In the pantheon of emotions, loneliness is one of the most debilitating. Nothing equals the sense of isolation more than knowing that something terrible could happen to you and that no one would know about it for hours – or even days.
I hope that readers will pardon a personal illustration. In 1981, a terrible economy forced me to leave my hometown of Flint, Michigan. During that time, I was able to travel to Miami. I applied for a job and got it. A week later, I had returned to Michigan, packed my belongings in my Oldsmobile, and was back in Miami to start the new job. I averted poverty, but it was the beginning of a period of intense loneliness that lasted over a year. I well remember the desire to see someone – anyone – that I had known for more than a few weeks.
By the Grace of God, I came through that time without permanent moral injury; but I can still feel the loneliness.
I would not have been so lonely had it happened today. A cellular telephone with unlimited long distance and text capacity would have made it far easier to contact friends left behind. Access to the Internet would have opened other distractions.
However, many are just as lonely today, despite the electronic toys. Programs are available to help someone know when acquaintances are near, in case one wants to see – or avoid – them. We can share a picture of dinner with hundreds of “friends” and pretend that they care. Electronic games are played between competitors in different countries who never meet face to face. Witticisms can be shared with an electronic “assistant” who answers back in the electronic voice of your choice.
However, modern life and modern immorality breed loneliness. No one feels fulfilled by the myriad casual relationships that exist only until they are inconvenient. Satisfaction from achieving a new high score on a favorite game passes quickly. A virtual life is just that, an amorphous thing lacking reality.
Developers have just announced a new electronic device that promises to assuage loneliness. It is called Fribo. Presumably, the name is a composite of the words friend and robot.
Fribo is a black oval device with a flat bottom, two points at the top shaped like the ears of a cat, and two white circles meant to approximate eyes. The device sits on a table or shelf until it is activated by sound. Then, it relays a message to Fribo devices of friends. For instance, it might “hear” the front door open and close and relay the message, “Henry has come home.” The refrigerator or oven opening triggers the message, “Elizabeth is preparing dinner.”
Presumably, this encourages friends to contact each other. Henry’s being home may mean that he would like to talk about a difficult day at work. Elizabeth might want company rather than prepare and eat a dinner for one.
Fribo’s South Korean creators insist that privacy concerns are minimized because no recordings of the various activities are made. The owner selects those who hear the messages. Selections, once made, can be deleted.
Of course, complications will quickly arise. “Why don’t I hear from your Fribo anymore?” asks the deleted acquaintance. The normal desire to spend an evening with a good book is disturbed by those who desire company. Untoward assumptions are made when Fribo does not herald a return home from work until 11:00 p.m. Misplaced trust in a former friend becomes a real threat to safety and security.
The modern world does not understand that loneliness is not caused by being alone. It arises from a sense of being isolated. We can feel isolated in the middle of a crowd. We can feel isolated in a room full of friends and relatives. Having 837 “friends” on Facebook does not end the isolation.
Loneliness is only averted by real relationships. Isolation is eased by reaching out to others and serving their needs. Ultimately, loneliness is best avoided through an active relationship with God. Thus, Saint Paul recommends in his letter to the Philippians, “And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
That is why some of the Church’s greatest saints were called to be hermits. Doctors of the Church like Saint Basil, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Jerome spent considerable periods living alone, but not in loneliness. Their solitary time was spent working and praying in service to God and their fellow men.
Admittedly, life in a hermitage is only for the very few who are given the great grace to endure long periods alone. Their example, however, does demonstrate how a relationship with God can be an antidote for loneliness. God has planted resources all around us so that we might follow their example to the extent that we can. Perpetual adoration chapels abound. God calls people to His service if we listen in solitude. Electronic devices can be used to gain access to a vast library of religious materials and uplifting podcasts.
Fribo cannot fill the lives of the lonely; nor can Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any other diversion of the electronic world. Only God can do that. As Saint Augustine put it so eloquently, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”