Loneliness

Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 3

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeIt is true that Dag Hammarskjöld was given an astonishing apprenticeship in life and early career in terms of both formal education and other opportunities through which he would gain valuable perspectives on the inner workings of international diplomacy. It was a start which prepared him well for the vocation in which he would eventually find his feet. But among the many things that made him extraordinary as a world leader was an energy turned towards things more elusive. His deep and hope-filled capacity to say ‘Yes’ to humanity (he was not naïve; the Congo crisis birthed in him a conviction that ‘there are really evil persons – evil right through – only evil’, p. 510), and his ‘moral stature and incorruptible justice, his integrity and whole-hearted commitment, and his never-failing sense of responsibility vis-à-vis the task’ (p. 51) – to recall a description provided by Hammarskjöld’s governmental colleague and later loyal friend Henrik Klackenberg (Hammarskjöld served as a member of the Swedish cabinet in the early 1950s) – grew not only out of the soil provided by a mother with a deep social conscience and spirituality, but also, as Roger Lipsey notes, by a ‘crushingly honest exploration of what it is to live; to have mind, heart, and body; to be thrown into this world; to decipher experience; to carry burdens and face weaknesses a little wisely; to find something approaching inner peace; to glimpse a larger pattern, and somehow serve the good’ (p. 53).

Anyone familiar with Markings could not but agree that this description is indicative of its author’s quest to live an examined life – ‘we are witnessing a gifted soul deeply engaged in its own education’ (p. 59) – a quest which more than any other single factor made Hammarskjöld lead out of a tributary that too few dare approach, but which Lipsey, appropriately, makes much of throughout this biography. As Hammarskjöld would write in Markings:

The road to self-knowledge does not pass through faith. But only through the insight we gain by pursuing the fleeting light in the depth of our being do we reach the point where we can grasp what faith is. How many have been driven into our darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something ‘true’.

HammarskjöldIt is little wonder therefore that one of the most recurring themes in Lipsey’s study is loneliness, an indispensable burden (it seems) of a person given to take seriously the long wandering for home that the hungry soul risks, and of a leader given to undertake with unflinching gravity the risky service of humanity – the lonely burden of true leadership – and that while carrying the conviction that ‘the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation’ (Hammarskjöld, as cited on p. 502). Little wonder too that while not lacking in resources, Lipsey’s Hammarskjöld is ‘a tormented soul’ (p. 65).

He was not, however, without wonderful friends – his brother, Bo and Greta Beskow, W. H. Auden and John Steinbeck among them. Indeed, one of the persistent refrains throughout Lipsey’s account of Hammarskjöld’s life concerns the abiding value of true friends, particularly at those times when (such as in the midst of the Suez and Congo crises) ‘one’, in Hammarskjöld’s words, ‘happens to be standing in the middle of crossroads along which an abnormally high level of political traffic is pressing’ (p. 488), when hope is clouded in and lost to weariness, and when the music of reconciliation is drowned out by the Machiavellian drums of fear and mistrust. His friends, it seems, provided a sanctuary wherein his humour was most expressive, and where his kindness could be enjoyed without fear of suspicion. They also helped him to keep things in perspective – to ‘remember that there is more to reality than [the] chaos, menace, and slander’ (p. 492) which characterised so much of his day-to-day work as a political celibate (although he was not, by his own admission, a political virgin). As with prayer, his friends too were a gift from the God of hope, the One for whom chaos and human recalcitrance finally represent no obstacle to love reaching its goal – however long it may take, and however hard the arc of history must bend. His relationship with his friends represents too where the road to self-knowledge could be traversed, and where the repeatable journey from death to life passes though the experience of unworthiness, disappointment and incapability into the freedom of inexplicable relief and surprise, and even joy.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part II

In Chapter Two of Instead of Death, William Stringfellow turns to a reality that affects us all; namely, loneliness. ‘Loneliness’, he writes, ‘is as intimate and as common to humans as death. Loneliness does not respect persons, but inflicts all – men and women, those of status and the derelicts, the adolescents and the old people, the single and the married, the learned and the illiterate, and, one might add, the clergy and the laity’ (p. 23). Stringfellow proceeds to note that loneliness is neither a unique nor an isolated experience, but is rather the ‘ordinary but still overwhelming anxiety that all relationships are lost’ (p. 24). While neither denying nor negating the existence of lives other than the life of the lonely person, ‘loneliness so vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness’ (pp. 24–5).

Stringfellow then names some of the fictions of loneliness: that it is unfilled time, that it can be satisfied in erotic infatuation, and that it can be answered in possession. Of the latter, he writes: ‘At worst the fiction that one’s identity is to be found in another is cannibalistic – a devouring of another; at best it is a possessive, if romantic, manipulation of one by another in the name of love’ (p. 28).

The reason that none of these attempts have the power to answer loneliness, Stringfellow insists, is because they fail to comprehend the severe nature of loneliness – namely, that it is a foretaste of death. Work, excessive drinking, sex, psychotherapy, marriage, positive thinking (otherwise known as self-hypnoses), suicide, self-pity and leisure are all capable of filling the time but not the void. And not even prayer provides any magic solution. Still, it is the last resort:

‘Prayer is nothing you do, prayer is something you are. Prayer is not about doing, but being. Prayer is about being alone in God’s presence. Prayer is being so alone that God is the only witness to your existence. The secret of prayer is God affirming your life. To be that alone is incompatible with loneliness. In prayer you cannot be lonely. It is the last resort’. (p. 31)

In prayer we approach the lonely, unwelcome, misunderstood, despised, rejected, unloved and misloved, condemned, betrayed, deserted and helpless Christ. Only in the radically-lonely Christ who suffered loneliness without despair – and who descended into hell – is the assurance that no one is alone, and the reality and grace of God triumphant over the death that masquerades as loneliness and the loneliness that anticipates death.

‘In the event in which you are alone with your own death – when all others and all things are absent and gone – God’s initiative affirms your very creation and that you are given your life anew. In the moment and place where God is least expected – in the barrenness and emptiness of death – God is at hand. It is in that event that a person discovers it is death which is alone, not he’. (pp. 32–3)

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