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Fall of my sophomore year in college--I still can't recall it without aching a little. I'd spent the summer two thousand miles removed from my girlfriend, Polly, but fall quarter summoned us back to the University of Washington. She called to say she was in Seattle. "At the airport?" I asked.
"No, I got a ride."
"Oh . . . uh, I thought I was gonna pick you up."
"Jim, we need to talk. Can you come over?"
Could I come over? Was there anything else I'd wanted to do all summer long? "I'll be right over." But dread battled excitement as I hurried to her room.
After the smiles and hugs and cursory greetings, Polly gathered herself to say what I wasn't prepared to hear. "Look, I don't want to hurt you, but you know the way things were in the spring? Jim, I just don't feel that way anymore. I think it's best for us not to go out for a while. I'm really sorry." And she was. She's a sweet person. one
You are not alone. God already loves you.
But suddenly I felt dreadfully, hollowly, painfully alone, cut adrift in a vast sea of 35,000 faceless students at the megaversity. I can't remember what I said. What's there to say? I was polite, tentatively stoic as I accepted one last hug. And then I fled out into the night, away from the dorm, down the hillside, out onto the immense, dark commuter parking lot to walk furiously and let the wind dry my tears. Alone. But you are not alone.
It's Dark Out There
In 1999, the film The Blair Witch Project scared the spit out of moviegoers and emptied the woods of backpackers, like Jaws had once bared the beaches. It was spooky enough when all three campers cringed in their tent amid eerie sounds in the dark, but the most emotional scene focused on one lone backpacker, bereft of her companions, speaking a farewell to her parents into the shaking, handheld videocam. All by her-self, her experience was excruciating. Alone.
But you are not alone.
Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, once grimly likened our human predicament to a group of porcupines crouched together under shelter to ward off the night's bitter cold. "The colder it gets outside," he wrote, "the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of the earth's winter, eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze in our loneliness."
1 We get hurt when we're together, so we're on our own now. Alone.
But you are not alone.
The Loneliest Number
You don't have to be three years old to experience separation anxiety. It hurts to feel alone, yet dare I say that that's a major descriptor of twenty-first-century people? Chances are you feel it acutely. We're alone at our computer terminals, surfing the Web for connection. We're alone in a crowd, alone at a party, alone in our room, alone behind walls, alone in our shame, even painfully alone in relationships we thought would finally connect us. We feel not only alone but insignificant as well, when we stare into an immense patch of distant stars, or make a solitary stand on principle in the workplace, or ache to make a difference in the suffering world around us. Three Dog Night got it right: One is the loneliest number. And we can't stand it--alone!
But you are not alone. You are not alone.
What in the world can I mean by "You are not alone"? Didn't I get dumped, however graciously? Wasn't the camper vulnerably solo? Don't people sadly separate themselves from the sharp pangs of relationship? Yes. But there's another element to shade our experience.
The world I want to tell you about, one I now know well enough to paint from memory, doesn't have a shade for alone. Not for truly, ultimately, existentially alone. God inhabits that world, and that means that alone becomes for each of us an impossibility. Introduce God into the picture, and everything changes.
God Already Loves You
Of course, introduce God, and things also get more complicated. I'm well aware that gods of all kinds abound in our pluralistic experience. I'm not looking here for a religious free-for-all about who God is or which god is better or even if such a thing as a god exists apart from our wish projections. That's been done before by many great minds. (See book suggestions in sidebar.)
You've brought your ideas into this investigation, and I'm not about to put anyone down. I'd simply like to unfold for you a reasonably centrist picture here of the Christian way of looking at things. It's actually pretty sensible. So maybe we can work through the sentence that heads this section, word by word: God already loves you. God does, after all.
God Is ...
When I use the term God (with a capital G), I'm talking about the historical God of the Jews and Christians. Maybe you know him--or maybe you assume you do. Let me describe him. This God is most particular and unique, and that's a big deal. God has chosen which parts of himself to reveal to us, so that over several thousand years of God working with us, we're getting the picture. But we don't have the entire picture. After all, any god my mind could completely surround wouldn't be very impressive. Certain aspects of divinity begin to define this God of Christianity, and, as it turns out, a number of first-guess, god-type ideas actually don't describe this God at all.
For instance, God is personal and not just some concept-- much more like George Burns in Oh, God! than The Force in Star Wars, although, of course, either example falls far short of the real thing. People speak to God. God answers.