“It’s not good for man to be alone…”

Ordre du S.-Esprit au Droit-Désir.

The need for connection.

It’s there in the very earliest strata of Biblical writing, in Genesis 2:18, in a passage which is often overlooked these days:

“The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

The overlookedness comes not only from its apparent espousal of patriarchy, and of “traditional marriage,” but its place in the context of the creation narratives. I heard a TV presenter refer to it (with the sickening smugness of the truly ignorant) as “the  bit about the talking snake.”

But the real point of the verse -whatever your views about the related subjects- is the need for human connection.

Frederick Buechner wrote that “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”

It’s a powerful statement of the need for connectedness between human beings. Jesus spoke of a time when his friends would be “scattered” (John 16:31,32). Of course, he was referring to their rapid dispersal after Gethsemane, at the first threat of danger, but, in another sense, we do live in a time of scattering, of feeling disconnected. As Lang Leav wrote:

“Shrinking in a corner,
pressed into the wall;
do they know I’m present,
am I here at all?”

But Jesus took the thought in a different direction: He said: “Behold, the hour comes, yes, has already come, that you shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.’”  (John 16:31,32).

The impulse is for each of us to be flung- whether or not we wish it- into “our own”. Our own what? Our own reality? Our own overlooked corner? The fragmentation process with which Western society is infatuated is really quite deadly, because we belong together. “It is not right for man to be alone.”

There are two kinds of aloneness: one is either insulated by space or isolated by spirit. It is a small thing to be separated by mere distance. I once sat on a rooftop looking over New Delhi by night. I was seen, touched and heard by none, and yet I wasn’t really alone. I was conscious of the prayers of my wife, my friends and family. The love I had given and received peopled my solitude with a crowd. Their absence, as the saying goes, only made my heart grew fonder.

I was connected.

Internal loneliness -a loneliness of the spirit- is a different matter entirely. Have you ever experienced a conversation with someone who is entirely indifferent to you? Imagine an official who has only to fill in a form for you and, through dint of repetition has lost the ability to care about the individual any more. There’s no real connection, is there? You might speak for an hour together and never really communicate. It’s a loss to both sides.

Jesus once walked through a seething, jostling crowd and yet experienced deep inside himself, the touching heart-cry of an individual. He said “Somebody has touched me.”

It’s a powerful thought, isn’t it?

The disciples were confused. They saw only on the surface, that physical contact in such a mob was inevitable. But Jesus was speaking about something else. It’s not really mysterious, but is something that we all experience from time to time: the inner connectedness of spiritual contact. We express something of it in the phrase “Falling in love.” In the text, Jesus felt “power going out from him.” It is wrong to interpret this merely as some magical healing process.

It is, first and foremost, the spiritual contact between persons, alive and real, caring and loving for one another. It’s the tug of Buechner’s definition of compassion. It’s expressed in Einstein’s poignant description of his philosophy of life:


“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

It’s not good for man to be alone. What a paradox! To realize that everything in the universe is connected is to both accept our insignificance and understand our importance in it. We belong together. “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” (Melvill)

That’s the conclusion drawn in Mitch Albom’s Five People you Meet in Heaven: 

My funeral,” the Blue Man said. “Look at the mourners. Some did not even know me well, yet they came. Why? Did you ever wonder? Why people gather when others die? Why people feel they should?

“It is because the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect. That death doesn’t just take someone, it misses someone else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed, lives are changed.

“You say you should have died instead of me. But during my time on earth, people died instead of me, too. It happens every day. When lightning strikes a minute after you are gone, or an airplane crashes that you might have been on. When your colleague falls ill and you do not. We think such things are random. But there is a balance to it all. One withers, another grows. Birth and death are part of a whole.

“It is why we are drawn to babies . . .” He turned to the mourners. “And to funerals.” 

All human lives intersect. It’s not good to be alone. The Bible’s answer is that we are summoned into family. We’re called to belong. We are called to belong to ourselves, to understand and appreciate and value our selves. We are called to belong to God, which Jesus claimed as a total antidote to loneliness. And we’re called to belong to each other, to care and love and intertwine in a  million ways.

Greed, corruption, violence, sin, deception all come from a lack of understanding that we’re all connected.

And the only alternative is love. Love with a towel, bucket and dirty feet all round. The Jesus way.


Pic. 14th Century French Illuminated Ms:  Ordre du S.-Esprit au Droit-Désir. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 4274, fol. 6v.

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