Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Loner

I got back to reading M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.

What particularly stood out to me in my latest reading was a scenario that Peck described on pages 131-134.  It concerned a hypothetical woman in her late forties who comes to church and slips out without greeting anyone, even the pastor.  If, by chance, she were invited to the coffee hour after the service, she'd thank the person inviting her but would decline, saying that she has another engagement, when really she's just heading back to her apartment.  She has a job as a typist, but she doesn't have any social connections.  In terms of activities, she goes to the movies on Saturday afternoons.  She currently has no pets, but she once had a dog, who passed on eight years ago.  If one were to tell her that her life seemed lonely, she would respond that she rather enjoys her loneliness.  According to Peck, she is trying to avoid pain, both the pain of loss and also the pain of rejection.  But in the process, Peck claims, she's missing out on things that make life "alive, meaningful and significant": "having children, getting married, the ecstasy of sex, the hope of ambition, friendship" (page 133).  Plus, she remains stagnant rather than growing.

This reminded me somewhat of the June 6, 2001 daily devotion in Our Daily Bread, which was entitled "The Loner".  In this daily devotion, Herbert Vander Lugt talks about a high school friend of his who was a loner.  This friend "spent his time reading books, [and] isolated himself in his parents’ home until they died..."  According to Herbert Vander Lugt, this friend "never had to sacrificially love a wife, never had his sleep disturbed by a crying child, never agonized over a rebellious teen, and never cried over the misfortunes of a close friend", and yet he also missed out on "some of life’s greatest joys and deepest satisfactions."  Herbert Vander Lugt then proceeds to give us a little lecture about how God is not a loner, as we learn from the doctrine of the Trinity, and he concludes by saying that "Through faith in Jesus, God forgives us and brings us into fellowship with Himself and others, saving us from the tragedy of being loners."

When I first read Herbert Vander Lugt's "The Loner", I was utterly disgusted.  A significant reason was that, well, I'm a loner, and thus I felt judged.  I did not think that Herbert Vander Lugt in that particular devotion really conveyed that he attempted to understand why his friend became a loner.  Rather, my impression was that Herbert Vander Lugt talked about his friend being a loner, judged his friend, gave a little lecture about how we shouldn't be loners because God is not a loner, and then said that Christ brings us into fellowship with other people.  Unfortunately, I thought, things are not so simple!  For one, sure, God may not be a loner, but there are plenty of people who are loners by temperament.  Perhaps they're introverts, or they are on the autism spectrum.  Why should they be made to feel guilty or second-class because they're not acting contrary to how they are?  Second, it's not easy for every Christian to fit into social settings that have other Christians, or other people in general, for that matter.

Perhaps Herbert Vander Lugt indeed did try to understand where his friend was coming from, and his whole point about his friend never having to sacrificially love anyone or agonize over other people reflects why his friend chose to be a loner.  I certainly think that these are reasons that some choose a life of solitude: they don't like to be bothered with people, who can be quite a hassle!  But I also think that Peck does well to offer other reasons: loners may fear getting too close to people and losing them, and they may fear rejection.

Herbert Vander Lugt and Peck may have a point that loneliness is not an ideal situation.  I have my reasons for being a loner, many of which overlap with what Herbert Vander Lugt and Peck discuss.  I'd add other factors as well: my difficulty in coming up with things to say when I socialize, my timidity, my fear of saying the wrong thing, the fact that there have been times in the past when I have said the wrong thing or said something in an imperfect way and thus turned people off, bad relationships in the past in which I felt mocked or dismissed, not wanting to give people the satisfaction of rejecting me when I want to be their friend, etc.  At the same time, it does feel good to me when I realize that there are people who care for me, and when I care for others (people and pets).  Of course, these are relationships in which I don't have to exert too much effort to be accepted, so that's why I like them.

One area in which I object to Herbert Vander Lugt and Peck's discussion is that they seem to suggest that being married and having kids is for everyone.  It's not.  At this moment, I don't think that I have enough love within me to be a father and a husband.  So why should I try to be a father or a husband, if I feel I'm not cut out for that right now?

Another point that I want to make concerns growth.  Growth is a significant part of Peck's conception of love, for he believes that we love ourselves when we pursue growth, and we love others when we are concerned about their growth.  Peck said that the loner woman was not growing, and I've heard similar things from other people: "If you isolate yourself, then how will you grow?"  This somewhat annoys me, for they should tell me why I should even want to grow.  I guess I can come up with reasons that I'd like to grow: so that I can meet life with greater serenity, so that I can get along better with others, so that I can have confidence and thus have and do well at a job, etc.  But, in the case of the loner woman and Herbert Vander Lugt's friend, these people have already found ways to support themselves or to be supported, plus they seem to be fairly content with life.  Why should they have to grow, to meet somebody else's expectations as to what constitutes a fulfilling life?

3 comments:

  1. I reckon there are incredible things of all sorts in store for people, after this world, and there will be no disruptive dichotomies of individual and community. For now, there are the beginnings of these incredible things variously available. Some of the greatest satisfactions there are for human beings are through community, but not all people get or can attain them (in this world, there are also some of the worst pains and frustrations in community). We are all on different paths, some more in community than others. Expansion into appreciation and enjoyment of more and more of all sorts of things cannot be forced, but I think we should be encouraging and helping each other towards that (not pressuring). I reckon those who claim the disabled are not disabled just different are mistaken. Would some really want to remain in wheelchairs in the coming kingdom! Again, for now, because this world is as it is, we are all individually and communally getting less satisfactions than we might, and our finitude means we have to make choices what to pursue, it may be to gain (very real and substantial) satisfactions non-communally. we are, finally, not the arbiters of what is fulfilling for ourselves - we are too limited!

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  2. Some of your points remind me of Jonathan Edwards Sermon, "Heaven: A World of Love". Some don't like that sermon. I myself really like it.

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  3. James, thanks for your direction to Edwards' sermon, only Edwards' style is intolerably tedious, I began reading it, then just skated through it! One thing, among many, I reckon he is wrong about is that things of this world shouldn't be pursued 'to satisfy our souls' - some things of this world are the beginnings of things we will be engaged with in the next.

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