Loneliness and the City
Virginia L. Arbery , Ph.D.
Last Wednesday evening, Prof. Fred Turner’s exhilarating description of Dallas took a meaningful dip. After re-imagining Dallas’ neighborhoods and the life lived by its artists, friends all and, among themselves, free from a New York envy, he asked us to consider the lack of a tube, subway, or metro, various versions of those labyrinthine undergrounds that course underneath great cities and which, if mined imaginatively, provide rich psychic metaphors for memory and for the downward pull intrinsic to the complete life.His construction of the ancient city underground Dallas-a fabulous and lucrative archaeological swindle–left us with a wonderful nugget or reality, a peering into what lies underneath all our activity in some non-literal sense, the human memory of a forgotten past to which we all belong. His dip downward at the end of his talk-the pull downward in the soul–is where I’d like to begin. As T. S. Eliot writes, “And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from” (“Little Gidding”). This Persephonic descent, however, will not find a teeming highly formed civilization but the abyss of loneliness, the shadow companion of the freedom of spirit so energizing in the life above the ground. One never wants to go down without coming up. So I trust our descent ends in our re-emerging in the light of Dr. Thomas’ keynote talk that engaged us in seeing a complete city, experienced in an ample life of the senses, of palpable human contact and community, realized whenever we honor nature and her mysteries abiding in the city and in the best of human making in art and architecture. Generous civil discourse should reflect upon the possible shapes the humane city ought to take. We need not be–indeed it is not our nature to be–passive. It will be good if we can continue to outline the humane city by going on a dig, as it were, into our souls and into the intellectual archaeology that has in large measure worked against the humane city we seek to re-imagine.
We begin our descent down by plunging into the “Web of Loneliness” discovered in cyberspace in that never-never land called Google and spun for disaffected students on the University of Illinois-Urbana campus. One of 635,000 entries, the “Web of Loneliness,” greets the isolato who has clicked on it–his will figured forth in the dismembered hand, its index finger pointing expectedly to the “Web of Loneliness”-which welcomes him with a black page flashing ghostly white definitions of loneliness from the funereal backdrop: “an estrangement from oneself and others, a feeling of alienation;” alternates with “an inner worm that gnaws at the heart,” or, less subterranean, the “unpleasant anxious yearning for another person.” The possibility that loneliness is in a realm inclusive of but also beyond our social nature is not accounted for by the two definitions that leave out the gnawing worm. I gravitated to the middle quote, the one with the inner worm, reflecting that the hidden image behind it might be the book, as holding the mysteries of the heart, nibbled at relentlessly by the bookworm, a kindred isolato. That sense of gnawing at the heart, a hunger for something to connect oneself to, is captured in Anthony de Mello’s bookAwareness (1990) when he writes that “loneliness is not cured by human company. Loneliness is cured by contact with reality.” Does the gnawing worm want the reality of our heart’s life, just as the bookworm goes after the book to feed the soul? But nothing is ever enough for the truly lonely person, I thought. Worming my way down the screen, I was moved into two main categories of loneliness-state loneliness versus trait loneliness, the former being occasional and brought on by the environment more than from the inner life of the person, the latter being within the person and following him around like an unwelcome guest, regardless of the circumstances. But why might it be, you will ask, that, in a description of the experience of loneliness, nothing is said to distinguish it from the soul in its aloneness? T. S. Eliot’s haunting line from Dry Salvages of the Four Quartets comes to mind:”We had the experience but missed the meaning.” Let’s suspend these thoughts about aloneness for now and re-connect to the web.
Scanning the ways in which loneliness is experienced, one finds that it is characterized around three main areas: (1) romance and marriage, (2) loneliness among college students, and (3) loneliness in the aging. None of these categories is surprising, but the fact that the highest incidence of loneliness is seen among adolescents and college students is troubling. Why are so many of our young, who should be full of hope, instead encased within themselves, “shut up in the solitude of their hearts,” as de Tocqueville says the constantly preoccupied American become as he strives for wealth? Shunning idleness, a quality prized by an aristocratic European, the democrat American “hardly has the time, and he soon loses the taste, for going deeply into anything.” The American thus attaches his thoughts to slogans, short hands for real thought, and he prefers general ideas to deep and particular ones. “Habitual inattention must be reckoned the great vice of the democratic spirit.” (Democracy in America, Lawrence trans., p. 611) Has the “barbarous frenzy” of the elders infected the freedom of the youth? Is it in our children’s psyches that the price is paid for reaching after “more good things than he /the American/ can grasp,” as Tocqueville puts it in 1835 (621)?
There are so many websites maintained by universities that address the rampant loneliness in college life. In them, the lack of friendship, of an intimate friend or someone who can “share their inner feelings,” is a common refrain. From the “Web of Loneliness” of the Counseling Center of University of Illinois comes the strong message that loneliness is not an aberration but that “one quarter of all adults experience a painful loneliness at least every few weeks,” the suggestion being, that the student ought to get used to coping with it, while, at the same time, the center assures its lonely dorm room resident, whose only resource is to click onto the computer for consolation, that “your loneliness will not last forever.” There are numerous suggestions about how to “identify your needs that are not being met;” how to develop “a circle of friends,” “to do things for yourself, without friends,” “to learn to feel better or more content about yourself in general.”Eventually making an important distinction, the “Web of Loneliness” goes on to suggest that being lonely is an important opportunity in learning to be alone. “You can grow in important ways during your time alone.” But it is hard to know just what direction for growth-in-aloneness the center is suggesting, since the lonely self is somehow suppose to become the alone-but-fulfilled self from the resources of the empty self.
The inability to probe the subterranean psychic turf while asserting that the resilient self can emerge seems to me symptomatic of the resource-lessness of university counseling. But the problem is much deeper than the impoverished counselors. Going together with the student into some depth from works in the core curriculum is one approach that could help, but one rarely exists, since there is no common agreement about what the educated person should study in an effort to lead a complete human life. Further, if there is in fact no agreement about the complete life, and, on the other hand, the complete life is known, as Aristotle reasons, only in the city (polis), then our topic of the humane city is an exercise in futility.It could be argued that if elementary and secondary education prepares the student for citizenship, higher education should aim to form the integral person, who, when alone with himself is at peace. (I am not talking about feeling good about yourself, accepting yourself as you are. I am talking about the transformed person, the one who has experienced “a turning around” from the shadow life lived in the cave, under the ground, who then emerges into the light of the sun!) Such an education would be that geared for independent persons, for leaders. That is the sort of leadership America, in turn, might provide for the world. It would a leadership profoundly different from the Athens praised by Pericles in his famousFuneral Oration for being the School of Hellas, for in truth she was cocky, arrogant, and calculating, using her leisure given to public feasting merely as a rest from wealth-getting rather than for a communion with the divine. Perpetuating this deformity of soul, the Athenian fathers chose to have their sons schooled by her visiting sophists rather than by her native philosophers. Pericles, you’ll recall, even goes so far as to say that the city does not need Homer to sing her praises. Holding all this in our memory, we must go on to acknowledge that whatever we might say about education bears directly on the soul of the city, for the basis of a civil discourse is agreement about our fundamental humanity-the good life-a discussion guided by teachers.
But back to our overburdened college counseling center, if there were a curriculum, there would be an organic context within which to reflect upon a student’s loneliness. “Imagine Achilles,” the counselor might say, “see him weeping by the sea, playing his lyre thinking about injury and death and his dearest love callously stolen from him. Think of Milton’s Adam who remains lonely despite command over all of nature’s unspoiled beauty; absent Eve, he his unhappy, and he is willing to lose paradise itself rather than give her up after she falls. Or, take into your own young heart the loneliness of Antigone with her exiled father, her whole being called into question as she wanders homeless around the Greek landscape with her father-brother; follow,” the counselor might suggest, “the stricken Orestes on a god-given mission to kill his mother who murdered his father; indeed, dwell with the miserable Electra stuck at home with her calculating vengeful mother; accompany the melancholic young teacher Ishmael at the beginning of Moby Dick ready to throw himself before a moving cart and place yourself then in the disconcerting predicament of being in bed with a cannibal who turns out to be your friend and your salvation?” Literature is replete with lonely souls, whose contemplation might allay fear, yield understanding, catharsis, and even hope.
Loneliness looms as the major crisis facing the baby boomers. Reading the experts, I take it that the wave of loneliness overtaking us is more critical than shrinking retirement funds or lost inheritances dwindled down to nothing. I will suggest that the loss of social security, not the program but the thing itself, can ultimately be a very good thing. But let’s first look at the evidence. Baby boomers, blessed as they were from birth, can’t win for losing. The demographics and social isolation seem to work against both the baby boomers who live alone or with another. Because of longevity, the number of adults living alone will increase. Whereas in the 1950’s one in ten households had only one person-primarily widows-sociologists predict that, in this century, one in three will be alone. However, I don’t think we can assume, as does Kerby Anderson who provides these statistics, that all these baby boomers will be isolatoes. She suggests that because of the three-“‘D’s”, death, divorce, and deferred marriage, that the one in four living alone right now are lonely. Perhaps.Evidently, according to the therapists, marriage is no guarantee either that loneliness can be overcome, but neither is co-habitating, the choice of at least a million and a half Americans right now. Anyway, the growth in single-family living between the ages of 45-65, the middle-aged, is significantly higher than it was for the parents of baby boomers. How can we pass up this opportunity to explore the dark things that might issue from feeling alone, whether leading a life that is single, married, or paired?
Psychologists often describe loneliness as what used to be described as acedia, sloth, the feeling of being lost with no sense of direction along with a feeling of nothingness. Acedia is that despair that accompanies the lack of attention to the soul’s life brought on by neg-otium, business, literally meaning no leisure. Other symptoms are lack of affect-anomie, a numbness that inhibits the feelings generally.Most frequently mentioned is the crushing of spirit, a hurt augmented by the absence of someone to turn to. The feeling of loneliness is often described by those sharing their experiences of it on the web as a “void, a black hole, an abyss, a hollow and empty space.” The response to such fruitful metaphors of depth should not be confined to the facile pairing of loneliness and living alone or, more facile still, with alone-ness. Another path of reflection, though I grant you one not suggested on the “web of loneliness,” is to consider that these dark expressions intimate the soul’s touching of the infinite. So, if seen another way, the experience of a “void, a black hole, an abyss, a hollow and empty space” leads to a genuine re-grounding in reality. As Eliot observes, human kind cannot bare very much reality. Is the burden of bearing infinity the downward pull of loneliness?
Consider, for instance, that in the fourth and fifth centuries of the first millennium an odd group of loners changed the world when they left the city to live as hermits in the desert, silent for as long as forty years at a time, but known for their consummate courtesy, generosity, and wisdom when they weekly joined with other hermits who gathered for celebrating Sabbath and Sunday or when they shared their loaf of bread with a pilgrim from the city. Upon hearing and reading the Life of Antony of Egypt, the epic hero of these desert fathers, Augustine of Hippo, the most famous bachelor of his day, a consummate orator, and the best thinker produced by the Roman world, parted from his beloved partner of many years and renounced his high-powered worldly ambition. Nearly a thousand four hundred years later, the imagination of Gustave Flaubert was possessed by Antony of Egypt. He became the subject of what Flaubert thought to be his greatest novel, far greater than Madame Bovary. “C’est moi Madame Bovary,” Flaubert wrote, but he wanted to be the ascetic Antony. Anatole France was captivated by him too, and numerous artists have left us magnificent paintings of their imaginings of him and his temptations. Contrarily, Gibbon thought of this “ascetic epidemic” as “hideous, distorted,” maniacal, ‘without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection.” Gibbon asked, how had this become the ideal in a world that “Had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato” (quoted in Helen Wadell’s The Desert Fathers, 5)?
Indeed, just how are we to evaluate the perspective toward reality shown in the question posed by Antony to one of his visitors from the city: “Tell me, I pray thee, how fares the human race: if new roofs be risen in the ancient cities: whose empire is it that now sways the world?” Is Antony’s an admirable abandonment–that is, one that causes within us wonder before judgment? In any case, he and his fellow desert-dwellers give us the great paradigm of the via negativa, a deeply interior life that finds a complete world in the soul that, paradoxically, is pulled upward only after submitting to the depths; a needed countervailing motion to the active life.And, in spite of their a-political life centered in embracing alone-ness, the effect of the Desert Father was enormous. In damning praise of them, the famous historian Harnack writes, “If I may be permitted to use strong language, I should not hesitate to say that no book had had a more stultifying effect on Egypt, Western Asia, and Europe than the Vita S. Antonii.” (quoted inThe Desert Fathers,4) What is their lasting contribution and why do I pull these desert-dwellers into our imaginations as we sit in the middle of Dallas? I think I do so because they suit the landscape evoked by our previous two speakers and speak to my own strange love for Dallas. What’s often called her soaring spirit also brings a loneliness, but one, I think, that invites us to be intimate with eternity. As Helen Wadell points out, to be lost in the desert, meant that one could find the place where the vastness of eternity could become a familiar. And with eternity becoming one’s familiar, goal-oriented time is transformed. Disturbed in their spiritual quest by the unsettling chaos and disparate demands of the city with its profane time, Wadell writes, the desert fathers “thought to devaluate time by setting it over against eternity, and instead they have given it unplumbed depth.” Their desert experience made us at home with infinity. She continues: “It is as though they first conceived of eternity as everlastingness, the production to infinity of a straight line, and in time men came to know it vertical as well as horizontal, and to judge an experience by its quality rather than its duration. The sense of infinity is now in our blood: and even to those of us see our life as a span long, beginning in the womb and ending in the coffin or a shovelful of grey ash, each moment of it has its eternal freight” (The Desert Fathers, 24-5). The desert fathers’ penetration of eternity through their submission to the desert as the holy place is mirrored in Dante’s lines from the Paradiso, “One point of time hath deeper burdened me/Than all the centuries have forgot/How Argo’s shadow startled first the sea.” There is no escaping or avoiding life in their removal to the waterless vast desert of Scete, but rather a heroic risk, like a lover searching for his beloved sequestered in some hidden place. One hundred years later, Boethius can define eternity as “that which encloseth and possessseth the whole fullness of the life everlasting, from which naught of the future is absent, and naught of the past hath flowed away” (Consolation of Philosophy,v). Our times are not as bad as either the exiled Dante’s or Boethius’, unjustly condemned to die even though he was the second most powerful man in the Roman empire. But we can be grateful that they are just bad enough to get us to think deeply again.
In their sayings from the desert, the legacy of these middle-aged and old loners provide a touchstone for the imagination; they remain as a place where East meets West. The strangely communal caves of silence are the places to which both cultures can still return. But here, in America, in Dallas, could our baby boomers embrace what circumstances have thrust upon them, facing alone-ness without loneliness; can solitude be an occasion for personal and social renewal, a soul-source for the city? Perhaps solitude is a treasure to be earned rather than a fate to be dreaded. The baby boomers may be our city’s hope for creativity, for artists, who crave solitude as they suffer the birth of the beautiful. The elders have an opportunity to plumb a legacy that could lay the rich underground of the soul’s search for the Source of all meaning that the young in their loneliness long for. Dallas ought not dishonor seniority by attempting to avoid it in some fruitless quest for remaining young. Imagine being a young person and seeing your city full of elders frantically avoiding growing old, the most lucrative medical practice and industries catering to our fears and superficial perception of beauty. “Why do we have to grow old?” is truly a metaphysical question. But it can’t be answered by a matter of fact turn to natural processes. Such explanations lose their efficacy as soon as one is brought to the point in one’s own life when the question becomes “Why doI have to grow old?” Now if we defy the question through employing man’s art, we run a risk far greater than the diseases and difficulties, not to mention the uncomeliness, that can come with age. We lose the capacity of the growth of the soul which continues tho the body age, and, worse still, we impart to our children that their future-predicted to be longer still than our own-is an undesirable specter to be avoided at all costs. The question comes down to this: Why would an eighteen year old want to eat?
Well, everyone knows the baby boomers have been in a crisis since they were conceived in the mild season of peace after World War II. Remembering David Riesman, who died this last May, might help our self-knowledge. Riesman’s Lonely Crowd, researched in the late forties and first published in 1950, was such a hit that it made the cover of Time Magazine in September, 1954. The Lonely Crowd is the largest selling book ever in sociology. Like many of you, I had read it in college, but I returned to it just within this month to consider it for two days around a table with fourteen other academics. We were surprised at the book’s prescience, it’s advancement on Tocqueville, but disappointed finally in its lame vision which could only offer the prospect of an autonomous, albeit creative, individualism to overcome the “loneliness in a crowd of peers” (307). Among other observations, Riesman laments the fact that without work, the American feels lost, that the American “cannot distinguish between the loneliness he understandably fears and the privacy he might occasionally choose” (287).Our “groupiness,” always looking to one’s peers, he terms “other-directedness,” a time linked to “incipient population decline. Weakened by our need to see ourselves approved by others, Americans lack the confidence of older generations who were inner-directed, strongly formed by moral codes which nicely conformed to family life and business goals. The inner-directed were convicted of the notion that graduated structure was needed for all social advancement and personal decision-making. That phase, co-incident with transitional population growth, followed the high population growth of the tradition-directed phase, which centered in ritual and community, a phase still to be seen in black communities and immigrant groups. Co-authored by Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, the Lonely Crowd was subtitled “A Study of the Changing American Character.” To sum up, from what character had Americans changed and into what were they becoming? The movement from tradition-directed to inner-directed to other-directed to the autonomous individual charts the course in character formation that is generally true culturally at each phase although not necessarily pervasive in all groups or to be found in all folks at the same time.
Riesman shows that the adult Americans of the late forties, early fifties, grew increasingly unsure of their own identity. Directions given to their children became suggestions; a family’s own character grew increasingly problematic, whereas the powerful group, all the other parents, became the phantom presence in the home needed to be consulted-we might say, as the household gods and the ancestors used to be–before making a hard and fast rule under one’s own roof. The self-made man receded into the monochromatic tone of the conformist, the one who plays it safe and does not want to appear to be different. The other-directed businessman, having from the beginning taken in Benjamin Franklin’s artful appearance, habitually acts in a calculating way without being consciousness of it, as Franklin shamelessly reveals in his Autobiography. Such “groupiness,” however, affords little fulfillment as it shrinks the domain of friendship to those who mirror the image of oneself while it loosens the particular and strong bonds of family. Moreover, when everyone is part of the group, personal identity is sacrificed. Born from the loneliness and insecurity of their parents, just as Hobbes was in fear, the baby boomers, despite the tradition ofAmerican individualism, did not inherit the real-the robust-thing. Most of us were born in indecisiveness; instead of holding the whip of the lone cowboy, we fawn over each other’s pets, delicately holding onto their leashes in doggy parades on Easter Sunday in Lee Park.
In the epigraph to his 1970 text, The Pursuit of Loneliness, American Culture at the Breaking Point, written twenty years after Riesman’s blockbuster book, Philip Slater cites the lyrics of Paul Simon.
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”
Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike.
They’ve all come
To look for America.
He opens his first chapter with, among other lyrics, “All the lonely people-Where do they all come from?” ending with Bob Dylan’s “He said his name was Columbus, and I just said, “good luck.”
Slater’s work is a hard, unsparing work critical of capitalism and of the inner and other directed man and coming out of that painful effort of the baby boomers to find depth. I recommend to you what he has to say about privacy especially as an explanation of the growth of the suburbs. In the final section of his final chapter, “Alone Together,” Slater concludes by asking the young not be anarchists, to accept that, despite injustice, there have to be forms, but urges them to look for that utopian order, one stripped of notions of scarcity and competitiveness, of the kind that often inspired groups to America, such as we might add, our own Reunion. He asks the young to shun all impulses toward “personal glory” (150). Curiously, twenty years before, Riesman also concludes with a vision of utopia.
I would have to say that though his observations are revelatory, I regret that like so many of my generation’s mentors, Slater goes on to politicize the concerns of a generation who, if not lost as was their grandparents returning from World War I, were erotically wandering in search of wonder. Remember Weiss’ lyrics, Slater’s epigraph to the chapter entitled, “Half-slave, half-free:” “And what’s the point of revolution/Without general copulation?” Though the baby boomers lack restraint, what they lacked even more was an inspiring guidance. We had the desire but no real place to put it. That’s why I think the baby boomers time is now. These are the greatest of times to live in, not because they’re affluent-that’s being tested every day, thank our nation’s governing angel-but because they promise the spare-ness that, if embraced in the spirit of ascetism, leads to the subterranean soul-life that will at least give us pause to go from being time-driven, and time-fearing, to being at home with timelessness.
Then in the mid 1980’s the sociologist, Robert Bellah and other scholars looked at America again from Tocquevillian eyes and wrote, The Habits of the Heart, Individualism and Commitment in American Life,which I regret I cannot go into now, because I am here at my end, and what I set out to write, I did not write. I had promised that intellectual dig, and I didn’t take you on it, so I swindled the Dallasites here just like Professor Turner’s fake archaeologists did the city as a whole. I meant to lock us all up together in the closet of Descartes’ imagination, which separated us from the world’s body and left us schizophrenics and alienated. I had intended to journey with you through Hobbes’ account of man’s beginning in the dark forest where, in fear of the violent death, he must always be prepared to meet, his life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” I wanted to remind us of the sterile, loveless world of Locke, whose emphasis on property skews the older understanding of happiness and stewardship of the earth. And I anticipated pointing to Rousseau’s negative reaction to these cold thinkers when he coins the term “alienation” to describe man’s absence from himself in such a stripped world where the accountant and leviathan, and theumpire become the image for what had been in the twelfth century a warm body politic (John of Salisbury’s term) to which all were intrinsic and all were important. And I wanted to say that in finding man alienated, Rousseau’s assertion of man’s primeval goodness and his veneration of sincerity along with his unchaining of the passions could only lead, in his politics, to a generalizing of each will into one will, that of the state, which was a gross distortion of the old, vital patriotism of the Romans.
And I wanted to say that America’s foundations partake of Hebrew and Roman myth–that we need to remember Rome and the Exodus story to know ourselves new for the first time. The Exodus Story and the story of Aeneas taking his Trojans and undergoing the hard toil of finding and founding Rome, both stories of flight and of exile and of obedience to the gods, are our stories. It is very important that we remember we are deeply inoculated against the worst effects of those Enlightenment thinkers who had redated the calendar and had tried to begin time over. Rather, the founders used a transmundane tradition in order to speak of the legal rights of the enlightenment, while going down, back to the old tradition so as to be a new order in time, as the marvelous thinker Hannah Arendt explains in her Life of the Mind and elsewhere.
And I wanted to praise our founders, this time particularly John Adams, who, in one of his writings, anticipates the whole current politics of recognition (Charles Taylor) when he writes of the poor man whose conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed. He feels himself out of the sight of other,” Adams writes. “He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen. To be wholly overlooked and to know it, are intolerable,” Adams concludes.
So though I had not chosen to avoid the dig, I ended up doing so, because something else took over, which I can only describe as discovery. I had not known that I would understand eternity as the domain of Dallas’ depth. But there you have it as I came to see my task as I pursued the topic of loneliness.
I will reveal now what I suspect may have influenced the turn this talk took. Last Saturday evening, well into dusk, a high school teacher-friend and I stopped in West, Texas on our way back from a convention of social studies teachers in Austin. We were to gas up and buy some kolaches for our families as peace offerings for our absences. She invited me to take a quick detour to a cotton farm not far past town run by the groom of one of our college friends who had just married him the year before at 44. “Sure,” I said, tired of fluorescent-lit exhibit halls and the congestion of I-35. We came upon the farmer, whose name, I kid you not, is Tom Holey. Mr. Holey was working nearly in the dark in his bride’s garden, one he cultivated for her to break up the intimidating expanse of field upon field uninterrupted to the horizon. Our old friend wasn’t home, and the slightly shy farmer did his best to make conversation. But when I commented on how black the earth was that he had turned over around every tree surrounding their modest , well-maintained one story-home, he was off and running. He proceeded to tell me about four different kinds of soils between their place and down by the Brazos where they also farmed.I felt like I was listening to the parable of the seeds.
He couldn’t wait to show us a picture of his cotton combine, which separates the seeds from the cotton as it is collected. Trails of gray smoke were coming out of its engine which had gotten a rock in it, almost burning up the expensive machine on loan on an experiment with John Deere. I was impressed with his knowledge, respect for the natures of things, and his garden on the edge of it all. Man, machine, and garden took on a harmony, a together-ness, all anticipating each other. He was alone, and he was not lonely. As we left he thought he’d join his bride who’d gone into the city to see a new art exhibit.He was getting more interested in those things now that he had married my college friend, a girl from Houston. But before we left he pointed across the flat landscape to the three houses of his brothers farther up on Four Brothers Road, and to his one sister’s place just a few fields away. She’d come back from moving around with her husband, a traveling salesman, to raise the children the last four years until he could take early retirement. She tended his aging parents too, who also lived in the area. As we were getting into our car, he showed me a picture of his dad, 78, on the combine. I asked if he still worked their 3000 acres. He said No, but that he tried to run it still. That sometimes it was hard to take the corrections, but it was always better to listen than to argue. His wife’s parents, in their seventies, were building a grand home on the land a few roads over, closer to town, a wonder to all the farmers around, who couldn’t imagine settling in West without working the land. The kolaches and other Czech food are good, but worth perching oneself near them until one’s demise? I was full of wonder at this mature man, almost forty, full of stories about his world. I became familiar with a whole world of relationships and stability within fifteen minutes, and I was full of longing for that old sympathetic life between the country and the city which the Romans had and every English and French aristocrat enjoyed. This was not an alienated man, a tired, dirty one maybe, and I thought how important it is to be attached to some piece of the earth, to call its possibilities into being, to take joy the harvest, even if it’s only rosemary and basil. It gives you a respect for nature’s recalcitrance, for fortune, and for the stuff to which we will all return, man’s smudge, as Hopkins says.
What is to be done about loneliness? Nothing. Nothing at first, that is. Well, we might change our dispositions. Romano Guardini in his book The Virtues, suggests some ways to reset our dispositions so that life in the city with its evocative metaphysical loneliness, that, I’ve been arguing, should not be masked so that it can be plumbed. First acceptance.Then gratitude. Then aloneness.
The poet of loneliness, T. S. Eliot, in East Coker from Four Quartets goes down to where we might meditate to begin Dallas’ soul reclamation.
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark….
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away-
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too
Long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing-
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the
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