Wednesday, October 11, 2006

American Loneliness: African Perspectives

The awful truth is that most Americans are desperately lonely. While the African proverb says, "I am because we are," Americans say, "I am because I am entertained--by myself." Or, we occupy adjacent spaces with other humans while sonically or visually isolated from them. Consider two people walking down a quiet trail in Denver, Colorado. Both have earphones on. The dog may or may not. Consider the back seat of some automobiles, which are adorned with two screens to entertain people (usually children, one supposes) while driving. Heave forbid that anyone should sit in silence or converse with others in the car.

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)


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


You are right! I'm surprised that I did it and that no one else caught it. So, I deleted the whole post. The problem is that I tried to make a best explanation argument into a deductive argument, which won't work in this case.

Many thanks.

Jonathan Erdman said...

It is these kinds of posts that bring Doug close to many in the postmodern camp who despise the technological takeover of the human soul.

In the move Fight Club the objection to the current society ultimately culminates in its own destruction by a tortured multiple-personality character who is torn between embracing society and its materialism versus working within the system to destroy the system. This expresses itself in two emerging personalities in conflict with each other...a fascinating commentary, I think, on people in our culture (U.S.): A desire to escape their lonely existence, but too in love with stuff to give it up and step into a truly meaningful spiritual dimension.

Doug, you are more postmodern than you know!

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Good night! Good grief!

Being a critic of some aspects of technology no more makes one postmodern than walking into a garage makes one a car or than swimming makes one a fish.

Leptopus said...

Each new rebellion against the truth uses as its excuse some error in the previous rebellion. So naturally, the postmodernists will have a little truth mixed in with their silliness.

Kevin Winters said...

Loneliness is by and large a consequence of the modernist notion of the "individual," who is the starting point of all philosophy (Descartes, Kant, even Sartre [in his misappropriation of Heidegger]). When we theoretically start with a self and then add on, as a contingent aspect of the self, others, alienation is inescapable. It is not merely a matter of technology, but the basic theoretical framework that makes technology possible (getting this from Heidegger's later work).

Put in metaphysical terms, when my identity/selfhood is solely that which I myself have regardless of my interactions with others, we are theoretically incapable of accepting the African phrase, "I am because we are." My being is not dependent on the "we" except in some contingent sense. The only "other" with whom I am necessarily related (within traditional Christian theology) is God, without which I would not exist. But past that dependence, my being is independent, self-sufficient, etc. Of course we are alienated when our basic view of reality demands nothing else!

BF Admin said...

Good post. I have seen this happening a lot lately in my own home. In the evening, one goes up to prepare lessons in one room, another goes to instant message and do homework in another room, and I find myself downstairs, alone, most of the evening. I have felt the unhealthiness of this atmosphere and hope to change it.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Comment by Doug...
Being a critic of some aspects of technology no more makes one postmodern than walking into a garage makes one a car or than swimming makes one a fish.

Hey, at least we've got you in the water!

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I've been in the water of cultural critique and Christian response for 30 years. Francis Schaeffer got me started, no postmodernist.

Kevin Winters said...


I'm curious: would you see it as a bad thing if you held a postmodern view? You seem to be fighting that genetic falacy with every breath you have.

Kevin Winters said...


Let me clarify my question: I think you are a good deal closer to many so-called "postmodernists" than you think and that you could, perhaps, find welcome support in many of your cultural endeavors. Unfortunately, you've been seduced into the facile understanding (and misunderstanding) of so-called "postmodernism" that has been circulating since its inception. Because of this, you are not fully to blame as you're simply repeating what your teachers, whom you respect and trust, have been saying.

What I have been trying to do in my (probably, for you, annoying) posting here is to try to show you this faulty understanding, to make you aware of the falsehoods you've inherited from a generation that was too quick to criticize and not quick enough to understand. I'm not here to "convert" you to "postmodernism" (especially since I think that term is practically useless), but simply to help you understand so that your criticisms can be more relevant. I'm not under the illusion that if you understand me (or Heidegger or Nietzsche or Derrida) you will agree with me (or them). But your criticisms fall on deaf ears when others do not share your understanding of these figures.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Yes, honestly, you are annoying me on postmodernism. I just finished "Christianity and the Postmodern Turn" and read the pro-PoMo pieces by Jamie Smith, M. Westphal, and J. Franke. They failed to convince me, so you should probably give up.

Yours for the Heidegger Revivival,
Doug Groothuis

Kevin Winters said...


Sorry, can't do that, especially since my attempt is not to convince you, but to help you understand. Again, I'm not under the illusion that if you understand so-called postmodernism you will agree with it. However, I am concerned with the naive "pop culture" understanding that you have of many of its figures (which should be significant, given your distaste for pop culture). I understand that you have simply inherited this view from those who came before you, men whom you respect and trust, so I wouldn't expect you to be able to give up these false idols (i.e. strawmen) right away. But if you ever desire to do so, I would love to be there to help.

Let me repeat, though: I am not here to convince, but to increase mutual understanding. I'm not here to win points in an argument or demonstrate the superiority of my view, but to help you make your own points more relevant to those you are discussing.