In the majestic community, in which surface personalities meet and commitment never exceeds the bounds of the utilitarian, we may find collegiality, neighborliness, civility, or courtesy—but not friendship, which is the exclusive experience awarded by God to covenantal man, who is thus redeemed from his agonizing solitude. (Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, Lonely Man of Faith)
“The mentally sick person is alone; he communicates alone, and a healthy person cannot penetrate his world” (J. H. van den Berg, A Different Existence: Principles of Phenomenological Psychopathology, 1972, p. 108).
A recent Associated Press article reports that Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, said that “widespread loneliness in the U.S. poses health risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily, costing the health industry billions of dollars annually.”
He told the Associated Press:
We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing. Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.
The article also points out that technology has made the situation much worse. One study showed that people who use social media more than two hours a day are twice as likely to suffer from feelings of isolation than those who use it for 30 minutes or less. The Surgeon General said, “There’s really no substitute for in-person interaction. As we shifted to use technology more and more for our communication, we lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction. How do we design technology that strengthens our relationships as opposed to weaken them?” The question is why?
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik would say that new technology is not what is needed. Loneliness can only be alleviated with a much more radical shift.
The Lonely Man of Faith
Rabbi Soloveitchik explores the theme of loneliness in his essay, The Lonely Man of Faith (LMOF), through an interpretation of the first two chapters of the book of Genesis—the two accounts of the creation of man—what he calls the Story of Adam the first, Genesis 1, and the story of Adam the second, Genesis 2.
In the story of Adam the first, male and female are described as being created together. Adam the first is told to conquer the earth and subdue it. He is technically minded. His approach to the world is pragmatic. His relationships can be described similarly.*
Adam the first, might join together with his fellow man in cooperation, in a “community” yet on a deeper level he has no true companion–no soul-mate. He marches on and on in step with the goals and missions of his collective. He functions harmoniously and efficiently, but there is no inner life. Adam the first belongs to what Rabbi Soloveitchik calls a “natural community”–not much different from what can be found in the animal kingdom.
Adam the second looks out at the natural world and in awe, seeks the source of this creation and, above all, to know the source of his own being. He is overwhelmed by God’s majesty, and can’t help but see his own insignificance. Who is he relative to the source of all being? His questions are personal, not scientific and abstract. He knows that he is unique in his quest and, above all, in his inwardness. What other being questions his own existence? He simply wants to know, who am I? and who is He?
But Adam the second is created alone. On one hand, this points to his uniqueness. There is no other being like him. On the other hand, God said of Adam the second: “It is not good for man to be lonely” (Genesis 2:17). He yearns for a companion–someone who can understand and share his burden of seeking.
Communication and community
To overcome his loneliness Adam the second seeks companions with whom he can communicate and commune with in his quest.
His quest is for a new kind of fellowship, which one finds in the existential community. There, not only hands are joined, but experiences as well; there, one hears not only the rhythmic sound of the production line, but also the rhythmic beat of hearts starved for existential companionship and all-embracing sympathy….(LMOF, p. 41).
“Work relationships” cannot satisfy Adam the second’s yearning for companionship.
There is certainly even within the framework of the natural community, as the existentialists are wont to say, a dialogue between the “I” and the “thou.” However, this dialogue may only gratify the necessity for communication which urges Adam the first to relate himself to others, since communication for him means information about the surface activity of practical man. Such a dialogue certainly cannot quench the burning thirst for communication in depth of Adam the second, who always will remain a homo absconditus [=unknowable person] if the majestic logoi [=words/thoughts] of Adam the first should serve as the only medium of expression (LMOF, pp. 66-67; brackets added for clarity).
Rabbi Soloveitchik would go beyond the Surgeon General’s warning to tell us that mental health is built upon communion—the ability to communicate, to have friendship. But true communication/communion can only be achieved by Adam the second–who understands that true friendship is not a practical arrangement. Friendship is the joining of souls in the pursuit of the highest ideals–the Most High. Modern Adam the first, must become reawakened to Adam the second or risk ever deepening estrangement.
* I use the masculine throughout this post to match Rabbi Soloveitchik’s reference to “Adam”, but it should be understood that “Adam” refers to humanity, both male and female.