It’s a stark reality explored by a fascinating article in The New Yorker magazine. It is a powerful critique of the use of solitary confinement as punishment in American prisons. The article delves into all sorts of situations where people have been isolated from all other human contact, both chosen isolation (such as long-distance sailors), and inflicted isolation (such as for prisoners of war, and for prison inmates). The sobering and almost systematic refrain from the article is that ongoing isolation from other people seems to destroy our very humanity.
The sobering and almost systematic refrain from the article is that ongoing isolation from other people seems to destroy our very humanity
For long-distance sailors, the severest difficulty by far is the “soul-destroying loneliness”. Journalist-held-hostage Terry Anderson wrote ‘“I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all”. Former American presidential candidate John McCain, who was held in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war said, “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
The force of this statement is magnified when you read of the extraordinary physical mistreatment he suffered. “EEG-like” tests show that those who suffered solitary confinement for a long time had brain wave abnormality like those who had sustained significant head injuries.
Why does isolation from other people tear at the very fabric of our existence? Why does it seem to shred us from the inside out?
One answer that the article comes up with is this: “Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain.”
Our self-existence is in relationship with others. Or to put it another way, it is paradoxically with others that an individual exists. Where there is no shared life, a single human life disintegrates from the inside out.
This corresponds with what the Bible says about what it means to be human. When God made humanity, he made us to be an “us”, male and female, who were to be companions in life and work. They were designed to—in an act of incredible self-giving of one to the other (sex)—create more humans. They were to love and cherish these children to form societies and cultures under God, living together with God.
However, this touches on an even deeper answer. The Bible tells us that the very nature of God is God in relationship: God the Father, God the Son, Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit. The centre of existence and the creator of life is an eternal being in relationship: the triune God.
Alienation and isolation is the opposite of God and his purposes. This means that the use of solitary confinement in the American prison systems is far more destructive and sole destroying than many understand. I agree with the thrust of the article. Solitary confinement for more than short bursts is a cruel and unusual punishment.
Many other implications about human society spill out of these insights: how we think about our relationships in the ordinary course of life; our degree of separation from others through shrinking households, dwellings and family units; our self-imposed isolation in our entertainment, where we sit alone in a room watching Netflix and YouTube. We could keep going.
If isolation or ongoing absence of human relationships leads to a disintegration of self, what are the implications if we’re isolated and separated from our creator God into eternity?
But there is an even more significant question for us: If isolation or ongoing absence of human relationships leads to a disintegration of self, what are the implications if we’re isolated and separated from our creator God who made us for relationship with him? What are the implications for our life now, and into eternity?
Reconciliation Through Isolation
By ourselves we are isolated and alienated from God. And the implications for eternity are so terrible, so dreadful and so devastating that God came in the flesh, in the person of Jesus, to reunite us to himself.
But that was not enough.
On the cross, Jesus, God the Son, God in the flesh, was isolated from God the Father, the one he had known in eternity. On the cross, Jesus experienced the most devastating, terrible and dreadful isolation on our behalf. He did this so our isolation from God the Father could end.
Without Jesus our isolation from God will continue into eternity. Our isolation will destroy us. But if we come to Jesus (or have come), our isolation from God is over; now and forever.
The message of Christianity, the message of Jesus, is that God came into the world on that first Christmas, to end our isolation. We can come to God now. And we can become part of God’s people, the church, people living together under God, knowing God and being known by God.
Isolation does destroy us, but because of Jesus Christ, it doesn’t have to.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in God’s sight, without blemish and free from accusation– 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. (Col. 1:23 NIV)