My Own Ivory Tower: Isolation

By Mike Bennett, 4th year Physics Ph.D. candidate

Isolation is everywhere in academia.  Academics are expected to put in long, lonely hours.  We’re expected to sacrifice friendships, romance, and family life.  We’re expected to produce results and not complain, even at the expense of our own health and sanity.  All for the sake of the next paper or grant or proposal.  Even the most well-adjusted, self-assured, and perfectly relatable human might buckle under the weight of these expectations.

In the midst of all this sacrifice, our relationships begin to fulfill us less than we think they should.  They start to feel clunky or obtuse, like they don’t fit in the new framework that the Academy builds around its inhabitants.  I’ve felt the empty ache of isolation keenly in my three years at Michigan State.  My advisor hates my work. Everyone else in my program is smarter and more capable than I am. My friends back home don’t understand what I do.  My family thinks I’m wasting my life. I can’t take time to date or I’ll lose productivity.  These are just a few of the many, many worries that plague me and grad students like me.

Even in the Church, it’s easy to feel alone and separated.  Well-meaning parishioners begin conversations with “So how long until you graduate? And what kind of research do you do again?” only to interrupt moments later with “Wow, that’s pretty impressive. You must be very smart!” and obvious attempts to exit the conversation.  These pseudo-interactions only fuel the fires of alienation, and even in a body purported to bring healing to the sick, academics can feel miserably quarantined.

Clearly, even being “united” in Christ isn’t enough to quell this spectre of self-doubt.  How can Christians minister to themselves and others who are suffering from the experience of isolation?  What does the Bible itself say about isolation?  Can we gain any insight?

In a recent Campus Edge study, we looked at several passages that dealt with the experience of loneliness.  Among them we read about the prophet Jeremiah, who experiences intense persecution and alienation at the hands of the Israelites.  Jeremiah, though called directly by God to his ministry, is brought by that same God into a deep and anguishing experience of isolation.  We often feel as though being alone or feeling isolated are symptoms of God’s absence or displeasure with us, but it’s darkly encouraging to realize that these can be an important part of God’s call for us, even if doing so doesn’t prevent or even soften the sting.

Further, we do not worship a God who is unable to sympathize with our experience of isolation.  In Gethsemane, Christ himself experiences a complete abandonment; by his disciples, who can not stay awake with him while he prays to the Father for deliverance from his impending crucifixion, and then by the Father himself, whose answer to Jesus’ plea to “take this cup from me,” is a deafening, cavernous “No.” Even as he dies on the cross, in perfect fulfillment of God’s plan of reconciliation, Chris experiences tremendous isolation.

Though we may never be able to completely overcome isolation in academia or in life in general, knowledge that loneliness can be part of God’s plan can help us persevere through our experience of it.  We can additionally take heart knowing that even Christ, through whom “we live and move and have our being,” was not spared the torment of loneliness.  As Henri Nouwen writes, it may be possible with this knowledge to transform our understanding of isolation into something that can point us toward God, who alone can address the underlying problems and bring lasting healing.

The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief… The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer


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