Why Are We So Lonely?

If you try to describe the plot of Twelve Angry Men—all the action takes place in one room as a jury deliberates on a murder trial—it sounds mind-numbingly boring. I promise it’s not.

Somehow, I’d never gotten around to seeing the classic film until this weekend. After a slow start, the tension in the room and the unfolding clues grab your attention, and I found myself drawn in particular to Juror 9, the old man.

In my favorite part of the movie, the jurors are arguing about an apparent contradiction in the testimony of one of the witnesses. When asked what the witness would stand to gain by lying, Juror 9 says quietly, “Attention, maybe.”

And so he goes on:

“It’s just that I looked at him for a very long time. The seam of his jacket was split under the arm. Did you notice that? He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once. This is very important.”

Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

And I thought: people shouldn’t feel this way anymore—but we still do.

Technology gives us a way to be recognized, questioned, listened to, and quoted. Anyone can post on Facebook, react publicly to current events, upload a YouTube video, give unsolicited advice to the world, or write on a blog.

But most of us, I think, still feel frightened and insignificant when we realize that hardly anyone knows us. When the noise of our own making quiets down for a moment, we feel like nobodies.

So we don’t let the silence linger. We take our phones into the bathroom and check social media for reassurance that we matter. We stop noticing the beauty around us and instead convince ourselves everyone else has a better life than ours. We want to be listened to but don’t want to listen, we want to be welcomed but are afraid of inviting others in case everyone says no, and we live in a constant state of feeling alone and friendless in a crowd of “friends.”

That’s a very sad thing.

There’s been a lot of social media chatter about the Walk Up Not Out movement challenging teens to reach out to those who aren’t included. Some have pointed out possible problems and false dichotomies in this response. But here was my first thought: even if this advice was taken and applied in the best way possible, it wouldn’t be enough.

Don’t get me wrong, kindness is a seriously underrated quality—you feel its importance deeply when you meet someone who lives it out, but in our day-to-day selfishness, it gets shoved aside as too time-consuming, too sentimental, or too risky. So it’s great to encourage others, especially young people, to be kind.

But.

Kindness is not the answer, not for school shootings, not for any other social problem, not for the loneliness we all feel from time to time. It’s important, it’s heartwarming, it creates connections…but it’s not enough.

We were made to be known in a deeper, truer way than our fellow humans can give us. Until we realize that, we’ll keep being lonely.

Other people are unstable objects of our affection. We can’t depend on them to be consistently kind, and we can’t even rely on them to appreciate our kindness.

The Christian faith says that no one knows that better than God, and yet he still chose us and loves us because we’re his. Our love for our neighbor—for family and friends and outsiders and enemies—comes from him and reflects his love. That’s why I find the promise of 1 Corinthians 13:12 so comforting, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Doesn’t everyone want that? No matter how many times I read that verse, it strikes me as a beautiful articulation of a deep need in the human soul, one that ultimately only God can fill.

I’ve talked about technology the past few weeks, and I think there are many more discussions that could be had about how we should live in a world where advertising is everywhere, where opinions are cheap and wisdom rare, where it’s hard to figure out what’s true. But most of all, I want to remember the importance of loving people, a love that comes from God’s love for us.

Technology doesn’t have to be a barrier to that, but it sometimes is, because it’s one more medium to take our time and attention away from what matters. One more barrier between us that gives us a superficial feeling of being connected and known and heard…and ultimately doesn’t last.

So I challenge you to think along with me about what that kind of love looks like, in an age where it seems to be getting harder to find, where there are more and more nobodies who long to be known and loved. Because, along with Juror 9, I want to remind you, “This is very important.”

One comment

  1. Thank you! This was such a great post! I especially loved the addition of 1Corinthians 13:12. It is my favorite Bible verse for exactly that reason, but I’ve never seen anyone explain it quite as perfectly as you did. Keep on, keeping on!

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