Loneliness, despair, and the Christian countermeasure | WORLD
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Loneliness, despair, and the Christian countermeasure

Government cannot cure an epidemic of alienation, but the church can

Hillary Clinton speaks at an event for International Women's Day in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on March 8. Associated Press/Photo by Kamran Jebreili

Loneliness, despair, and the Christian countermeasure
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Seven years on from her defeat in the 2016 election, it seems clear that Hillary Clinton has still not come to terms with her loss to Donald Trump. In a recent article for The Atlantic, she now blames the widespread problem of loneliness in America for her failure at the polls. The left’s analysis of 2016 tends to operate with one of two scripts whereby Trump’s supporters were either diabolical scoundrels or stupid dupes.

That Clinton herself might have alienated support by insulting a large portion of the American people, or simply did not offer anything in the way of an attractive vision of what her presidency might look like, would seem to be questions she should at least find worth asking. But no. Once again Trump is the fault of deep sickness in American society, not her own policies or campaign strategy.

Nevertheless, in highlighting loneliness she may be excusing, rather than explaining her loss, but she is still touching on something of importance. All the evidence does suggest that America, and perhaps the West in general, is moving into an era where loneliness and isolation might well be the norm for more and more people.

Some of this is the result of media lies, though not the kind of media lies Mrs. Clinton typically focuses on. The promotion, for example, of untrammeled recreational sexual promiscuity might well prove fine for the young but it bodes ill for the future. There is an obvious reason why newspapers such as The New York Times never seem to interview 80-year-old swingers. They tend to be old, alone, and/or rather pathetic, objects of pity rather than aspirational role models. Hugh Hefner was Exhibit A. And he at least had the money to soften his loneliness, unlike so many of those who follow his philosophy of life.

Perhaps loneliness does have political implications but the solution to it is not ultimately a political one. There is an irony to the latter parts of Clinton’s article, where she presents government policies as the answer and offers the COVID pandemic as a case in point. Apparently, it initially brought people together until an evil cabal of right-wingers served to undo everything.

Laws can only handle human beings at the level of abstract concepts and cannot penetrate to the level of individual personal interaction.

Now, to be lonely is to be detached or isolated from other persons. Lockdown certainly involved this. Masking too, by covering the face, the very medium by which human persons communicate most profoundly with other human beings as persons, damaged this. These facts are indisputable. To be clear, neither of those comments is intended as a judgment on the prudential health concerns of the policies involved, but it is to say that the idea that the COVID response might offer positive insights into overcoming loneliness and isolation is perverse in the extreme. It created loneliness. The only real question is whether this outcome was ultimately worth it.

This points to the more general problem with positive legislative approaches to defeating loneliness: Loneliness is a function of the lack of interpersonal engagement, and human beings are not abstractions. Laws can only handle human beings at the level of abstract concepts and cannot penetrate to the level of individual personal interaction.

I can be lonely in a crowded room where nobody looks into my eyes and sees me as a person. No law can solve that problem for me. That loneliness can only be eliminated when another person looks at me and speaks to me as someone worthy of acknowledgment as a person and not as a thing. But to repeat, that latter scenario cannot be legislated or enforced. For it to be true personal interaction, it has to be freely done. No government can require such because no government can police the heart.

This is where the church has a key role to play. The church is the place where people should treat each other as people, not as things, where they freely give of themselves to others because they know that Christ has freely given himself in grace to them. As the church is increasingly marginalized in America, she will become a stronger community. But the danger of marginalized, strong communities is that they become insular and protective. The church must not do that. She must be the community that loves its own and welcomes the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner. And what a time of opportunity she has, with so many in our disconnected world wanting others to treat them as human beings worthy of love.

Hillary Clinton has put her finger on a key problem, but she has no real answer beyond reasserting the kind of political discourse that has helped foster our current fragmentation. But the church has an answer: by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, by the love you have for each other.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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