Tag Archives: loneliness

The Suburbs of Hell

Mauricio Garcia Vega “Visita al infierno’ shared by artist under Creative Commons 3.0

All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!” Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

“Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

What if the existentialists were wrong seeing in others eyes the mirror that condemns themselves?
That their self-directed focus loosed the bonds of the compassion experienced in community
Their desire to liberate themselves from the plight of humanity became their own chains
Which they forged like Marley in Dickens’ Christmas Carol when their neighbor no longer mattered
Their revelation became the great unseeing of their place within the covenant of the commonwealth
Where they looked at the unenlightened with disdain seeking to isolate themselves in their suffering
As they moved into the suburbs of hell to discover what one slowly but inexorably uncovers
That the mirror that condemns oneself is the looking glass of one’s own crafting they gaze into
Discovering in their loneliness that hell is a dungeon of one’s own mind that they are locked within
And the only key to salvation, though it goes against every practice they’ve embraced, every dogma
Is the other people they feared would see them as they are and would deem them unlovable

Perhaps they, like the denizens of C.S. Lewis’ vision, looked with disgust and moved themselves
Further and further away from the city, further away from the possibility of looking into another’s eye
As they move further and further into the wilderness to build their utopias in their grey worlds
Building the walls higher around their stately grounds along roads that no one travels
Locking themselves inside their places of paranoia and safety, hoarding their treasure like dragons
And still Amazon delivers to these unmapped places all the possessions which come to possess
Houses full of unopened boxes with smiles upon the side for people who no longer smile
“I think therefore I am” proclaimed their apostle Descartes as they declared the world outside false
No need for the flames of the lake of fire nor demonic torturers and devilish prison wardens
They in their own self-flagellation willingly wield the red-hot pokers unwilling to accept forgiveness
Remaining locked inside their self-imposed sentence of solitary confinement for unknown offenses

Ecclesiastes 7-The Lonely Path of the Seeker

Isaak Asknaziy, Vanita vanitatum et omnia vanitas (19th Century)

Isaak Asknaziy, Vanita vanitatum et omnia vanitas (19th Century)

Ecclesiastes 7: 1-10 The Cost of Wisdom

1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death, than the day of birth.
 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart.
 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
 5 It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
 6 For like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools; this also is vanity.
 7 Surely oppression makes the wise foolish, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.
 9 Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
 10 Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

There is a joy that is a gift of God but that joy will not be present in every season and often it is the times of grief where wisdom is refined and tested. Ecclesiastes has no place for the masks of happiness that people often feel constrained to wear. Wisdom, we find here, does not drive the teacher to a life of prosperity, rich relationships, easy decisions or universal popularity. It is the road that is less traveled and engages the moments of joy and sadness, pain and pleasure, life and death.

There is a certain kind of wisdom that is only learned through the process of grief and loss and perhaps this is a part of what these proverbs that begin this section point to. Ecclesiastes’ search for wisdom is not a quest that only takes him to the places that are isolated from pain and suffering, instead wisdom often means wrestling with the more challenging parts of life and death. Even though the quest for a lasting legacy of name may be vanity they still seem better than the sweet smelling oils that spoil even more quickly. A person’s life can only begin to be measured at its completion for when the person is present we often take their contributions for granted and can easily focus upon their failures. There is also the hard wisdom of sitting Shiva with those who are mourning and the value that comes not from the cheap pithy sayings but in the long silence of presence. The wisdom that comes from inhabiting the house of mourning may not be a popular wisdom but it is wisdom nevertheless.

In our social media age where we can surround ourselves with an echo chamber of like-minded people we may find it almost impossible to hear the rebuke of the wise if they disagree with our opinions. Yet, that rebuke and cognitive dissonance is an essential part of wisdom. Wisdom and knowledge only grow when they are challenged and pulled. Too often we settle for the quick flash of the thorns which catch fire easily but produce little heat rather than the coals that actually can bring about warmth and can provide the heat needed for the essential task of transforming a dough into a cake or cooking the meat for a meal.

The gift (bribe), impatience, anger and nostalgia become the traps on the path of wisdom as well. Oppression was discussed in chapters four and five and it becomes one of the things that blocks our enjoyment of life and it can also be a roadblock to wisdom. There are certainly those who rise above what may seem impossible circumstances to phenomenal heights but most of those who are oppressed will remain trapped within that oppression. As Ellen Davis can state, “Evil must be remembered but never romanticized; every period of great oppression produces some heroism and much more madness among its victims.” (Davis, 2000, p. 201) The gift, or a bribe, which turns a person aside from the path of wisdom or justice is also a corruption of not only justice but the character of the person. When we change our actions for the sake of another person’s gift (and this may be something as simple as their approval) we have left the path of wisdom. The path of wisdom is not the quick or easy path, it is a path that needs patience. Anger may be an essential part of life and there is a time for righteous anger, but becoming quickly angered is the way of the foolish. Finally nostalgia tries to walk into the future looking backwards. There are gifts to be learned by the study of the past, but trying to recreate the past or romanticizing it often bankrupts both the present and the future. When our memories of the past become larger than our dreams for the future we become trapped in the pain of nostalgia rather than being open to the potential gift of today and tomorrow.


Ecclesiastes 7: 11-21 Wisdom and Ambiguity

 11 Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun.
 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it.
 13 Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?
 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.
 15 In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. 16 Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? 17 Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both.
 19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise more than ten rulers that are in a city.
 20 Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.
 21 Do not give heed to everything that people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you; 22 your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.
Wisdom is better than foolishness and it may even provide some protection and advantage but one person’s wisdom cannot make everything crooked in the world straight. This passage about not being too righteous or too wicked might seem a little Machiavellian but wisdom knows that the complex world rarely falls into absolutes. Life can bring about many border situations where the line between what is right and what is wrong becomes blurred by the ambiguity of the situation. One can apply wisdom and knowledge to the best of one’s ability, one can attempt to be righteous but ultimately in the life lived before God what wisdom we have is incomplete and short lived. There may indeed be times where for the sake of another we might incur guilt or violate what we once believed to be absolutes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, written in the time when Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, struggles with many of these border situation and how ethically the Christian was to respond. Eventually his struggle would lead him to take a role within the resistance plot to assassinate Hitler. Shortly before his imprisonment in Christmas of 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.” (Bethge, 2000, p. 797)

Whether we live life in the position of authority having to use our wisdom on behalf of a community or whether in our private lives attempting to use wisdom in our relationship we never eradicate the evil in ourselves or in society. We live in the paradox of the ending of the Lord’s prayer. In the prayer we pray for the forgiveness of our sins as well as the ability to forgive the sins of others, that we would not be lead into temptation and that we would be delivered from evil. Even our best actions often have unintended harmful consequences and sometimes out of great evil some good can emerge. We are never completely the saint or irreconcilably the sinner and we cannot rely upon our own righteousness nor should we want to immerse ourselves completely into wickedness. We live in times of prosperity and adversity and both come from the same God. 

Ecclesiastes 7: 23-29: The Loneliness of the Seeker

 23 All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. 26 I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, 28 which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.

In Ecclesiastes 4: 9-11 the Teacher reflected on the benefit of companionship but here, in what may be a personal reflection, he reflects upon the loneliness of the seeker. Whether he was unsuccessful in love and in developing friendships we will never know, but the nature of the quest that he has embarked on is not one that is likely to endear him with those content with a less questioning existence. Perhaps, like many who perhaps are more introverted and reflective, he simply never mastered (and perhaps never cared to master) the social niceties and small talk that seem to come so easily to others. Perhaps he never moved beyond his quest where women and men, slaves and concubines and singers became anything more than delights of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes 2: 8) There is a loneliness for a companion who is truly able to share in the seekers quest, to delight in the wisdom they can share together. Perhaps in his time, where women were not considered equal, he couldn’t see someone who could be his equal in conversation and reflection, yet even among men this is exceedingly rare. Humanity and the challenge of the human political game perhaps becomes the area where the seekers gifts in wisdom seemingly fail him and leave him unable to partake in the joy of true companionship.

Silent Nights


I spend my days in a world saturated by sounds and people
Conversations that catch my ear and individuals crying for my attention
Frequently called upon to address the cares of the moment
Retreating only occasionally into the sanctuary of my own thought
Meditating and centering myself to once again enter into the fray
Into the blinding light of attention that sometimes comes with being a public person
Craving the moments of rest and calm in the midst of the squalls of life
Yet, sometimes the silence I seek in the saturated day haunts the night
At the time when we seek that companion that hears our stories
To lay down our burdens and exit the avatars that others see
To open up our souls and pour out the burdens of the heart
Yet, all that answers back in the loneliness is the echo of our own voice
Bouncing off the walls in the silent nights of solitude
Calling forth the contrast between the public life of the day
Where the world waits upon the words we speak
And the dark nights of the soul where our words echo hollowly
Off the quiet hallways of the house where we enter the night
Neil White, 2014