“The man who has been melted by the sun of values, and above all the man who has been wounded by the love of Christ, is also lovingly open to every man and has entered into the objective unity of all.”
- Dietrich von Hildebrand
People cannot flourish in isolation.
Believe me, I’ve tried.
I tried playing it off by blaming my introversion, my busy schedule, my studies… the list for why I excused my desire for isolation is a long one. For most of my life, I have placed little to no importance on true communion with other persons. Others can hurt you. Others can betray you, leave you, and disappoint you. Others are not worth my time, I thought.
But the truth of the matter is, I need others. I need the joy of another.
We all do.
In all of my obsessive inward-gazing due to my unending desire for self-knowledge, I completely overlooked the fact that it is only through authentic encounters with another person that I can be called out of myself and in to true growth as a person. With the blunt but loving honesty of a father, it was Dietrich von Hildebrand who startled me into this realization when he declared that “an isolated man, one who has not become conscious of the ultimate objective link binding him to all other men before God, is an unawakened, immature, even mutilated man” (source, 50).
If I was “unawakened” before, these words commanded my attention and left me startled and wide awake, eyes hungrily devouring Hildebrand’s next words.
In all humility, I felt like he was speaking directly to me; as if he could visibly see the inner defenses I had created inside of myself, keeping me emotionally and spiritually distant from other people. He called me out of myself by pointing out that “the shutting up of oneself in this inner fortress of isolation, which exists secretly even in the most jovial joiner of clubs, is proof of narrowness, limitation, and even stupidity. For it presupposes a certain egocentric attitude towards the world and God” (Ibid.).
Could it be possible that I had spent the bulk of my life seeing things from an egocentric viewpoint? The thought rattled me, but I decided to stick with him, and kept reading.
For Hildebrand, “a true personality is never solitary in the sense of being isolated from others in the depths” (Ibid.). In other words, a person with a rather shallow sense of self and an immature outlook on life, though surrounded by other people, could still be living in isolation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a hermit could be living in the physical “isolation” of his hermitage, but because he possesses a “true personality” which is hyper-aware of himself in relation to others and in relation to God, he could be living in more communion with his fellow man than the immature man surrounded by people.
It’s not about how many people we find ourselves physically surrounded by – it’s about our awareness of our connectedness with our fellow man, and “whether or not there has been a breaking-down of the inner walls of self-assertion, in the defenses of the sphere of [the] ego” (Ibid.).
I think, like most things in life, the moral of this story is one of balance. Self-knowledge and taking time for solitude are good and necessary things. But too much solitude can quickly develop into isolation if we are not making a conscious effort to see ourselves as a piece of the larger picture of eternity.
Likewise, we cannot allow our personal “I” to be completely dissolved within the larger “We.” Seeking true communion with others is only possible by having healthy relationships with ourselves (for more on this topic, check out my previous post) and with God. In Hildebrand’s own words: “this ultimate true spirit of communion, the universal disposition to love, and the life in the ultimate loving ‘We,’ is only possible as a fruit of the ultimate ‘I-thou-communion’ with Christ” (Ibid, 51). First, we must learn to know ourselves, and in doing so, come to know God in relation to ourselves. But we cannot stay there. We must leave the inner chambers of our hearts, on occasion, and go out into the streets. Like Catherine of Siena, we must follow Christ’s urging to leave our inner cell in order to seek out communion with others (whether we like it or not!).
In my own life, I can see illustrated what Hildebrand is saying. During the times in my life when I chose to collapse in on myself rather than allowing other people into my heart, my growth was stunted. Although time was passing and I found myself older, I was no wiser. It is only during times in my life when I have gambled on another; took the risk of loving, of knowing, of seeing and being seen in return that I came away from the encounter knowing more about myself, and feeling more happy and whole as a result.
To know and to love another is a risk that is worth taking.
There is immeasurable joy to be had in communion.