Loneliness: spectre of human life

By  Manfred Von Vulte, Catholic Register Special
  • February 1, 2009
{mosimage}Frederick Olmstead’s design of the 19th century’s Central Park in New York during the Industrial Age was meant to act as a place to breathe and relax amidst the pollution of an emerging manufacturing colossus. The park was a respite for the weary factory worker who could not afford the more pleasant surroundings of upstate New York. No doubt, the park was also a place to socialize and be with family.

Sociologists of the time suggested that the sudden rush to dense urban living was contrary to social evolution and the maturation of the human condition; while the body would accept the changes, the human soul would be hard pressed to acclimatize. This seems a paradox; more togetherness creates a cloak of invisibility around persons whom, to coin a new saying, were not in our calling circle. The paradox employs anonymity, the cold rapidity of technology and the theft of time’s true meaning.

Selfishness coupled with instant gratification and celebrity has deceived us all. We wield the anonymous climate of the city for both good and evil ends, while accountability and originality are discarded as useless.  It is this anonymous nature of the city that excuses direct involvement in the plight of the poor, oppressed and the victimized; “someone will take care of them.” More sinister to the undistinguished character of the city is its nameless reference for truth, “they said those people were like that.” Anonymity excludes and marginalizes people who turn inward and have loneliness embrace them.

Journalist Freeman Tilden wrote, “We have always known in our inner most recesses that our dependence on beauty has given us the courage to face the problems of life. We have let ourselves forget that.” Tilden’s beauty is that of the human being and our spark of divinity, which will be glimpsed on occasion while its potential is envisioned by philosophers, dreamers and poets. The cold rapid delivery of technology has taken from us the delight and the horror of the human experience and replaced it with a commonplace existence of mediocre emotional response. Imagine a newscast where the presenter was not so disengaged from the material being covered and reacted with emotion to each segment. Could this be why we are so jolted when an interview shows men and women weeping openly on the six o’clock news? The magnitude of death and our sympathies toward it have been made numb by the sheer volume of violent acts and the anonymity of persons outside our daily routines. Technology’s use of disposable language for media sound bites is equally culpable. “At risk youth” living in “at risk neighbourhoods,” possibly becoming “at risk offenders” make it a “risky” proposition for others willing to ask the question, “How can I help?” Paranoia is the other side of the coin of loneliness.

There is no difference in the amount of time that you may have compared to that of your neighbour. It’s 24 hours for everyone. The critical question remains: How will you spend it? Most of it is already devoted to career and supporting one’s family; both laudable activities, but what about the pursuit of happiness? Has it been confused with indifferent acquisition and consumer competition? Having taught children from all economic strata, I know that all they want is their parents’ time. I knew a teacher who would repeatedly recall the phrase “Time is of the essence.” This came across, to a then elementary school student, as “hurry up!” In fact, it resonates differently in adulthood as time is precious and one should not treat is as fleeting.

There is a particular depression of spirit when it is realized that every moment of the day is already spoken for before its commencement or the opposite, that there is plenty of time with no meaningful fulfilment existing in its endless chasm. 

Christ calls us to see Him in all of humanity. The artificial constructs of time, perception, language, value and landscape are transcended by the consciousness of the spirit. What happens in God’s time does often not match what we want in our time. We too can also peer through this existential window with Christ, if we open our minds to a sort of spiritual deconstruction of the urban landscape which has been pulled over our eyes like a veil.

The Christian should look beyond perception, question what has been deemed acceptable and challenge these notions of social construction as Christ did. They will discover that loneliness and its accompanying ghosts are mere transparent spectres clouding the judgment of the urban dweller. 

(Manfred J. von Vulte is director of development at Northmount School in Toronto and a freelance writer.)

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