American Loneliness: African Perspectives
We wall ourselves in with iPods; we blast our subwoofers (making our cars radiating and isolated and isolating noise machines); we cocoon around big screen TVs and home theaters. In looking for a new stereo receiver, I found that they are now rare; nearly all receivers are made for home theaters. By the way, a "home theater" is a contradiction in terms, just as much as "home stadium" is a contradiction. A theater is a public place oriented toward a group of people gathered to witness an event of some sort. The very concept of home theater speaks volumes about American priorities and perspectives.
We are lonely, but stupefied by culture not to notice the howling wasteland within. We typically have no sense of neighborhood, or, in African parlance, village. An African woman asked an American couple (pastors of a multi-ethnic church with many Africans) what "village" they were from. When they replied, "Phoenix," the woman was perplexed. That was far too large to be a village.
We are lonely and unhappy, but desperate to be happy at all costs--even if happiness means further removing ourselves from others through new vistas of sensory stimulation or medication. Many Americans treat their loneliness by travel--or, I should say, tourism. We visit other places far away in order to avoid the emptiness within our souls. We capture the images with our digital cameras, put them on our personal computers, and project them to connected strangers on the Internet. What a vacation (meaning to be vacant) it was! Look at these photographs! (Jacques Ellul speaks to this in his magisterial and deeply disturbing work, The Humiliation of the Word.)
Even this blog is, in some not incidental ways, a testimony to loneliness. Who will read? Who will respond? No one in my "neighborhood" will (unless I try very hard). A few at my school may listen and respond, but (in America) students usually show up right before class (or late) then leave immediately. Going over the allotted time is a sin. There is little lingering to discuss matters with other students and the teacher. This struck some of my African students, coming from Liberia to America. While in Bible School, they talked for hours after class about what was discussed in class. But in America, we have to rush off to "do things." After all, we put in our "class time," didn't we?
Let the Preacher of Ecclesiastes teach us:
9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If they fall down, they can help each other up.
But pity those who fall and have no one to help them up!
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)