Everyone knows what it’s like to feel lonely. And modern life is making us lonelier, according to all reports; spending more time online and less face-to-face leads to social isolation. Some studies even warn that because social pain is as real to our bodies as physical pain, loneliness is the next biggest public health issue.
I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone
enough to make every moment holy.
Rainer Maria Rilke,
Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
Martin Pistorius was trapped inside his own body for twelve years. After a sudden illness as a child, he had degenerated into a mute quadriplegic by age 14 – oblivious to everything around him. But then, after two years of darkness, his mind “came up for air.” Mentally aware but unable to speak or move, neither health care workers nor his family realized he had regained consciousness for an agonizing 10 years.
“To other people, I resembled a potted plant: something to be given water and left in a corner. Everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn’t notice when I began to be present again” (17). His years of being invisible are laid bare in the memoir Ghost Boy. It’s not an easy book to read, but its very existence hints at a triumphant ending.
Martin Pistorius wrote Ghost Boy himself.
Few of us have experienced isolation to the same degree as Pistorius, but everyone knows what it’s like to feel lonely. And modern life is making us lonelier, according to all reports; spending more time online and less face-to-face leads to social isolation. Some studies even warn that because social pain is as real to our bodies as physical pain, loneliness is the next biggest public health issue.
Yet Pistorius – as cut off from other people as it’s possible to be – was not alone. “The only person who knew there was a boy within the useless shell was God, and I had no idea why I felt his presence so strongly.” The Pistorius family was not religious but God was as present to Martin “as air, as constant as breathing.”
Alone enough to make every moment holy. Is this what the German poet Rilke imagined?
Batten the hatches
I was reading two books (Ghost Boy and a murder mystery called Bury Your Dead) as all the columns for this issue trickled in, shaded darker than normal by bleak world news. Lloyd Rang’s column (on the previous page) is particularly hard-hitting. He condemns Christians who display cowardice and hatred toward refugees rather than the hospitality Matthew 25 requires of us. Where does that fear of the other come from? Could it be connected to loneliness? Theologian Henri Nouwen believed that caring for others happens best en masse. Groups and organizations help us respond to the problems that we see; community promotes compassion.
I am too alone in the world.
Fear is what drives the desire to circle the wagons, to protect ourselves. Two ugly motivations for murder, as Canadian author Louise Penny shows, are “the fear of losing what we have and the fear of not getting what we want” (Bury Your Dead, 120). Ouch.
Without warning, Martin Pistorius lost everything – mobility, speech, childhood – and his parents lost a healthy son. In his virtual coma he heard his grieving mother say, “I hope you die.” Martin spent his days in a care facility for the profoundly disabled and his nights at home.
In 2001, a therapist noticed that Martin was alert, communicating through twitches and small eye movements. She suggested a cognitive evaluation, and when Martin passed it, his joyful parents bought a computer with communication software. Within two years he had taught himself to read, write and fix computer programs. He got a job and applied to university. Health care professionals invited him to speak at conferences.
In the poem quoted above, Rilke hints at the difference between loneliness and solitude. His “too alone” connotes loneliness. In the first line, the narrator sounds abandoned. In the second, he realizes that God draws near in solitude.
You know that feeling you get in the summer, when you look up at the stars? As the earth beneath grows cold and night thins out, you shrink. The universe is so vast; how could anything down here matter? We are alone: literally “unaccompanied.” A Hebrew idiom used in Genesis for “alone” means “stick”: branches without a tree. Rootless.
But – thank God – Christ’s arrival changes that. In the bleak mid-winter – a celebration! From the stump of Jesse, a new shoot has come. God came down in human form to comfort us, to be God-with-us. To bring us closer to him.
King David writes in Scripture as a politically displaced person. In the Old Testament, he describes himself as lonely many times, but it’s worth noting that “lonely” is not used in the New Testament in relation to people. Because of Jesus, we are not forsaken. Once beloved, we can reach out.
Martin’s father never gave up on him. He woke at 5 a.m. every day for years to dress Martin and bring him to the care facility. He also fed, bathed him and woke every two hours through the night, turning Martin to prevent bed sores. With each gentle act, “Loneliness went snarling back to her solitary cave because when my father showed that he was thinking about me, we defeated Loneliness together” (82).