Page 4 of 9
3-LONELINESS: THE POVERTY OF SELF
Empathy is a pathway into others. Empathy is connection with others. Without connection with others, empathy is impossible. And yet an editor for Vanity Fair magazine says that the 1990s are a time of "no connection" [Ingrid Sischy] A fashion critic wrote recently that "disconnection [is] the latest spirit of the times. ... Why is it," she wondered, "that the more consumers have in common [such as 15 or so designer labels], the more isolated they feel and the more disconnected they feel from the culture and one another?" [Amy M. Spindler] She illustrates the disconnection with the "mannequin-like quality" of fashion icons who "can never get beyond the esthetics of their lives," the Calvin Klein models with "glazed gazes," and the "designer customers who cluster under the safety of a label." There’s a "ghostliness ... a homelessness," a deep sense of absence. That’s how a Yale literary critic describes it. He says "The feeling is that of being an outsider to life. Not just to social life or a particular group that I aspire to join ... but to participation (perhaps always mystical) in life itself." [Geoffrey H. Hartman]
There’s a loneliness that’s pervasive in our society. And that’s not just because more of us live alone than ever before. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being alone can be fine; being lonely can be fatal. Being alone means nobody else happens to be here right now. Being lonely means someone is missing. Says Sister Wendy. "Loneliness is needy. It wants. Solitude is fulfillment. It has." Aloneness is me. Loneliness is me -- me -- me. In May Sarton’s wise words: "Loneliness is the poverty of self." The self Sarton has in mind is our currently fashionable notion of self. The would-be autonomous, individual self, independent of others, independent of God. This wannabe self is hardly the biblical communal self that is dependent on God.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a culture of the independent self is a culture of loneliness -- even when the self is writ a bit larger as my own little group identity. Says a Princeton Seminary professor: "The increased trust in the self along with doubt about God suggests that each of us is alone in the universe." [Ellen T. Charry] She observes that "the ruthlessly secular ideology of late modernity, now pressed to a further extreme by ‘postmodernity, insists that there are no sources of nurture and guidance that transcend the self." Indeed, the self itself is now its own self-styled "transcendence." Even that chic fashion editor notes that "there’s a feeling of disconnection from all the old things people were born feeling they were supposed to feel connected to, like the church, God, institutions, school, parental figures."
Well, what but isolation gets reinforced by scurrying around for self-centered self-expression, self-indulgence, self-gratification? An entrenched and isolating "Me!. Me! Me!" can yield only an estranged and isolating me -- me -- me.
Yet "Me! Me! Me!" and Me, Myself, and Mine really is much of what our culture’s all about these days. The unquestioned but impoverished assumption is that "I am my own!" L. L. Cool J, the top rap artist and a number-one role model to his fans, calls his autobiography I Make My Own Rules. That’s just what his fans want to do and think they have a right to do.
According to one of the world’s leading social scientists: "In the mid-19th century, England and America reacted to the consequences of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and affluence by asserting an ethos of self-control, whereas in the late 20th century, they reacted to many of the same forces by asserting an ethos of self-expression." [James Q. Wilson] The psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac cautions that "in our culture, ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-fulfillment’ are in the ascendant." [Peter D. Kramer] At the same time, Charry notes that we’re "a society that has ceased to value self-reproach." She could say the same about self-discipline and self-denial. So it goes without saying that our self-understanding is warped. What chance has the risky advice, "Know thyself!" in such a self-serving ethos?
Supposedly, people go into psychotherapy in order to gain some better degree of self-knowledge. But in their book, Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness, two researchers conclude: "A surprisingly broad and influential range of psychological theory turns out to legitimize selfishness." [M. A. Wallach and L. Wallach] In Misfit, a recent biography of a friend, the author posits that the reason self-absorption is the "dominant characteristic" of our time is because James Joyce and Sigmund Freud taught us that "we should look inside ourselves and see the universe in miniature." [Jonathan Yardley] Much of the self-help movement "proceeds from a claustrophobic obsession with self," as a Newsweek journalist puts it. [Andrew Ferguson] The disconnection culture is celebrated in pop psych books such as those that advocate "expressive divorce" for self-development and attack people "who love too much."
Neonaticide is an increasingly common result of some new mothers’ mentally foreclosing attachment to unwanted babies. The psychiatrist who coined the term "neonaticide" writes that the baby is seen "as a foreign body going through her, not a baby. ... She doesn’t think of it as her child but as an object to get rid of." After 38-million abortions over the past 25 years, what did we expect? Before they killed their newborn son, Amy Grossberg wrote to her boyfriend, Brian Peterson: "All I want is for it to go away." The "it" was the then unborn child. Peterson, the baby’s father, explained later that he didn’t want to violate his girlfriend’s wishes: "It’s not my body, it’s her body" was his unexamined rationalization. A gay columnist, unhappy with all the talk among lesbians and gay men about wanting to be adoptive or biological parents, argues that "childlessness confers essential advantages [of] freedom." He concludes his essay in the gay/lesbian magazine, The Advocate, -- it’s entitled "Make Love, Not Babies" -- with these narcissistic words: "Rather than creating a child without, why not re-create the child within?" [Brendan Lemon]
The self-centeredness is everywhere in the politics and scholarship of academia. Gertrude Himmelfarb warns that literary critics, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and others "have consciously brought their own personae into their work -- not peripherally, as an occasional autobiographical aside, but insistently and pervasively, as the very theme of their studies." In his book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, another scholar recognizes that "If we are determined to take from literature only the attitudes that we bring to it, it ceases to have any point." He concludes that many in the academy "have no real interest in what literature might say, only an interest in what they can use it for." [John M. Ellis] It’s little wonder then that college students are following their teachers in distrusting all views that are not their own. For them, it was for nothing that Oliver Goldsmith penned: "People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy after."
A New York Times book reviewer cautions about the "self-absorption and egotism promoted by talk shows: everyone’s an expert, anyone can be an artist and all opinions are equally valid, especially your own. The old notion of reading -- immersing yourself in a stranger’s world -- vanishes, replaced by the solipsistic belief that other people’s ideas are simply materials to be appropriated and manipulated for your own ends." [Michiko Kakutani] Cable television’s multiplication of talking heads and Web sites run amok give vent to a seemingly endless proliferation of such "expertise" aimed at an ever-fractioning assortment of identity sub-groups.
Reviewing three volumes of women’s studies for the Times Literary Supplement, Melanie Phillips knows that "the air is still noisy with navel-gazing feminist revisionism." She laments the rhetoric of "the platitudinous ‘diversity of family life’" that regards "as abhorrent those family values which, as [Betty] Friedan rightly says, are essential to a society which puts the interests of other people first" and that construes that "marriage is taboo, because it has been conflated with patriarchy, the ultimate gender crime." She goes on to explain that this is all "hardly surprising, since," in her words, "feminism was merely a gendered form of individualism, trampling down all constraints and boundaries in the cause of (female) self-fulfillment." In her book called Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, Elizabeth Wurtzel confirms her reputation for self-obsession by writing: "Frankly, I have a tough time feeling that feminism has done a damn bit of good if I can’t be the way I am and have the world accommodate it." Though feminism is certainly not always what Phillips says it is or what Wurtzel wants it to be, much of it -- sad to say -- has been just that. And much of it has been so very much better. But as it’s put by another woman, "feminism ... vastly overestimated the sphere of its politics," failing to grasp that "there is an impertinence in thinking that from the common fact of gender you can tell people what to do with their lives." [Rachel Cusk]
The same mistake has been made in "Queer Theory" politics, judged to be "pathetic" by Camilla Paglia. Homosexualities have been homogenized in a movement-construction called the "lesbigay and transgendered, two-spirit community ." In a New York Times review of a myopic biography of Walt Whitman, subtitled "A Gay Life," Renee Tursi writes: "Wielding a blinding libido and a self-hugging autobiographical impulse, [author] Gary Schmidgall has re-created Walt Whitman in his own image. Finding nothing ‘more tantalizing and significant’ about Whitman than how the poet’s homosexuality made its way into his public life and works, an aspect Schmidgall absurdly declares ‘flaccid’ (meaning heterosexual) critics have slighted, the author pronounces much of Leaves of Grass to be ‘a cruiser’s apologia,’ a road map to a ‘life of the Closet’ wholly ‘defined by sexuality.’ The irrelevance of Whitman’s sexual activity to what his images, meter and line all served to affirm," Tursi says, "is dismayingly lost on Schmidgall, who at one point even says we can ‘surely’ substitute the word ‘sexual’ for the poet’s use of ‘spiritualistic.’"
This blinding self-centeredness frequently gets played out in religion and the contemporary preference for "spiritualities." We pick our spiritualities to confirm our favorite sense of self. Huston Smith endorses a spirituality that comes, he says, "bubbling up from the human spirit." One thinks of gas. Gay Catholic priest John McNeill urges us to "drink deeply from our own wells." The Royal Shakespeare Company’s New-Agey revisions of medieval Passion mystery has Jesus explaining to his disciples: "The Oil of Mercy is come to men / Each must find it in his heart / Whoso brings forth what lies within / Shall be soothly saved."
There is a popular demand-driven consumer orientation across much of American Evangelicaland as well. What are called "new paradigm" churches, originating on the West Coast, have become megachurches. Too much in these megachurches begins with me! They are self-oriented and, by default if not always by design, they fail to orient to others. Often, though, it is indeed by the market researched and calculated design of church growth theory that these megachurches cater to a me-mentality.
So-called women-church or feminist Bible interpreters, in Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s words, place "a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival." She says that a feminist critical hermeneutic "does not appeal to the Bible as its primary source but begins with women’s own experience and vision of liberation." No matter that the experience is never sheer but always interpreted, no matter that it’s tunnel vision, that’s where they start. So it’s not surprising that that’s where they end up. Union Theological Seminary’s Chung Hyun Kyung does that -- adding "Asian" to "Women’s Theology ." She asserts that her theology comes from her anger as a Third World Woman. It’s inspired, she says, "by [her] burning desire for self-determination and it originates from a liberation oriented, Third World interpretation of people’s history." A Duke University New Testament scholar counters. "Experience (of a certain sort) is treated as unambiguously revelatory, and the Bible is critically scrutinized in its light. Regrettably," he observes, "many practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion, and by no means only feminist interpreters, are remarkably credulous about the claims of experience. As a result, they endlessly critique the biblical texts but rarely get around to hearing scripture’s critique of us or hearing its message of grace." [Richard B. Hayes] Instead of The Story illuminating our stories, our stories sit in judgment on The Story. We become our own canon.
"That Jones shall worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones." That was G. K. Chesterton’s warning. Writing against the nonsense of New Age gurus, literary critic Harold Bloom concludes in the Chestertonian tradition that Shirley "McLaine worships Ms. McLaine (with some justification) and Mrs. [Arianna] Huffington reveres Mrs. Huffington (with perhaps less)." Best-selling author Kathlene Norris warns of "the narcissistic babble that masks itself as spirituality." A theologian says that all this "spirituality lite" is "more deleterious to Christian life than explicit opposition to Christianity would be." The robust faithing of the persecuted churches in totalitarian states illustrates the truth of this assertion. Writing of the views of a popular spiritual guru, this theologian says that Thomas Moore commends a "polytheistic ‘sacredness’ the ultimate referent of which is simply the individual’s tastes and preferences." But of course, Moore "explicitly rejects Christian or Jewish theology, even when it is ‘open-minded.’" What is needed, therefore, is, he says, "a theology that is individual and unique, conforming to the vision and tastes of the person it serves." A Jewish Bible scholar critiques such an unbiblically self-centered do-it-yourself approach to reading the Bible. He writes against the use of "the text as a spur to novelistic confession and anecdote ... [so that] the [biblical] stories become reduced to our own size." In this popular approach, displayed in Bill Moyers’ PBS series on Genesis, Edward Rothstein laments that "no judgment is simple, no moral is clearly taught and no heroes are heroic. ... These tales do not preach, they provoke; they do not impose a single meaning, they resist it. ... Each reader creates a different meaning; nothing is determined. Thus does [the Bible] become post-modern."
So our disconnection turns out to be deliberate, though not always or exactly by our design. Such disconnection is an unintended effect of our unexamined effort at self-celebration as well. But each of us is throwing his or her own party to which we’ve invited only the self or the self- writ-a-bit-larger. It’s a very exclusive party. No wonder we’re lonesome. And no wonder we’re lacking in empathy. Empathy requires real connection with others. The ability to empathize dries up in isolation. If there is no empathy for others, there will be no reaching out to others. And if there is no reaching out to others, the isolation will increase and whatever empathic ability might have been developed is suffocated in self- centered self-defeat. The rich diversity of human connection that can overcome the isolating loneliness is snuffed out.