Samuel Wells: ‘We are never alone’

Though we all experience loneliness, the heart of faith is that we are never alone, says the Rev. Samuel Wells.

Rev. Samuel WellsThe Rev. Samuel Wells is dean of Duke University Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He has written numerous books and articles on Christian social ethics. Wells was ordained in the Church of England in 1991.

In a January 2009 interview with Faith & Leadership, Wells offered his theological perspective on loneliness and leadership.

Q: Is there a theological viewpoint, a Christian viewpoint, on loneliness?

Well, Matthew’s Gospel, in a sense, you can say it begins and ends with reassurances. It begins with the angels’ revelation to Joseph that the one who is coming will be Emmanuel, “God with us.” And it concludes with the famous words, “Behold I will be with you until the end of the age.” And in the middle we have the much-quoted words of Matthew 18, “Where two or three are gathered I am there with them.” So you could say that the word “with” is a key word in Matthew’s theology of loneliness, that in a sense the heart of faith on a personal level is that, through the Holy Spirit in Jesus, we are never alone.

That’s where I would begin a theology of loneliness. The second place to go would be to talk about the Christian notion of the holy Trinity, that even God is not alone in that sense because of the notion of the Trinity, that God is a kind of conversation rather than silence.

If God were simply a stand-alone being there would be no one to talk to, but God is Trinity and God is inherently a conversation. And then I guess the third place to go would be Barth’s principle, the original decision is God’s decision never to be except to be for us in Christ. The whole shape of God’s life is shaped around being in relation with us from the beginning of time, and so, even God isn’t lonely. Even before God the question of being lonely was primevally an issue.

So those would be three places I would go, a kind of Scriptural exegesis, a theological and a philosophical point about loneliness. Those would be the foundations of an understanding about loneliness for me.

Q: We live in a culture that believes being alone is a bad thing. But aren’t there many types of “aloneness”-- loneliness, solitude, isolation and so on -- all slightly different?

I think, in bringing it more into sort of a crossover between the tradition and contemporary life, loneliness is clearly more than one kind.

When one thinks of being alone, I guess one most frequently thinks of being single and not married, or not being partnered in whatever contemporary way we can figure that. Often that’s perceived in physical terms, there’s no one to hug at night. There’s no one to be intimate with, to be close to and simply to take the pain away. And I think that’s probably less about joy than it is about the relief of sadness, in the popular imagination. That sense of not having the loving embrace. Clearly there can be people who have that loving embrace but are still alone because they can’t share their deepest fears or most profound thoughts with another person. And that is often what is most isolating, because deepest hopes and fears and in a sense pretty close to the heart of our lives.

I think the irony, I suppose, of the Enlightenment, that it arguably created the individual as the center of all things rather than the church or the state, or the city-state as it would have been for Plato and Aristotle. The Enlightenment suggested that we become the measure of all things, because “man is the measure of all things” in the great Enlightenment slogan. In a sense that creates a problem which everyone is aware of on some level, which is, “How do I translate the significance of my own experience into anything anyone else will understand?”

Crossing the road or driving a car is not ever significant, but undergoing grief, facing one’s own death and naming the intricacies of love, that is quite significant. One really doesn’t want to be alone in those things, and so being alone in something like the uncertainties of faith or the disappointments and bewilderments of love and the terror of death, in the most profound parts of our lives, in a sense is to have an experience one either can’t communicate to another or one could communicate but there isn’t another person handy by who is interested.

Q: Is there ever a type of loneliness that is positive or even healthy, such as a retreat and solitude?

Unfortunately, the high value that early theologians placed on being alone is more from a Platonic disquiet about the abiding value of the body and the assumption that the spirit is somehow superior and somehow more valuable than the body. So while you do get an exaltation of being alone, I’m not sure that’s something I would completely endorse because it comes from a place which to me is not fully embracing the incarnation of Jesus, fully embracing the materiality of life.

However, there’s clearly a dimension where being separated from other people can make one closer to God in some circumstances. But that’s not being alone. That’s just being “with” in a different way. It’s moving the “with” from another person or a community to the “with” being focused on God. So that’s not alone, that’s just a different form of together. Being really alone, having neither God nor other people, that is what novelist Rose Macaulay calls “two forms of hell.”

Q: Does the life of Christ offer examples of, or even lessons about, loneliness?

Very clearly. One of the questions I’ve asked myself a number of times was when Jesus sent the disciples out, did he miss them? He was on his own. We don’t have a record of what he was up to. We hear his account of what he was experiencing while the disciples were on their mission but we don’t know if he missed them or whether he needed them. Whether in a sense the calling of the disciples was for their sake or for his. We’re not told that.

There were clearly times when he went off in the mountains to pray, and again we don’t know if that was because it was all too much, which is the human way of telling the story, or if it was simply because life before God requires times of being with another and times of being simply with God. We’re not told that.

Yet, there were times he was very isolated, clearly. The disciples scattered at his arrest. He realizes that actually their loyalty wasn’t as profound as they claimed it was. He already knew that, according to the Gospels.

I suppose I spend personally more time wondering about Nazareth. I spend more time thinking about what was it like for him growing up, as he realized that he was like no other person and that actually none of his friends could possibly understand that.

Q: Was Jesus lonely when he was with the disciples?

Yeah. I guess that’s similar to what we’ve speculated about his experience growing up. There is a loneliness when you know something that other people don’t know and either you can’t tell them or you’re trying to tell them and they can’t understand. That is a very isolating experience. And you question yourself about your abilities to communicate. “What’s the problem here? Why can’t I communicate this?”

And it takes you quite fundamentally into your sense of your own identity because you wonder whether the difference between you and other people is so overwhelming that you’ll never ever connect. Most of the time we get hungry in the same way everyone else gets hungry. We have to relax in the same way everybody else has to relax. We realize our common identity with people but from time to time we realize how different we are from them and we realize we know some things they don’t know.

Q: Is loneliness an inevitable part of leadership?

No I don’t think so. I’m not sure if there’s always something generic about leadership. Context is enormously important. I think training leaders is about -- this is why I’ve written a book called “Improvisation” -- it is not about scripting encounters or knowing what the future holds. It’s about being able to adapt while retaining one’s integrity, faithfulness, vision, these kinds of words.

I think there are quite legitimate styles of leadership, from the person who is very collaborative, always asks everyone in the room their opinion to the person who says, “Trust me, I will try to make a decision that’s in the best interests of the organization.”

I think the “trust me” approach is more likely to be lonely. Because there is that sense and I feel it in the Chapel here because my office is physically a floor above everybody else’s so there is the sense of going up in the tower to make a decision, so usually, almost always, when we have a difficult decision to make, I’ve gathered the people who have the closest interest in the question together and their views, their wisdom has emerged from the conversation.

It’s a mean between two extremes: You can take too much responsibility on yourself and you can shirk responsibility that only you can take. As with any job, happiness lies in identifying the things that only you can do and doing those well. And not spending all your time doing things that others are better placed or more appropriate people to do. If you don’t do the things that only you can do, then the organization will clearly suffer.

But I don’t think these have to be inherently lonely things.

Q: When you were a parish pastor was there a particular moment when you experienced that kind of loneliness?

Yes. Wednesday night in the third parish I served, the one I served the longest, was the hardest night of the week. We had this youth club, we were underresourced and understaffed, and I used to either help or lead the youth program every Wednesday. It was incredibly hard work. It was challenging. And 8 p.m. on a Wednesday when the club finished and I came home to make some supper was probably the loneliest regular time of my ministry week after week after week. I was very tired. I didn’t know what to do. And so, yes, that was hard, but some of the simpler things in life, watching the soccer on the TV, making a nice supper, would actually be fun.

In one of my Duke Founders Day sermons, “Learning to Dream Again,” I talked about an experience in ministry there, in the same church, where things went very badly. I had to part with a member of staff in unfortunate circumstances, and that was a very isolating time.

Because I knew that I had some information that would make a lot of people unhappy and I had to find a way of seeing the church through what I knew was going to be a very painful and difficult time. And I knew that was coming and it was hard to know how to do that best. And I talked in that sermon about how I went to see the bishop and he said, “You need to learn how to dream again.” Because it was a shattering disappointment for a lot of people. That was a very isolating moment.

I remember the moment that I was with (my wife) Jo on holiday and we got to the point when we were talking about going home and she said “What’s the matter?” and I realized at that point that there was something badly wrong at the church and prior to that I hadn’t been able to face up to it. I remember that moment and I’m thinking, “Oh dear. I don’t know what we are going to do.”

But I wasn’t alone. I did have people I was accountable to who were very helpful. There were some things I could do and I did those things. I didn’t enjoy it, but I had to do those things and I think they were the right thing to do.

That sense, that moment with the bishop when he not only professionally was able to say what were the most important aspects of how somebody’s job is terminated, but was able to see into my heart and to see what this was really about. And what it was really about was that we had dared to dream and that dream was shattered.

And I think because he was able to do that for me, my loyalty to him probably exceeds that to probably anybody I’ve ever worked for, because he was able to see into my heart, to see what it was all about. He could see what it cost, and I guess my hope would be to be a leader of that kind, who doesn’t get too concerned about their own loneliness but can see what level of issues are at stake for the people who are working under your authority.

And I think if you can do that, then they will hopefully say that they feel understood, that they feel that this person is seeing them rather than just seeing the job they can do. That was a pretty formative experience years ago, which I’ve tried to use as a model for my practice since then.