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The Idol of Freedom Is the Cause of Our Loneliness

lonely woman

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.