, the British poet, theologian, and Dean of St. Paul’s wrote,

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Donne did not lead an easy life. He saw the horrors of 16th century warfare as a soldier, watched friends die of bubonic plague, and knew the base politics of the English Court under James I (he of the KJV).  Those words from Meditation XVII are not from a man who lived a life of privilege, but from a soul well versed in the glory, tragedy, and chaos of human history. Seen in that context, his affirmation that we are meant to live in community is all the more compelling. It is the breakdown of community that leads us astray, creating the myth that we are able to live well in splendid isolation. We aren’t.

Knowing that about ourselves is liberating because it enables us to get on with the work of building and nurturing healthy communities. When the place we live lacks adequate resources for medical care, for conflict resolution, for the care of children, for welcoming the stranger . . . everyone in that place is the worse for that absence, and Donne’s bell can be heard tolling in the distance. How might local congregations so model the spirit of blessed community that, by their mere presence, they become the leaven for the transformation of society at large?

Ed Moore
Executive Director
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

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