Here is one of my favorite philosophy papers that I wrote back at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, FL, for my Philosophical Anthropology class:
The Hearth & the Sword
A Reflection on Solitude, Nostalgia, and Society
Since the dawn of humanity, man has struggled to comprehend his place in the universe by asking the great questions: “Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?”1 “In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give their lives.”2 It is in this continuing process that “the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing.”3
It is these questions and many more that I pondered and yes, even struggled with, at an early age. Looking back on those halcyon days of my childhood, it seems that I was certainly a philosopher without knowing it. Perhaps that is one of the benefits of being an only child? Not having siblings around afforded me plenty of chance to wander in the wild woods behind my house and thus lost in the wonders of nature, to contemplate the deep feelings and yearnings welling up from the innermost depths of my being. Many of these questions would continue to go unanswered or discussed until I entered seminary. It was here at St. John Vianney College Seminary, that I was finally able to enter freely into the philosophical dialogue with other likeminded young men following Christ’s call to the priesthood. One of the best conversations I have been privileged to engage in so far, centered on the issues of loneliness and solitude, nostalgia, and a critique of modern society. These topics have been at the center of my questioning since a small child and so I was overjoyed to finally be able to converse with others regarding the subject. This paper will afford the reader with a glimpse into my search for meaning and answers regarding the proper understanding of loneliness and solitude and the subsequent issues they raise.
The most valuable lesson that I have learned in philosophy is that life is a both a mystery and a profound gift of the Giver, who is God. I have always instinctively grasped these truths, yet I was unable to quite find the words to express them. But that is the point, is it not? Life, as a mystery, cannot be seen as problem to be solved. It can only be appreciated and knowledge sought only to deepen our participation in its many mysteries. It is with this understanding that one should investigate solitude and loneliness. Both topics are closely related and in fact some today in society would argue that they are the same. Both involve a sort of resting and yearning for fulfillment. However, the philosopher knows better.
We are not simply observers in the world, but rather we are embedded in reality. Thus our natural point of view is naïve realism. Nevertheless, we are part of tradition, and language is the expression of tradition. The word “tradition” is derived from the Latin “trader” which means to hand down or over. But what is handed down? It is a set of backdrops to the great drama which is life.
Humans are the only beings in creation which have the freedom to answer the question, “Who am I?”, which is the opposite side of the question, “What is the meaning of it all?” Thus a proper understanding of metaphysics and anthropology is crucial for our understanding of the world around us in history. This train of thought leads us to Man, who and what he is. The fundamental statement here is that I am a body and I have a body. You cannot simply say either one. Both are intrinsically linked one to the other.
While both loneliness and solitude signify a turn inward, loneliness tends to focus on the self and that which the person does not have. Often, when I am alone and experience loneliness, it is connected with feelings of self-pity, as I am focusing on that which I do not have. This is generally accompanied by feelings of sadness and regret. Yet, in a certain way, this too is a gift, for it reflects the truth that Saint Augustine of Hippo so elegantly called, “the restless heart,” that yearns to be united with his Creator.
Regarding solitude, it seems in my experience, that it is indeed a more positive thing, for here when one is alone, one can feel more positive effects, specifically that of openness to the mystery around oneself and that of feeling surrounded by Being; that all is good and gift. Often in the midst of the busyness of everyday life, I find myself longing for and greatly needed solitude. Solitude allows me to reconnect with the Other who is God; to experience his peace, joy, and love in a profoundly intense and mystical way, one that still remains hard to describe. One must purposely seek solitude and make time for it, most especially when one feels that he does not have time for it. Regarding the spiritual life, if you find it hard to hear the Lord, God is not silent; you are not listening. If you are sad, it is not God or the World that is to blame, it is you. Everything is a gift. It may take time, but the moment you see the gift, you see God, and the moment you see God, you smile. Joy is intrinsic to the Christian life, so we must look for the gift in everything, including each other! In a particular way, it is from the spiritual center of personhood that everything begins. Every being is relational, but it is only in man that that relationality reaches its ultimate reality. Man yearns for intimacy at the deepest, innermost levels of being. Intimacy is the address, the neighborhood, of love. Thus, without intimacy, one cannot experience love! So too, is it with solitude and the encounter with Being.
From these descriptions above, the question was raised, when do loneliness and solitude occur? Are they mainly willfully intended or unexpected? I would argue that to a certain extent, there is a great mystery aspect to both, and as experience shows, both the yearnings within loneliness and solitude seem to often unexpectedly surface. For example, we can be overwhelmed with a moment of encounter with Being in seeing a beautiful sunset on the road home from work. However, when these stirrings occur, one can usually still choose to entertain them or not.
During the course of a group discussion centered on these very issues, a fellow seminarian coined the terms “the sword” and “the hearth.” The sword refers to our desires as men to dare to do great and noble things, to seek out adventure and to rescue the maiden in distress. The hearth focuses on our desires for a cozy, comfortable home or environment in which we feel comfortable and able to rest and renew oneself. The longing for both of these, I believe, exists at the very core of a man’s restless heart. In our dialogue we came to see that this idea of masculine spirituality, in one sense, is linked to loneliness and solitude. For example, in our loneliness, we reach out for comfort and long for the hearth where we can be refreshed and nourished. Additionally, loneliness can also be connected with boredom and thus the desire for the sword, for a purpose to devote ourselves completely to, in order to make a difference.
When one attempts to understand the hearth and the sword, one must first ask, what is understanding? It is a combo of sensation, perception, intuition, and dialogue. We all experience a longing for home and a sense of restlessness until we reach it. Furthermore, in its truest sense, what is home? Home is that name where God called you from nothingness into being and looked at you and loved you. Our response to God and Being, then is indeed our intentionality, which is the pneumatic is the point of departure. Language can allow us to search for Aletheia (meaning), and ultimately, all of man’s problems are religious in nature. Nevertheless, must always keep in mind that language is a reflection of tradition.
In my own personal experience, I have found that the issue of loneliness is greatly connected with that of nostalgia, both for my own personal past and that of the past in general. What do I mean by this? Well, as a student and lover of history, I feel that my very existence is profoundly affected by those who came before me in many ways. I have always struggled with the feeling that I had been born in the wrong time, for my preferences and interests are so much more reflective of earlier periods in world history. Yet, what is it that attracts me so to the past? For me, it is hard to put into words, yet it contains the concepts of both hearth and sword, which seem so much more easily defined and exhibited in the past. I long for the simplicity, manners, dress, work ethic, and faith of those of my sturdy forebearers. That is not to say that I repudiate completely the present, nor do I not look without hope to the future. While romanticizing the past, I have no illusions regarding medicinal treatments, living conditions, or lack of rapid transportation, however! Nostalgia inspires me to pick up the sword, to defend and fight for preservation of all that is sacred: history, love, wonder, and seeing life as a profound gift of the Giver.
I can only speak from personal experience as I acknowledge that as a young man raised in a household of predominantly Irish and German heritage, who has lived in multiple states and cities, I have been conditioned with a certain inherent viewpoint. With an increase of education and philosophy, my views have broadened, deepened, and matured. Nevertheless, my ideas of hearth and sword are wrapped up in that of my culture, and have indeed become more precious and treasured to me. One of the most profound gifts in my early formation was being raised in an external environment where concrete examples of my ancestors were everywhere, from the houses and bridges they designed, to the great canals they dug, to the fields they plowed, and to the soaring churches they built. Nostalgia allows us to cross from chronological time into time in its truest sense, that of phenomenological time. In this ever present present, the grand sweeping scope of history is unveiled before us and our place in it is revealed. And yet, as with all things, we are not in this journey alone. In summarizing nostalgia, the words of the poet George Eliot come to mind,
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some area of native land where it may get the love of tender kinship from the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one's own homestead.
Proceeding further, in the course of this discussion with my brother seminarians, we discovered that part of what we long for is that of the concept of true community and stability. Sadly in modern society (postmodern too), the individual is often the complete focus. Nowhere is this more evident than in American culture here in the United States. The myth of radical individualism has combined with rabid materialism to create a formidable attack on the traditional understanding of community. Here we have a mixture of Protestant and Catholic culture, but predominantly Protestant, following the thinking of Calvin and Luther. Additionally, society’s focus on materialism is greatly reflected in Calvinism, where material wealth reflects God’s blessings. Unfortunately, today, man’s meaning is so often tied to what he does, even his very dignity. But we would do well to remember that man is inherently relational, for he is being in Being, the other in the Other, the creature created by the Creator who is God. This overbearing focus on the individual is an unnecessary rebellion against the community.
Modern technology has allowed us to connect with others more easily than ever before through the electronic media. However, at the same time, it seems that we have never been so alone or cut off from one another. The fluidity of modern society, with its repudiation of its own heritage and roots, accounts for much of the drifter mentality in the younger generations. While I myself enjoy technology, sometimes I wonder if the novelty of it all has become the focus itself. I remember one incident when I was at an ice skating rink and a teenage girl passed me, her head buried in her cell phone, texting, as she glided down the rink, completely oblivious to the world around her. What have we lost? As we have all experienced, having a deep and profoundly distracting effect on our lives is the usage of the media. It was recommended that we shouldn’t immediately turn on the television or the computer when we first arise in the morning. This is because, when we wake up, our natural state is naïve realism. This important way of thinking allows us to capture and contemplate with wonder the beauty of creation all around us. When we do watch television, we should watch with a critical eye. Therefore, we should always watch with a critical eye, asking what the metaphysics behind what we are watching is.
We have attempted to fulfill out longing the Other who is God by focusing on his created things instead of Him who we encounter in solitude. I believe that society today has a great fear of solitude for it has somehow picked up unwarranted negative connotations. Coupled with this fear today, is another, which interestingly enough is leisure. In this individualistic society, we yearn for diversion, but have forgotten the true meaning of leisure, one that allows us both the affirming solitude and community time we need, as Josef Pieper mentioned in his excellent book, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture.”
As you can see, one of the problems of modernity is that it objectifies everything! But you cannot objectify man! The only objectifiable parts are the psyche and the soma, and we all know that the human being is much more than that! Man is a person, so the concept of Personhood is a very important one!
Another problem that exists in society today is the tendency to switch from “I-thou” relationships to that of “I-it” relationships. This twisting of human relationships is a perversion. Objectifying things can have dangerous consequences, especially as it removes the mystery from things. When you objectify water, for example, as H2O, it loses its relationship to being. It really exists in nature as water. We must be open to the mystery and we should find all the inspiration for prayer and contemplation that we need in what surrounds us every day in nature. Furthermore, the pneuma is not objectifiable, because of its intrinsic nature as transcendental. You cannot empty it of the transcendental because that is what it is!
Returning to the idea of the hearth and the sword, this can be applied to male and female relations. Traditionally understood, to defend and protect and do great things, is the way that a man expresses his love. A woman expresses her love through words and tending the hearth. Now, these stereotypes do not accurately sum up the complete nature of either sex, for both have elements of the sword and the hearth. Men and women alike have the same desire to search for meaning and identity, the answers to which we can only find in love, in the encounter with Being. Indeed, only God can be the target of love. Furthermore, only the person is made in the image and likeness of God. At the core of the mystery is the relationality of God and man. We can never enter into the mystery of love unless we acknowledge that we are loved by God. When everything is said and done, what still gives us our dignity is the possibility to say yes or no to God's love, which is the Fundamental Option. But what of our preoccupation with happiness? Happiness is not something you pursue; it is something that happens when a person lives their life in love.
I am profoundly grateful for the lessons that I have learned in my philosophical studies so far. For it is in this inquiring dialogue with others that I have indeed experienced glimpses of the Other in new and profound ways. With a maturing sense of purpose, I continue to look forward to examining loneliness and solitude and beyond. It has truly been a blessing to start out on the wild and rocky road of philosophy. It is never easy, but with gratitude in my heart, a sword at my side, and a kind hearth nearby, I set out on the profound journey of mystery. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkein, “Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”’ Let the journey begin!
-John Paul II, Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2008) (FR), 1-3.