I wrote this article about three years ago but never published it. I find it interesting that our Dear Leaders attempted to comfort us during the coronavirus shutdown by promoting the idea of being “alone together.” Of course, we were already “alone together” without the imposed isolation of the shutdown. We have been “alone together” in our virtual world of technology and social networking. That is the subject of this little essay.
Many consider Robert Frost to be America’s foremost poet. Though few could recite the lines to his famous poem “The Road Less Taken,” we have adopted the phrase as a popular expression of our desire to be maverick.
In our Rhetoric class, we have been analyzing Frost’s poem “The Tuft of Flowers.” The poem presents an interesting paradox. As the narrator comes to turn the freshly mown field so that the hay can dry, he is disappointed to find that the mower has gone, and he must work alone.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees; I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown, And I must be, as he had been – alone,
“As all must be,” I said within my heart, “Whether they work together or apart.”
So, Frost argues, even when we are together, we are alone.
At the end of the poem, after observing a butterfly seeking a place to rest and feed, he notices a tuft of flowers (hence the title) left by the mower, inspiring a related paradox.
The butterfly and I had lit upon, Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
That made me hear the wakening birds around, And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own; So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid, And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart, “Whether they work together or apart.”
So, even when we are alone, we work together.
There we have a matched set of paradoxes – a paradox of paradoxes.
Frost demonstrates in this poem why he is considered a master, and the poem illustrates the power of expression we find in poetry. Sometimes the abstractions of poetry express the idea more concretely than a more concrete or “scientific” expression would. Abstract language has tremendous power to state concrete ideas.
But I don’t intend to turn this into a discussion of language or rhetoric. Instead, I would like to discuss the paradoxes expressed in the poem: even when we are together, we are alone; even when we are alone, we work together.
Picture a busload of laughing, boisterous teenagers. They are with their friends, cutting up, teasing, telling stories, pointing, laughing, looking out the window. Yet every one of them is, in some sense, alone. Each person on that bus has their own unique and very personal feeling about their place in the group, their relationship to the other people on that bus, and their life’s purpose. Though together, each individual finds himself isolated in his thoughts. Togetherness or “hanging out” offers no cure for loneliness. Each of us lives in our own heart and mind and body.
Quite often, a group highlights that feeling of loneliness. One teen feels excluded in the conversation. Another feels ignored by a friend. Some teens become the target for all the teasing while another is the life of the party. And while both might seem to embrace the attention, the sense of loneliness will still be there. Someone quipped, “It is lonely at the top, but you do eat better.” Technology has done much to magnify the experience of being “alone together.”
Technology blesses us. It magnifies and enhances our abilities, extending our powers of communication, of memory, and of productivity. But technology also curses us. It amplifies our foibles, spotlighting our weaknesses and inabilities. Quite often, teens in a large group will turn to their phones for consolation. They prefer to text friends who are not there to actual interaction with those who are with them. Their message is simple. They favor the security of their devices to the insecurities of their relationships.
We can understand this when we think about it. Friends sometimes ignore them, mistreat them, even betray them. They feel vulnerable, isolated, excluded. Not so with their devices. Whereas friendships wax and wane, their phones are a constant friend, always prepared to do what they ask of them. Over the past decade, our relationship with technology has blossomed into a full-blown love affair. In countless ways, we have demonstrated that we prefer the company of our technologies – especially our phones – to the company of the people around us.
Yet, our love and loyalty to our devices reveal a deeper hunger. We crave the relationships that our phones and social networks promise to enhance. In our exile, we hope for deeper connections. But what we often find is a greater disappointment, a more profound sense of loneliness. We view our devices and social media as ways to deepen our connections when, in reality, these tools only serve to connect us to themselves.
Even when we are together, we are alone.
Together In Our Loneliness
And if that were the end of the story, we would have reason to despair. God created us for relationships. From the beginning, God pronounced His verdict: it is not good that man should be alone. As a cure to our loneliness, God didn’t invent the cell phone or create Facebook. God created a spouse for the man – He created the woman. Then, out of man and woman, God made a better, brighter way of being one. Marriage is the ultimate cure for loneliness.
By creating this ultimate cure for loneliness, God has revealed His purpose for mankind, that we would build relationships together. Through those relationships, God intended that we would accomplish His design for our existence. God has a two-fold purpose for us: first, that we should glorify Him by delighting ourselves in Him, and then that we would subdue the earth for that purpose. God designed our human relationships to increase our ability to accomplish that purpose. In isolation, we struggle to find delight, to give God glory and praise. The hermit is not noble. He is selfish and self-absorbed. As we learn to live for others, we gain a far greater ability to praise God and enjoy Him.
Together, the work of dominion in our world becomes a rich and rewarding experience. As we join forces with our fellow men, we find a much greater ability to subdue the earth.
Of course, our enemy the devil does everything in his power to prevent us from fulfilling God’s purpose in our lives. When he can increase our sense of loneliness and isolation, he does his best work, especially when he can sow seeds of strife and division in our churches. He has many devices.
Yet, we find a certain inevitability, an inescapable truth to our life and purpose. Even when alone, we work together. We build on the work of others, each of us contributing our unique abilities and perspectives to the great conversation, the grand task that God has left to us. Our success is inescapably linked to the achievements of those around us. We need the guy at the 7-eleven to succeed. We need the WalMarts, the Dollar Generals, the car dealers, the lawn mower repair shops, the Apple Stores. Our lives are interlinked and interdependent.
Nor is our dependence limited to our contemporaries. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Robert Frost, long dead, inspired this little missive. Discoveries made long before our birthday inform and enhance our modern understanding, and the inventions of people long dead have blessed our very existence.
The generations that follow ours will learn from us – from our mistakes and our discoveries. We cannot possibly live our lives in isolation, independent of the contributions of others. Nor can we avoid contributing to the generations that follow our own.
Even when we are alone, we are together.
Three Takeaway Points
Three things then that should guide our lives and our callings:
First, we must live for what truly matters, for what would matter whether we ever existed or not. When we live for self, we eke out a hollow existence. Even when we live for others, we find ourselves frustrated, disappointed, and empty. We must live for God and seek to display His glory in our lives. That is the thing that will last and last for all eternity. May our lives be bent towards that one grand purpose, as the sunflower turns itself to follow the sun.
Second, we must seek to glorify God by embracing the relationships He has given us. Rather than push people away, we must strive to love them as unique manifestations of His image and glory. We must seek the good of those around us, and desire to leave behind us a better world for those who follow. We must build up and bless the people in our lives. Love your family. Love your neighbor. Be a good friend. Use your strength and your ability to build up your spouse and your children. Throw yourself into your church, and build up the body of Christ where you belong.
Finally, since we all must stand on someone’s shoulders, be sure to stand on the shoulders of giants. There is no practical value in standing on the shoulders of a leprechaun.