In darkened rooms all over the world, people sit before lighted screens projecting themselves to friends and unknown others in the hope of making a human connection. But the selves being projected are more artifice than truth. They are scripted selves calculated to make an impression. Aaron Sorkin, who created the screenplay for the movie The Social Network depicting the creation of Facebook, is not charmed by Facebook or the Internet. In an interview he stated that he has serious reservations about the way they have connected people. Sorkin concedes that these digital inventions have brought people together who would never have found one another without them. Some of them have formed meaningful relationships and happy marriages. Nevertheless, he maintains that for a sizeable majority, the cynical illusions of the social media have not brought us closer together but have pushed us further apart. The darkened room and the lit screen of the online world is a very lonely place, and it is definitely not a reflection of the real world.
Loneliness is endemic to the Western world and particularly to the American experience. The rugged individualism bred by the frontier passed into corporate America. The frontier was a lonely place, but its cold solitude was buffered by the warmth of family and community. With the breakdown in contemporary America, loneliness has become a way of life for many people.
Over 50 years ago the sociologist, David Riesman, wrote The Lonely Crowd depicting the alienation seeping into the American way of life. A number of years later the playwright and novelist, Thornton Wilder, delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. One of the lectures was devoted to “the loneliness that accompanies independence and the uneasiness that accompanies freedom.” Wilder confided to friends that raising such difficult subjects made him uncomfortable, but he felt better knowing that all his listeners were American. It meant that “these experiences are not foreign to anyone here.”
The great spiritual leaders of the world’s religions were lonely people. Their grasp of realities far beyond the perceptions of ordinary folk and their willingness to speak out and act on the basis of their visions did not make them ideal guests for dinner conversations. Moses, as the Torah describes him, was a lonely man and so were the Hebrew prophets. Two books attest to the loneliness of two recently departed Jewish American religious leaders. The first written many years ago by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the spiritual head of modern Orthodox American Jewry, is entitled The Lonely Man of Faith. A recent tribute to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe and head of the world wide Habad Hasidic movement, describes his loneliness. In his book, My Rebbe, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz points out that Rabbi Schneerson was in touch, throughout his life, with thousands of people in public gatherings and in one-on-one meetings. Though all who encountered him felt his warmth, empathy and genuine interest in others, it went “only in one direction: from him to them-but never in the other direction, from others to his inner self.”
It is not only great religious leaders who experience the loneliness of the spiritual path. Dr. Marsha Sinetar, a psychologist, has interviewed contemporaries who have made radical changes in lifestyle as the result of mystical awakenings. In her book,Ordinary People As Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Self-Discovery, she records an interview with a woman who told her: “I was bereft, having started on a path I knew nothing about, having left all my old friends and key members of my family.” But then she went on to say: “Feeling totally alone, I could remember flashes of experience where I’d felt myself one with the Absolute, experiences which had encouraged me in a way no social or material accomplishment had…”
This interview points up the difference between the loneliness of most people and those on a spiritual path. The conventional, materialistic, flatland perspective of many in our time understands connection as only horizontal. It is connection with other people. But when, for a variety of reasons, that connection breaks down, they are left with the poor substitutes: the darkened room and the lighted Internet screen. For spiritual seekers there is also a vertical connection-with God.
The Jewish American financier, Bernard Baruch, had an elderly mother who lived on New York’s lower East Side. He always visited her before the High Holidays. One year, involved in complex Wall Street negotiations, he was unable to visit her between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He called her on the telephone and asked her: “Mother are you all right? Are you alone?” She replied: “My son, I am all right, and I am never alone. God is with me!”