The Idol of Freedom Is the Cause of Our Loneliness
I used to hide in the bathroom when my father came home until I knew what mood he was in. If he slammed the door or I heard his voice raised in random irritation, I’d either stay in the bathroom or slink my way along the wall to my bedroom and quietly shut the door, hoping he wouldn’t find some reason to open it.
The trauma of abuse infects the mind of a child still developing her understanding of relationships and stays with her throughout life. Her brain has been rewired around the message that if the person connected to her at the most fundamental level can’t be trusted, who can?
This kind of “unresolved trauma can take a terrible toll on relationships,” writes Bessel van der Kolk in “The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” “If your heart is still broken because you were assaulted by someone you loved, you are likely to be preoccupied with not getting hurt again and fear opening up to someone new. In fact, you may unwittingly try to hurt them before they have a chance to hurt you.”
Until she finds help, the traumatized person will always be that little girl, beaten because she wasn’t worthy, rejected because of her flaws. Vulnerability becomes second nature to her, its seeds of fear rooted deep within, ever growing as a naturally hostile world waters them with its cruelty. Social connections never lock in place; space is always reserved for safety and freedom from harm.
I call it freedom because that’s what it is — and it is a bondage all its own. As C.S. Lewis wrote after his beloved wife died, “One doesn’t realize in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy is to be tied.”
This quote, and lessons either learned or still in the process of learning, came to mind as I read commentaries this week about the relationship between loneliness and suicide. One of the causes cited was the isolating effects of social media and our growing unwillingness to reach out and truly connect with another person. We have become mere phantoms on a screen.
This is certainly true, but I believe there is a deeper cause, a darker origin of our social pain, and C.S. Lewis states it so clearly. The price of freedom is loneliness. This “freedom” is not political liberty or the human right to be free from oppression of any sort. The focus here is experiential freedom, relational freedom, and communal freedom.
While individualism and self-interest are fundamental to our happiness as politically free people, they have a dark side when out of balance. This was a concern of Alexis de Tocqueville when he commented on the development of the American democracy. Individualism had a way of separating the much-needed bonds of society. Left unchecked, families would no longer be close. Friendship would degenerate into relationships of convenience not commitment. Communities would fray. Selfishness and narcissism would drive away empathy and self-sacrifice. Intimate social connections would be lost.
This lack of social connection creates in the human soul social pain. In other words, loneliness. We are a lonely people not because of the Internet but because we have devalued the bonds of human connectedness, choosing to walk our own path, pursue our own self-interest at the cost of others, and keep ourselves hidden out of fear, pride, selfishness, or shame.
The reason I started this post with reference to my childhood abuse is because I recognize the many reasons we seek freedom from others. It’s not always rooted in malignant self-interest, cold materialism, or Hobbesian brutality. Sometimes it is born of circumstances outside of our control, an environment that shapes us to withdraw from social connections while simultaneously desiring them.
The causes of our extreme individualism are manifold, and they have been with us since the beginning of our nation. We have always needed to be on guard against incipient selfishness masquerading as freedom and individuality, employing checks and balances in the maintenance of a healthy civil society with emotionally vibrant people.
These balancing mechanisms have become eroded over time, corresponding, of course, with technological advances. But those advances are not the storms that have beaten down the barriers to a brutish and solitary existence. The storm is a fundamental shift in our value system. We value self over others, gratification over sacrifice, taking over giving, and freedom over interdependence.
John Cacioppo writes in his book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” that loneliness has increased exponentially since the 1980s. Corresponding with this trend is a reduction in the average household size, increase in single parent homes, decline in marriage, and a stark increase in people living alone, particularly those over the age of 65. The number of people living alone is projected to increase, far exceeding any other period in American history.
We’ve changed our environment because we have changed our values. In turn, that environment is changing us, making us more isolated and more lonely — even as we exist among crowds outside our homes or online.
“The contradiction is that we have radically changed our environment, and yet our physiology has remained the same,” Cacioppo writes. “However wealthy and technologically adept our societies have become, beneath the surface we are the same vulnerable creatures who huddled together against the terrors of thunderstorms sixty thousand years ago.”
In the past, families, clans, and tribes created bonds that protected individuals from the social pain of loneliness. Two loving parents provided social connection that led to greater emotional freedom, as children experienced love, not fear. Marriage created intimacy and companionship as two people grew to know and love each other, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The face-to-face community provided meaning, context, history, and connection to something bigger than the individual or family. Larger groups, based on nationality and ethnicity, created another level of connection, guarding the individual from becoming lost in a vast ocean of globalism.
Faith played a fundamental role in creating a moral frame that prevented individuals from isolating themselves from others. Morality, after all, is about social cohesion, showing love and kindness to others, and working together. When morality is rejected and the subjective becomes the standard for truth, the subject is instantly and permanently isolated. He is living on an island of one.
Our nation has increasingly thrown off the objective Judeo-Christian meta-narrative that binds us together with a common faith. Freedom from a relationship with God has plunged us into existential angst and a loss of significance. Freedom from virtue, judgment, law, and regulating moral principles has cast us into a sea of abandonment.
The sexual revolution and its legacy of freedom to have sex with anyone anytime without forming lasting connections has left us empty of love and intimacy. We are awash in sexting, selfies, hookups, cheating, porn, virtual affairs, and someone new every time we feel a hint of loneliness. The fix never lasts for long, and the loneliness returns along with a flood of faceless bodies.
Freedom to act according to our unregulated emotions has led to abuse, not only of others, but also of ourselves. We demand freedom from the defining nature of our Creator, and we identify as anything we feel or imagine, isolating ourselves from others who share physical traits and from ourselves as we seek to change who we are into what we feel.
Freedom to live with reckless abandon has robbed us of openness with others. Regardless of our proud testament to individuality with no bounds, we know this is not how we should live. We know, deep within our nearly seared consciences, that this is not who we are supposed to be. Shame infects us — self-inflicted humiliation that keeps us from looking into the eyes of another because we don’t want them to look back at us. We don’t want them to see us, so we hide, isolating ourselves in a dark cave as we stroke the preciousness of our sin.
We have raised a generation with the proud belief that they are free to be whoever and whatever they want. Their subjective wishes define their reality as the connective bonds of objectivity are severed. The particulars have declared the universals dead, leaving the particulars alone, disconnected, drifting in the world with nothing to bind them to others.
As someone who had social pain and isolation thrust on her at an early age, I have walked the path of loneliness too long. To witness a world choosing that path of its own free will saddens me. When I see others living such lonely lives, I want to tell them, “Stop!” It doesn’t have to be this way. Freedom from others won’t bring you happiness. Only the shackles of love will give you that gift.
We are social creatures, not only to survive in a pack as the evolutionary psychologists tell us, but to love one another. Love is a rational choice, essential to being human. We cannot love in isolation, for there is no one to love except ourselves. When we are alone, there is no one to serve, protect, cherish, and know.
We cannot love when we are always doing what we want regardless of the sacrifices others need us to make. We cannot love when we are hiding away because we’re afraid of being hurt. We cannot love when we use others as stepping-stones to our own altar. We cannot love when we know no one, not even ourselves.
Love for others is the antidote to loneliness. Whether that love is for family, friends, or neighbors, it is the tie that binds. It is the balance of freedom and the answer to the question our minds fearfully whisper during the dark hours of the night, “Am I alone?”