The first six months I lived in Africa was the loneliest point of my life.
Before that point, I cannot say I was ever lonely. Perhaps I was momentarily lonely, but it was never a state of existence. Yet, those first months in Africa, I frequently found myself alone. And it was a loneliness that often drove me to tears.
It was in those first months, as I was learning the language, that I lived out in my small little village. My partner had not arrived from the States and the only other westerners I knew were a long trip away. The village was small and remote. The people all spoke a language I could not understand, and even if I could, they did not understand me. In the beginning, they were more like subjects than people. I could not see their personalities, their humanity. I saw strange faces that I could not read.
Last week, I was reminded of those emotions, but it was in the least likely of places.
The New York metropolitan area has around 20 million people. It is the largest population center in the United States and is one of the largest in the world. Amidst rows of high-rise apartments and company headquarters, people scurry around from place to place. Subways fill with riders, pedestrians fight for taxis, and the lines at the corner grocery store snake around the building.
People are absolutely everywhere.
As I struck up conversations with people, or as I tried, I was met with that famous, cold New York stare. It appeared as though these city dwellers had no desire for human contact or conversation of any kind. The multitude found a way to exist on top of each other without any connection to one another.
Nevertheless, I was persistent.
As I continued to push for conversation, people began to drop their defenses. Shocked that someone actually wanted to talk to them on the subway, a smile would warm their cold expression as they shared about family or work. Others, relieved to find someone who would listen, poured out concerns, worry, and grief. Frequently, what I found under that unapproachable shell was a tender personality guarding itself from the harsh world outside.
Yet, in a place so full of people you cannot turn around without bumping someone, I began to notice a constant refrain. The repeated chorus was one of isolation. Subway riders, crowded by the people around them, felt isolated. People filling sidewalks and crowded sandwich shops were somehow by themselves. And as these people talked of their lives and hurts, the song they sang was called Loneliness.
At first, I was surprised that loneliness was such a common theme in a city of 20 million people, but soon it made sense. For, loneliness is not about how many people you have around you but the type of people you have around you.
Some of my conversations were with people who had grown up there, others had moved there for work or a chance at a new life. Whatever the case, in the chaos that surrounded them, the screams of the multitude made it impossible to find those single voices that make up one of man’s greatest needs, community.
In the beginning, mankind was created with a need for real relationship. God said that it was not good for man to be alone. Furthermore, it is evident that one of God’s chief aspects in his design of man was relationship with him. God walked with Adam in the garden. It was community in its truest sense.
Then man tanked creation in the fall, and we have been screwing up community ever since. God has, yet again, provided a haven of real community. It is his church, and in it, we find a piece of what was lost in that garden so long ago. And one day, those who are in Christ will once again live in perfect community with each other and God himself.
But today, New York City is a testament to man’s need for community. It is, indeed, a lonely multitude.