Arts and Culture

Lonely in the Cosmos

Ninth in a series

I have no statistics, but I have no doubt that loneliness experiences multiplied significantly during the pandemic. A friend of mine, a psychological counselor, told me that after months of the pandemic, she thought it would take a long time for many to return to what their emotional lives were before the pandemic. If she had said that to me at the start of the pandemic, I wonder if I would have agreed with her.

Months of experiencing the pandemic make me suspect her remark was entirely accurate. None of us had ever gone through an experience like the pandemic. We are threatened physically, emotionally, and, if not threatened spiritually, at least strongly challenged. I suspect that prayer has taken on a new meaning and importance during the pandemic for many of us.

The first edition of “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book,” by American novelist Percy Walker, a devout Catholic. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983. (Photo: Courtesy of Rare Book Cellar)

During the last year, most of us have probably received powerful and frightening insights into how finite, fragile and vulnerable we are. How are those insights going to help us in the future? Is the pandemic ultimately going to help us grow, appreciate our health, be grateful for the gifts of faith, hope, and charity? I don’t ever wish to experience another pandemic, but I hope I never forget this one’s experience.

I think of loneliness as a feeling, feeling unloved, of not being significant or important. I don’t believe loneliness essentially has anything to do with being alone or being in a crowd. Someone at a party or even in Times Square on New Year’s Eve might feel lonely, whereas a contemplative hermit who lives alone in the woods might not feel lonely at all.

Being quarantined or even isolated during the pandemic prevented us from normal and healthy interactions with other people. This involved an enormous adjustment. If in 2019 someone had described to me how we were going to live in 2020, I would have said something like the following: “That’s impossible. This is the United States of America, the greatest country in the world. Nothing like what you describe could ever happen here!” I never would have guessed that a face mask would become an essential part of our wardrobe.

Not experiencing for months the embraces and hugs of loved ones can take both a physical and emotional toll. Wearing a mask and keeping social distance can be a substantial challenge. Not engaging in the enjoyable experiences of attending theatrical events or family get-togethers or parties creates a vacuum in our lives. Because of the pandemic, we were forced to live in a manner that none of us had ever experienced previously.

Novelist Walker Percy wrote a book entitled “Lost in the Cosmos.” The title expresses a feeling that many may have experienced during the pandemic. I have written this column with the hope of a totally different view of our presence in the Cosmos. We are not lost! Rather the most profound view of the cosmos and our presence in it is a matter of finding us in a most exciting and challenging story and adventure. Our presence in the Cosmos involves us in a cosmic love story, a love story written by God over several billion years. We, every single one of us, are called to co-author the story by our free choices.

The belief that I am so special to God that God has invited me to participate in this cosmic love story should not lead me to embrace a kind of individualism. Instead, it should be viewed as a call to community, a call to a profound communion with God and others.

Stunned by awareness of how precious and important I am to God, this knowledge should not lead me to overlook the importance of others. Rather my love relationship with God should help me to love whom God loves.

The cosmic love story is everyone’s story. The profound truth about every human person is that each is incredibly important in God’s plan. Each is sacred to God and should be sacred to us.

God is Pure-Gift. The nature of God is not only to love but to be Love. Having been created in God’s image, we are called to imitate God, who is Love. We are called to live in the manner of a gift. We are called to contribute to the ongoing story, a story whose scope and depth are breathtaking.

Each of our contributions to the ongoing adventure will be unique, and each self-gift is indispensable in God’s plan. Only I can make my self-gift. No one can substitute for me.

As I finish writing this column, I am hoping that in some way, however small, it contributes to the ongoing cosmic love story.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.