I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.
The street outside is quiet, dark, abandoned. The only light in the city is here with the nighthawks at the diner. A sad trumpet sings his weary tune in the distance. Through the window are four strangers, one of a few awake in the whole town, quietly gazing into unseen vanishing points. A man and a woman sit next to one another estranged, an invisible wall between them. He hasn’t even the wherewithal to light his cigarette or refresh his coffee. These unsettled insomniacs want nothing but to be somewhere and nowhere all at once.
Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is a hauntingly realistic scene of the human predicament, our need to be uncovered, and our fear of being uncovered. Many of Hopper’s works are like this—tapping into the isolation of modern life, the outside world viewing enclosed people and enclosed people staring out into the endless world, unable to move or partake in its discoveries. There are often no exit doors in these depictions. Only those lifeless walls and impermeable windows.
A Short History of Loneliness
We have been fed a lie about the modern world. We were told that through increased technological connectivity we would achieve greater intimacy. We can travel the globe and meet new people in five minutes’ time. But if this is true, why do we look a lot more like Hopper’s nighthawks than social butterflies? Why do we gather together only to disappear into our own little handheld worlds? It is a problem as existential as it is social. There’s a little unsettled insomniac in all of us, really.
Loneliness is something of a recent phenomenon, apparently. The concept entered our vocabulary in the sixteenth century. In a foreboding tone, it referenced the feeling of someone who left the safety and community of civilization to return to the unpredictable wilderness. One seventeenth-century glossary said that loneliness was synonymous with the melancholic placement of one who was “far from neighbours.”
English professor Amelia Worsley points to John Milton’s “Satan” from Paradise Lost as a prime literary example of this sort of emerging loneliness. When Milton describes Satan’s “lonely steps,” he is not speaking of emotions. Rather, Milton is describing Satan’s “crossing into the ultimate wilderness, a space between hell and Eden where no angel has previously ventured.” Byzantine hymnology paints a similar picture of humankind, imagining Adam as our representative, outside of paradise but peering inside, weeping and overcome by loss. Hear the words of Theophanes the Branded:
Adam sat right against the eastern gate,
By many a storm of sad remembrance tossed:
“O me! so ruined by the serpent’s hate!
O me! so glorious once, and now so lost!
So mad that bitter lot to choose!
Beguiled of all I had to lose!
Must I then, gladness of my eyes, —
Must I then leave thee, Paradise,
And as an exile go?
And must I never cease to grieve
How once my God, at cool of eve,
Came down to walk below?
O Merciful! on thee I call:
O Pitiful! forgive my fall!”
We feel adrift in eternity—in another word: lonely. This is what happens when we fail to do one thing—let God be God. All devastation flows from this rejection of who we are and who He is.
The definition of loneliness changed as more and more people became connected in towns and cities through trade, social gatherings, and community solidarity. It was once easy to fix loneliness, for one need only a change in scenery from wilderness to civilization. The problem is not so easy today, if it ever were. We recognize, writes Worsley, that “the wilderness is now inside of us.”
An Epidemic of Loneliness
Human beings today live in that felt wilderness between hell and Eden, and it is only getting worse. Indeed, our age has been marked by what has been rightly termed an “epidemic of loneliness.” Loneliness has been linked to chronic illness and early death. It is an epidemic that affects not only the elderly and infirm, those we know have been socially marginalized, but also the young, those we assumed were more happily connected than any generation that has ever existed.
This problem of loneliness has grown at an alarming rate in just the last few decades. A study in 2004 found that one in four Americans reported having no close confidants, which was a threefold increase from a similar study in 1985. More recently, one in five millennials reported having no friends outside of their partners and families. A survey reported in 2020 that 71% of millennials and 79% of Gen Z reported feeling lonely. This is above the already-high national average of 61% of adults. Considering that about 330 million people live in the United States, that number is staggering.
This epidemic of loneliness is to be expected among other technologically-advanced countries as well, meaning that the total number of people struggling with life-threatening loneliness is truly unfathomable.
Many point to cyberspace as the convenient scapegoat, and they may have a point. Worsley explains that modern loneliness is feeling apart from others emotionally rather than physically. The internet has made this not only possible, but probable. The Conversation’s Nick Lehr writes,
Like the vast, untouched forests of the New World, the wilderness of the web can be imposing, unsparing and lawless. While there might not be literal monsters, trolls pounce, hackers lurk, governments spy and corporations glean data from your messages, searches, and purchases.
This conjures up one major cause of loneliness: the fear of vulnerability. The web is lawless in some ways but austere in others. Most communities have protocols for the reintroduction of a lapsed member, but not the internet. Social media can be merciless and unforgiving, a true representation of eternal conscious torment. The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig tweeted out in March 2021 that “as a society we have absolutely no coherent story—none whatsoever—about how a person who’s done wrong can atone, make amends, and retain some continuity between their life/identity before and after the mistake.” Interestingly, commentators see what is missing: any notion of grace. Vox’s Aja Romano writes,
Most moral and spiritual authorities teach us that the cycle of repentance usually involves grace. Grace, the act of allowing people room to be human and make mistakes while still loving them and valuing them, might be the holiest, most precious concept of all in this conversation about right and wrong, penance and reform—but it’s the one that almost never gets discussed.
Our Longings Betray Us
The modern world can be an indecipherable, crippling matrix of inconsistencies and contradictions. And we are now reaping the world we’ve sown in all its human desires and insecurities. What is pornography to the lonely but the desire for an elusive intimacy that does not judge, is not conditional, and is always there for you at the end of the day? What is gambling but the addiction of hope, the ability to turn the impossibly bleak around, to find redemption? What is greed but the desire for extreme security and a lack of want? What is pride but the desire to be seen and heard and affirmed in one’s worthiness? We seek to be seen yet not known, accepted without judgment, perfect yet imperfect. What are we to do? While some may tell us that the world has grown in love, our pathologies present something different. We are the graceless seeking grace.
Our desires betray us. When we uproot them we see, at bottom, a desire for Him—for His intimacy, for His hope, for His redemption, for His security, for His love. This may seem simplistic, but that doesn’t make it untrue. All that we desire in this world is easily exhausted. While our desires are timeless and limitless, everything we acquire to meet those desires is temporal and finite. We long for the eternal and infinite, a grace that does not fatigue and a love that does not leave. Indeed, as Alexander Schmemann writes, after the original Fall from grace, human beings’
dependence on the world becomes a closed circuit, and his love is deviated from its true direction. He still loves, he is still hungry. He knows he is dependent on that which is beyond him. But his love and his dependence refer only to the world in itself. He does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive life from God in more than its physical sense. He forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God’s sake, in God, and as bearers of the divine gift of life. By themselves they can produce only the appearance of life.
We can extrapolate this to our inner wilderness as well. That which we long for, at its root, is that which we were made for, but we mistake the distorted fun house mirror image for the thing in itself. We long to be loved and return that love to the giver. Yes, we are homo sapiens and homo faber, “but first of all,” writes Schmemann, “‘homo adorans.’” In other words, we are the “wise man” and “man the maker,” but we are firstly and finally “man the worshipper.” For what is worship other than giving back the love we have received, presenting God with the sacrifice of our hearts that He gave us to give to Him?
Communion with God
It is because of our abject loneliness and the suffering that follows from our temporary fixes that God is said to be jealous for us, for our own good, jealous for our broken hearts. It is why the late Brennan Manning wrote of God’s furious longing for us, the “enormous vitality and strength of the God of Jesus seeking union with us,” a love that, in its furiousness, “is never, never, never based on our performance, never conditioned by our moods—of elation or depression. The furious love of God knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable. And always tender.” God does not bribe us with His love as so many others do. His love is not a bribe, but our ransom. He has rescued us and will never abandon us. Indeed, love’s unbreakable eternality opens us up for real intimacy and vulnerability, the cure to our loneliness. Manning explains,
If we continue to picture God as a small-minded bookkeeper, a [nitpicking] customs officer rifling through our moral suitcase, as a policeman with a club who is going to bat us over the head every time we stumble and fall, or as a whimsical, capricious, and cantankerous thief who delights in raining on our parade and stealing our joy, we flatly deny what John writes in his first letter (4:16)—‘God is love.’ In human beings, love is a quality, a high-prized virtue; in God, love is His identity.
This is not to say that there are no requirements placed upon us. What Manning is saying, though, is that our imperfections do not disqualify us from fellowship with God as they might from other relationships. God does not run. He is big enough for our stumblings and has the stomach to treat our skinned-up knees.
Paul tells us in Acts 17:27 that God has prepared us to meet Him, that He extends an invitation to us so that we “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any of us” (Acts 17:27). This is true omnipresence, not that God is everywhere located, but that He is everywhere approaching in relational presence. But most importantly, in this new communion, it is God who comes to live in us, turning our inner wilderness to inner temple. Blessed are the lonely in spirit, for they shall be inhabited by God! It is here that we find the inexhaustible grace and unrelenting love of God. “Never will I leave you,” He says. “Never will I forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). And it is this that strengthens us to walk out into the wild world once again.
 Amelia Worsley, “A history of loneliness,” The Conversation, March 19, 2018, https://theconversation.com/a-history-of-loneliness-91542.
 Theophanes, “Adam’s Complaint,” in Bernhard Pick (ed.), Hymns and Poetry of the Eastern Church (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1908), 146.
 See Laura Entis, “Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic,” Fortune, June 22, 2016, https://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic/. Cited in Worsley.
 Sian Leah Beilock, “Why Young Americans Are Lonely,” Scientific American, July 27, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-young-americans-are-lonely/.
 Nick Lehr, “The rise of modern loneliness: 4 essential reads,” The Conversation, December 21, 2018, https://theconversation.com/the-rise-of-modern-loneliness-4-essential-reads-109118.
 Elizabeth Bruenig, Twitter post, March 16, 2021, 1:58 PM, https://archive.ph/tXbu4. Quoted in Aja Romano, “Everyone wants forgiveness, but no one is being forgiven,” Vox, March 22, 2022, https://www.vox.com/22969804/forgiveness-gibson-logan-paul-jk-rowling.
 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Classics Series, Vol. 1(Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018), 24.
 Ibid., 22.
 Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009), 35.
 Ibid., 77.