Tony Stark works in his basement, building endless Iron Man suits. To me, this is the most exciting part of any Iron Man movie, to see Tony manipulating computer projections that float in the air around him. It’s as if he’s pulling the thoughts directly from his head, thoughts that are so logical and precise that they always look like schematics. And I’m not alone in preferring these scenes. Many of the critics who thought that Iron Man 2 was vastly inferior to the first Iron Man based their indifference to the sequel on its lack of ‘Tony Stark inventing’ scenes. To me, the thing that’s most appealing about Tony’s basement work is that he does it alone. We get to watch a lone genius create things. And if he can do it, then other people can do it. Maybe it is possible for a single person who’s full of brilliance and inspiration to manufacture completely new technology with the help of only a few back-talking robots.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life in thrall to this fantasy. When I was seventeen I used to predict that I would win the Noble Prize for literature by the time I reached thirty. Now I’m forty-one and have three publications in online journals to my name. My problem was that I spent those thirteen years between seventeen and thirty thinking I could do it alone. I was too good to take classes, too good to join a writing group, too good to even read many short stories or novels. In my mind, my brilliance was assured, and I didn’t need other people. And then, when I reached thirty-three, I looked around and thought, “Jesus saved the world by the time he was my age. What have I done?” No one had published my novel. Everyone, except my wife, who read my short stories either shrugged or reacted with positive distaste. I hadn’t written the great book that could change people’s lives and make the world a better place. I wasn’t anything like Jesus. I wasn’t even like Tony Stark.
Then I joined a writing group. I went to some writing seminars. I began a grand attitudinal shift which led to…well, to three stories published in online journals. But it also lead to new friendships, and the joy of collaborative work, and a much enhanced ability to take criticism, and to a week in Portland which rates as one of the best weeks of my life. It lead to an end to spiritual loneliness. But before any of these things could happen, before I could escape my spiritual loneliness, I had to admit my own poverty.
The poet Maggie Nelson says that “the veneration of poverty is more than an ethic – it’s almost a theological, or at least spiritual, conviction, devotion, or practice.” Maggie Nelson says that she doesn’t have much of an imagination. You would think that this would be a draw back for a creative writer. But as Nelson points out, knowing this about herself means that she has greater freedom to admit that her creativity comes from a sense of community. She’s in constant conversation with the thoughts and words of other people, from the Chinese poet Mo Fei to John Keats to the philosopher Judith Butler. Knowing her own poverty, her lack of creativity, allows her to wake up in the morning with a sense of excitement about the world that surrounds her, rather than with the need to protect and isolate her own genius. She doesn’t go down into the metaphorical basement, like Iron Man, but to the metaphorical window, where she can look out and see all the movements of this wondrous world.
I agree with her when she says that this is “a theological, or at least spiritual, conviction, devotion, or practice.” Being with other people is often the best and most interesting way to find God. Saint Anthony of Egypt, the great desert saint who helped create monasticism, spent many years running away from other people. First he went and lived in a tomb in a graveyard, then he relocated to a fort in the desert, and finally to a rocky little place in the hills. People wouldn’t leave him alone. They kept coming to him and expecting to hear wisdom and experience miracles. He got worried that they were venerating him more than they were venerating Christ. So he picked a place on the map where he was pretty sure that no one had ever heard of him, and ran away to it. But then something happened. Some of his old followers found him. They stayed for a few days. When they left, he started planting a little garden, so that he could offer them something to eat if they came again. The spindly little desert saint discovered that he liked people and wanted their company. He would still throw himself into a thorn bush whenever he felt tempted by the sins of the flesh. But now he had someone to tell about it.
When he was living all alone with only the wild beasts for company, he hadn’t yet fully acknowledged his poverty. The paradox is that it was only when he grew that little garden, and actually had something to share with others, that he could admit how poor he really was. We often go through life believing that revealing our poverty will make us more poor. It’s the opposite that’s true. Revealing our poverty is the first step in making us rich. Not rich in material things. Rich in experience, friendship, creativity, hopefulness, joy. And doing the opposite, living with our poverty in a tomb or a basement full of robots and sports cars, only leaves us in the impoverishment of loneliness.
God never wanted us to be lonely. “It’s not good for man to be alone,” God says, just after creating Adam, and then conjures up Eve to keep him company. But the remarkable thing is that in Christian theology, God isn’t lonely either. You would think that the deity would be, up there floating around in the cosmos, beyond all space and time. But our God is in a relationship. Actually, that’s incorrect. Our God is relationship. That’s what the trinity is all about. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Or, to use more inclusive language, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, God the Sustainer. Or, to get away from the theological heresy of thinking that the three persons of the trinity have different jobs, you could talk about them using the adroit theological method that my friends and I thought up in seminary, and give them gender neutral names such as Sam, Pat, and Bobby. However you want to say it, God is three in one, a divine relationship, and therefore never lonely.
Which is good, since loneliness, as Judith Shulevitz points out in The New Republic, is lethal. She writes that “Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.” About one third of people over forty-five are chronically lonely, and that’s an increase from one fifth a decade ago. That doesn’t mean that they’re always alone. They may spend hours, days, weeks, in the company of other people, and still feel intensely lonely. They may be married with children, and still feel intensely lonely. Loneliness isn’t the state of being alone. It’s lack of intimacy. And offering intimacy is the one thing we can do about it.
Back in high school, when I was seventeen and plotting to win the Noble Prize in literature by the time I was thirty, I took a speech class with Mr. Scott. It wasn’t the greatest class I’ve ever taken, and Mr. Scott wasn’t my favorite teacher. But he did spend one entire class period asking us to seek out lonely people and befriend them. I remember that he told a story about a kid who always stood by himself in the cafeteria hallway during lunch hour. Mr. Scott noticed this kid, noticed that he was always alone, and started talking to him. All the kid wanted to talk about was fishing – he had a positive passion for fishing. Mr. Scott didn’t fish. But he spent a year of lunch hours learning about fishing, because he understood that he could do good in the world just by easing this kid’s loneliness.
Mr. Scott was the most trinitarian person I’ve ever known. I don’t know what dreams he had for himself, what ambitions he fostered when he was young, what sorrow he felt when those ambitions weren’t fulfilled. Maybe he’d never wanted to be more than a speech teacher who befriended lonely kids. But my guess is that he, like all of us, had to come to some moment in his life when he admitted his own poverty. When he realized that there was some dream that was simply out of reach, or came face to face with own loneliness and decided to do something about it. I don’t know what led him out of the basement and to the window, what made him realize that he couldn’t live the story of his life alone. But he did realize it, and then he tried to teach it to us.
If we believe in the triune God, God who is three in one, then we believe, primarily, in relationship. And we should do whatever we can to foster relationship in our lives. Sometimes this means admitting our own poverty – admitting that we’re not solitary geniuses who don’t need other people, admitting that we’re not as creative, or athletic, or brilliant as we would like. It also means that we should think hard about the basements where we’ve gone to isolate ourselves from relationship. They can be anywhere – in our cars, in front of our computers, within the four walls of a church. And once we’ve discovered them, we should start making plans to abandon or transform them. We should plant little gardens. We should show people our work and risk criticism. We should look around and find the lonely people, standing by themselves, and learn about the fish they catch. We should, in other words, start to live in imitation of the triune God, who isn’t isolated, out there in the cosmos, beyond space and time, but who’s here, on this earth, in our lives, standing beside us at the window and looking out.