"I am lonely." These words must have been radical 60 years ago. "...I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly." I've been thinking of Joseph B. Soloveitchik's words all day... especially today.
Rabbi Michael Balinsky gave me a copy of Soloveitchik's 1965 book "The Lonely Man of Faith" when I graduated Northwestern more than 20 years ago. I think a book is a wonderful gift, and I was honored that he considered me worthy of this particular book, because it is a dense philosophical read. It describes the dichotomy of serving God and serving one's self. Of being useful and excellent and creative and capable of conquest in a world so much of man's making. And yet being an infinitesimal speck in universe that belongs to the Divine.
I believe in the Divine. I hate the question, "Do you believe in God?" Because it is a question trapped by language. By the limitations of intellect itself. Yes, I do, but not as God is literally described in the Bible. I believe in the unknowable, the unconfirmable. I believe that I have agency, but I am not ultimately the master of my universe. The number of people in this world who even believe in the Divine is dwindling. And I am not sure that is necessarily a bad thing. My secular humanist, agnostic, and atheist friends are good moral people, and I understand their perspective. But I am not "one of them."
I am not an overly religious man--we belong to a synagogue to which we have little connection (so far), we have a weekly Sabbath celebration, we celebrate the holidays--but I identify with the Lonely Man of Faith. It almost feels taboo saying it, but I am often existentially lonely. That is different from being interpersonally lonely. I am lucky to have a wife I love, children with whom I can have a conversation, and friends I adore, dating back decades. This past weekend alone, I shared coffee with two friends from high school, one of whom I hadn't seen in over ten years. And we spent all of Sunday with our best friends. We drank a toast to the good moments. “To love another person is to see the face of God,” sings Jean Valjean in my mind. But those moments together are fleeting. There was a time I saw these people every day.
Entrepreneurial people like to quote Jim Rohn and say that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. But that doesn't really make much sense to me. I spend the most time with my wife, my sons (ages 7 and 9), a colleague and a client. Most of the time, I am alone with my work. Or someone else's work. But it wasn't always that way.
I decided to spend a good portion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in New York City at the Abraham Joshua Heschel school. Heschel was a friend and activist alongside Dr. King, and both found in each other friends of faith. The Shalom Hartman Institute program at the school was "Jews and Muslims in America Today: Political Challenges and Moral Opportunities." I thought building bridges between two communities of faith was a perfect way to honor Dr. King.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. But I found myself thinking about the entirety of the experience. Getting onto an LIRR train and going to the West Side. Remembering how it felt just four years ago to live in an apartment building and see friendly faces every day in our building and on the city streets. In many ways, Long Island, though it's got a population greater than most American metro areas, is "flyover country." It's not culturally bereft, but it doesn't benefit from the city's condensed humanity. When I walked to West End Avenue and reached the long line into the school, I discovered that I was the only person there, as far as I could tell, that was not affiliated with a high school, a university, a Jewish organization, or a Muslim organization. I was an outsider.
As panelist after panelist spoke, I realized how much I loved being surrounded by intellectual discourse, but wondered, what difference is this making? I stood up and asked, "In an America that seems to be increasingly anti-intellectual, how can you bring this intellectual dialogue and bridge-building to the vast majority of the populace who doesn't engage in intellectual discourse?" I wanted to know if this was navel-gazing, or something that could be shared with those who weren't dwelling on the differences and commonalities of the children of Abraham. I didn't get a satisfactory response.
But I was so impressed by the panel on campus dialogue. It was led by Northwestern Hillel's Executive Director Michael Simon and Northwestern's interfaith chaplain Tahera Ahmad. They have forged a respect and friendship over seven years that demonstrates part of the solution to loneliness itself: they put in the work, so often together, day in and day out. So much so that when there are real tensions between their communities of faith, Michael and Tahera are able to repair those bridges. And I was reminded of what was so special for me at NU when I was in the college "bubble:" my friendships, my community, my education were there for me every day. They strengthened in the crucible of repeated exposure.
The institutional communities could learn a thing or two from NU. But one of the panelists, during a particularly frank exchange of opinions, pointed out that one of the ruptures between the American Jewish establishment and the American Muslim establishment--over the question of whether Keith Ellison should lead the DNC--could have been avoided if someone had picked up the phone and engaged in dialogue. And connected.
It's such a simple old-fashioned idea: pick up the phone and connect. You can feel alone when you're surrounded by people who are speaking past each other. It may be a quick fix, an inadequate balm, but it's hard to feel lonely during a really worthwhile telephone conversation.