Living Alone

Chapter 1

The Life Apart

One basic experience that unites all people is an inner aloneness. Even when one has become immersed in the hectic thrust of conviviality, there remains an inner core of foreboding sensitivity that is shrouded by a cloud of diffidence. A dark threat of exposure hangs over our inner life, which is liable to be violated by the unfeeling, uncomprehending gaze of the hostile outer world. When the outer show of social life is disrupted by the inroads of distress and loss, the companions of one's pleasure depart and one is left painfully alone. This is the moment of truth, that one can ultimately rely on no other person, that the seed of one's salvation lies within oneself alone.

In the Genesis story, God, having created man and all the other creatures of the world, says of the man Adam: "It is not good for the man to be alone, I will provide a partner for him." Since no partner adequate for human company is found among any of the creatures, God creates the woman Eve from the man's substance. She is brought to the man who acclaims her as bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. This is why a man leaves father and mother and is united to his wife, and the two become one flesh. In the beginning both were naked and felt no shame towards one another (Gen. 2.18-25). In the account of the Fall in Genesis 3, as soon as the human has elevated his own will and intelligence above that of God and has assumed independence of judgement so as to make moral decisions for himself, he is separated from his wife and indeed from the whole of nature. The eyes of both of them were opened so that they discovered their nakedness. Being ashamed, they made loin-cloths for themselves by stitching fig-leaves together. Thus separation has cleaved the natural unity of life, and a predatory concern for personal well-being has replaced a childlike unconscious trust in the all-encompassing providence of God. From henceforth man proceeds on his journey alone even when surrounded by his peers. He finds himself banished from the primeval heaven where he had lived in heedless bliss, and he has now to tread a hard, solitary path towards the realization of his true nature and destiny. Where once there was peace and full communion with life, there is now rivalry for the earth's resources, hatred and death. The essentially solitary nature of unredeemed humanity has been proclaimed. This is the human condition; it is the life apart from fellowship in God, and it cannot be transcended, let alone abolished, by any scheme of human endeavour or co-operation that does not take into account the divine aspect of human nature. To quote St Augustine's famous words that introduce his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our souls are restless till they rest in you." When the full significance of this profound analysis of the human condition is finally grasped, a completely new dimension to the situation of living alone in the world is shown to us. Instead of being simply a morbid condition to be cured by specious social manipulation - or what is often called "do-gooding" - it becomes an authentic way of life, fraught with difficulties and dangers that have to be faced with courage and resourcefulness, which promises the birth of a new person as its end.

The life apart for any person starts at the day of separation from the mother's womb, when the intimate contact of the enclosing organism is finally disrupted. When the child leaves its home to enter school the separation widens - not only for the child but also for its parents. The close, intimate contact of a caring group - assuming the home situation has been good - is replaced by the fragmentary confrontation of a selection of peers and teachers, who, even if kind and solicitous about the individual's welfare, have their own lives to lead and their own problems to untangle. At the end of the period of schooling the young adult is thrust out into the wider world, leaving childhood impressions rapidly behind him, as he battles his way through the open competition of the society into which he is thrust. To be sure, he may be one of those privileged to share the environment of learning and mutual support and aspiration of a university, but he is as likely to enter the life of a large city confined to a bed-sitter, finally alone and confronting his own identity fully for the first time in his life. This experience of aloneness is one that few adults can escape as they enter their chosen sphere of study and employment. Even those who are accommodated in an institution have eventually to fare for themselves in an essentially impersonal situation of work, living on their own.

But man was not meant to be alone too much, hence the biological urge towards friendship, marriage and the making of a new home. In this way, the dull, insistent, but barely acknowledged thud of inner discontent and foreboding is effectively dulled by the surface diversion of material striving, professional mastery, worldly success and affluence, and the accumulation of possessions, be they people or things, which occupy the attention to the exclusion of all else. The spiritual paradox of this account of what the world would consider a successful life is that it hardly uncovers the heroic depths that lie concealed in even the most unpromising person. It is in fact more an escape from a real encounter with life than the pattern of desirable living. Fortunately for the progress of the soul in each of us - that focus of inner authenticity that makes itself felt in times of dilemma and moral choice - the power above, whom we may call God or the workings of fate, according to our own metaphysical view of reality, does not leave us alone. The smooth course of even the best-ordered life is in time disrupted by unexpected outer events that show how superficial are the assumptions of worldly man, how irrelevant are the plans of the socially well-ordered society in the face of the vicissitudes of real existence. These vicissitudes take the person away from the comfort of group living, single him out and place him in a dry place of his own where, like Job sitting on the ash heap, he can begin, perhaps for the first time in his life, to recollect his past life and contemplate the future alone. The type of event that leads to this enforced life alone depends usually on the departure of someone on whom the person had previously depended. The inescapable tragedy of bereavement is the usual precursor of living alone in later life, but nowadays the increasingly frequent breakdown of the marriage relationship has added its complement to the number of socially isolated people. In these instances women are more often the victims than men inasmuch as it is easier for a man than a woman to establish a new marriage relationship. But this does not imply that men are more fortunate than women in the ultimate experience of life, which means growing into spiritual maturity. As we shall see, it is only in the depths that truth is finally confronted and assimilated; the escape from darkness all too often also betokens an escape from a true encounter with the self, from which all truth is known.

Another circumstance that forces a person to lead an increasingly separate existence is chronic illness. This may be of a physical type, such as progressive arthritis or a neurological disease like multiple sclerosis. The chronically ill become an intolerable burden to their healthy relatives, and when these leave home, the indisposed have to care for themselves for long periods each day. There is also the dark experience of mental illness which all too effectively isolates the sufferer from the warmth of human affection. Many victims of mental illness are forced to live alone; even during a period of remission they may have little to do, and their life becomes increasingly burdensome and meaningless. Among any population of people destined to live alone for an indefinitely long period, a considerable number will be found to be mentally ill or have severe emotional problems. Some will be educationally retarded, so that the normal use of the mind which most of us take for granted will be denied them. It is evident from this very brief analysis of the extent of the situation that the range of people living alone is indeed vast. It extends from the contemplative saint whose life is devoted entirely to the benefit of his fellow men through prayer and service to the mentally and emotionally deprived person whose life balances precariously on the edge of moral collapse, crime and suicide. But even among this latter group of unfortunate people may be formed the nucleus of future sanctification of the human race.

And yet it must be emphasized that, although the experience of living alone is crucial for the development of a authentic personality, by which I mean a personality that can communicate in depth with the world and all its creatures, it is nevertheless equally true that man was not meant to be alone, as we have already seen in the Genesis myth. There is a great difference between living alone and being alone. The first is, as I have already stated, a necessary experience for coming to true maturity. The second is a tragedy which, if unrelieved, will end in death. Indeed it would not be inappropriate to define hell as an atmosphere of complete aloneness where there is an absence of communication with any other being. In such a state the comfort of God is not available; although he is most certainly present everywhere, his presence cannot be appreciated by those unfortunate persons immersed in the negative field of hell. But perhaps even the experience of hell on earth is a necessary precursor for the ultimate knowledge of God.

The privilege of being human is that one can think, reflect, contemplate, and grow in knowledge and attainment, even as Jesus did during the period that preceded his ministry. This growth in stature that is the very basis of human life takes place far more radically in times of adversity than during phases of success. Happiness may be the ideal for the worldly man; for the spiritually accomplished joy alone suffices, for it prevails even in the depths of gloom when all rational solutions are found to be futile. Living alone brings the person rapidly to the heart of the human condition, and from his strivings in the darkness, a new light is encountered. Its nature is meaning in obscurity.

Chapter 2