These thoughts were supposed to start a conversation at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Wednesday, March 7 (then 21), 2018, as part of our Ecumenical Lenten Services in Norwich. Both services were cancelled due to unexpected weather caused by a Nor’easter. The thoughts are posted here for those interested in that discussion. Scripture for this lesson comes from a variety of places and can be found on the handout.
I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here. Note: the questions on this handout are often different from the questions raised in the discussion.
In 1951, D. O. Hebb, a psychologist at McGill University, received a grant from the Defence Research Board of Canada to study the effects of monotony and isolation on individuals. Participants laid in a lit cubicle for 24 hours a day for as long as they could stand,
with time out only for meals (which they usually ate sitting on the edge of the bed) and going to the toilet. They wore translucent plastic visors which transmitted diffuse light but prevented pattern vision. Cotton gloves and cardboard cuffs extending beyond the fingertips restricted perception by touch. Their auditory perception was limited by a U-shaped foam rubber pillow on which their heads lay and by a continuous hum of air-conditioning equipment which masked small sounds.
Researchers observed that participants found it increasingly difficult to concentrate in isolation. Participants became increasingly irritable, restless, and desperate for stimulation.
When they came out for meals, they tended to be garrulous and attempted to draw the experimenters into conversation. In moving about, as when they were led to the toilet, they appeared dazed and confused, and had increasing difficulty in finding their way about the washroom.
The researchers concluded that
prolonged exposure to a monotonous [isolated] environment…has definitely deleterious effects. The individual’s thinking is impaired; he shows childish emotional responses; his visual perception becomes disturbed; he suffers from hallucinations; his brain-wave pattern changes…
A changing sensory environment seems essential for human beings. Without it, the brain ceases to function in an adequate way, and abnormalities of behavior develop. In fact, as Christopher Burney observed in his remarkable account of his stay in solitary confinement: “Variety is not the spice of life, it is the very stuff of life.”
We humans need variety, diversity, and difference in our lives. We need others in order to experience life that truly is life. It is a spiritual truth placed in the very mouth of God in one of the earliest chapters of the Bible, “It’s not good that the human is alone” (Genesis 2:18, Common English Bible). We can only thrive in and through community. We can only find life when its lived, together, with others. We need diversity and difference, the challenge of living in and through community.
Isolation not only has a deleterious affect on us physically and emotionally, it also affects us spiritually.
Is it possible to live one’s faith in isolation?
In his preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), John Wesley notes that “Solitary religion is not to be found [in the Gospel of Christ]. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”
Why do you think living a solitary faith is so dangerous?
What do we gain by living our faith “socially,” in community?
What do we gain by living our faith, together, with others? Everything—a glimpse of heaven on earth, an experience of salvation in the flesh (which is the promise of scripture).
What do we have to lose by living our faith in isolation? Everything.
Love, forgiveness, mercy, peace, and joy cannot be experienced alone. We can never truly find God if we refuse to find God’s image in the face of another human being—friend and foe, loved one and stranger—all of whom were created in God’s image.
Love, forgiveness, mercy, peace, and joy each need another. Love turned inward is pride. Forgiveness and mercy without an other is self-justification. Joy experienced alone is hysteria. And, peace with or by one’s self seems to me to be the very definition of isolation.
Faith must be lived in community if we’re ever to discover the power of love, forgiveness, mercy, peace and joy in our midst—heaven on earth.
Heaven cannot be experienced alone. We need one another to enact and experience the principles of heaven.
What do we gain through a communal expression of faith? Heaven, here, in our midst.
Other Thoughts and Questions:
- When you miss church (the gathering of the community), what do you think you are missing? some music? a lecture? an opportunity to experience (however fleeting) heaven on earth?
- For a longer excerpt of Wesley’s argument for community over isolation, see https://jacobjuncker.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/community-not-isolation/. You will also find there a link to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739).
 Woodburn Heron. “The Pathology of Boredom.” Scientific American 196, no. 1 (1957), p53.
 Ibid., 56.