Dear Donagh,

Talk to me about isolation and all the conditions that make people strangers to each other today despite all the social media and all the chatter on tv.  When I think back to my childhood it wasn’t like that.  People knew each other and they would talk for hours when they met, and you could depend on neighbours if you were in any kind of trouble.  Everyone was very close then.  But today everyone is doing their own thing.  Both of my parents would be well over 100 years of age if they were alive today.  They would never have guessed that the world could come to this.  We used to visit our cousins, travelling by horse and trap, and we wouldn’t be home till the small hours.  I was young then and I remember struggling to stay awake.  Our children are all married now with families, but they hardly know their neighbours.  Just a few.  My daughter read a piece from your web to me and it made me think you could have something to say about this…. Yours sincerely, John L.

Dear John,

You and I are probably of similar age: my parents too would be well over 100 if they were still alive.  What you describe is very familiar to me.  I remember the endless visiting and talking half the night.  There was even a hybrid Irish/English word for it: áirneáning’ (I've never seen it written till I wrote it now): ‘áirneán’ means ‘sitting up late’.  If people sit up late now, it’s more likely that they are watching a late-night film.  It’s true that there is an erosion of social life, caused partly by the social media – strange contradiction. 

We thought that the social media would bring into existence the global village: a world in which everyone had access to all information and to both sides of every argument.  What came into being instead was a great number of villages, fictitious communities – echo-chambers in which people hear only what confirms their prejudices.  In this sense, the media can be drivers of isolation, just as easily as the opposite. 

That said, I recall reading somewhere that in the 1920s there were alarm bells about radio, pinning blame on it for just the same things that we blame social media for today.  It suggests that the capacity for isolation, and the fear of it, have always been with us. 

By chance I was reading again one of James Joyce’s stories from Dubliners.  In a story called ‘A Painful Case’ there is a Mr Duffy, who is the most perfect embodiment of isolation that I've ever seen in print.  Here’s a paragraph (with annoying interjections from me): “Mr James Duffy lived in an old sombre house, and from his windows he could look into the disused distillery…” (conviviality dead and gone).  “The lofty walls of his uncarpeted room were free from pictures” (emptiness, no softness, no connections).  “He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room...” (nothing handed down, no dependence on anyone).  “The books on the white wooden shelves were arranged from below upwards according to bulk” (quality was no more; only quantity counted). “Mr Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder…. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.  He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense…” (alienated even from himself; ‘the third person and the past tense’: there and then, not here and now).  “He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed.  He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died…. He was an outcast from life’s feast.” 

That story was first published more than 100 years ago, in 1914.  From every century, I bet, there are similar stories, told and untold.  But when we look back we may not see that isolation because as children we didn’t experience it.  The experiences we remember were the experiences of a child, not of an adult of the period.    Without a doubt there were many lonely and isolated adults, many outcasts from life’s feast, in that as in every period.  But children experience everything intimately, even unhappy experiences. 

Nostalgia can be a trap.  I found this paragraph in St Augustine (4th century): “You find people complaining about the times they live in, saying that the times of their parents were better.  What if they could be taken back to the times of their parents?  The past times that you think were good, are good because they are not yours here and now…. Your parents, too, carried the burden of Adam.” 

We can't live anywhere but in the present.  If we can't find peace here and now, we won't find it anywhere.  People find peace in the most unlikely places.  I want to pass on to you a few words that have helped me, over the years, to keep going.  They were written by a German Dominican named Johann Tauler in the 14th century, a time that was even more troubled than our own.  Recalling that the name ‘Jerusalem’ means ‘city of peace’, he wrote: “Jerusalem was a place of peace but also of trouble…. We must learn to seek peace in tribulation.  Only there is true peace born, peace which will last and really endure.  To seek it elsewhere is to go astray inevitably.  You will always find that this is true.  If only we could seek joy in sadness, peace in trouble, simplicity in multiplicity, comfort in bitterness!  This is the way to become true witnesses to God.”  This is very paradoxical – as the expression of every religious truth is bound to be.  It is the challenge of depth.  Problems force us to go below the surface conditions if we want to go on living in a meaningful way.  

It's always possible to make friends of strangers.  I once met an extraordinary woman in Alsace, where I was giving talks.  She was an American Dominican Sister, whose characteristic (all her life, it seems) was to bring home strangers – people she had met by chance and invited for a snack or a meal.   Later, as a Dominican, she was constantly bringing strangers back to the convent for coffee and chat.  In Alsace she was still at it.  Though she didn’t know any French, she had made friends with the owner of the local boulangerie and invited her to California!  Her superiors eventually found an ingenious solution, one that stemmed the tide: they made her a prison chaplain!  It’s still fairly normal here in Ireland to chat with strangers on the street.  As long as that can still happen, all is not lost.  Nothing can prevent us from doing that.  Most people are not opposed to strangers; they are just shy about breaking the ice.  It’s easier for us old folk than it is for younger people: for some reason we are considered less dangerous!  We are the grandparent generation, and few people have beef with their grandparents.  Even as our powers decline, we can still do something of great value: we can do our bit to keep the world human.  Thanks for your letter, John.



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