“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This question is a well-known Buddhist koan. A koan is a question that is meant to jog the hearer’s mind out of logical thinking into enlightenment or simply into awareness.  Personally, whenever I hear the question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I immediately think in reply, “It’s the same as the sound of the other hand clapping.” After all, such a reply makes as much sense as any other answer!

But I am not a Zen master, and I used that koan as a jumping off point for a deeper look into loneliness. A hand trying to clap is a lonely hand. It is trying to do something that it cannot do alone. There are many things that one can do single-handedly, but clapping is not one of them. One can play the harmonica with one hand, one can hammer a nail, hug a friend, type out this article (I can even do that with just one finger, using the hunt and peck method). But clapping is a two-handed action. It is an action that involves a relationship, the relationship of one hand to the other, and every relationship leads us out of ourselves and breaks our horizons wide open.

Human beings are essentially relational. We were created to live in relationship. We do not exist as separated individuals. When Frodo asked Tom Bombadil who he was, the reply he got was: “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?”[1]  All alone, without human interaction, without someone who can call me by my name, each of us becomes meaningless.  Without someone to hear me, I can speak, but my words lose all meaning.  With no one to see me, I can smile, but my smile becomes a grimace. We need one another to be human. We are created in the image of God, and God is a relationality.[2] “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”[3] The word “Adam” is more than a proper name. It designates humanity and humanity was created in relationship to God and to one another. The Bible emphasizes this, for it states, ““It is not good that the man should be alone.”[4] The words “the man” do not refer just to the male human being. As with the earlier verse, the phrase is “the adam”, literally,” the human being”. It is not good for any human being to be alone.

This is borne out by secular wisdom. Solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 consecutive days constitutes torture. Nelson Mandela spent much of the years between 1982-1988 in solitary confinement. He wrote, “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”[5]

It is not necessary to be physically confined within a concrete cell to experience such isolation. One can find oneself alone in the midst of a group of people. “The Lonely Crowd” is more than the title of a book. The phrase describes a state of loneliness that is experienced even with other people present. An incident I read of some years ago illustrates this. A counsellor asked a youth he was helping about a ball game the young man had gone to. “Did you go by yourself?” the counsellor asked. The young man replied, “I went alone with some friends,” “With some friends” and yet still “Alone.” Such aloneness can be excruciating. It cannot be borne for long. Something has to give. Someone once told me that “people will do the worst things out of loneliness.” We try to break out of our loneliness even if it means breaking into someone else’s life. Hurting someone, inflicting pain, may be the only way I can communicate with another person, the only way I can assure myself that I can communicate. Pain may be the only way I have ever received the outreach of another. Pain — inflicted and received — may be the only language I know, but it is still a language. Even pain is better than emptiness, better than aloneness.

It is emblematic of the loneliness that lies in the depths of our souls that Dante shows the uttermost bottom of hell as a lake of ice. In it, the souls there are encased in frozen solitude, unable to move, unable to see, hear, or speak. There is nothing left but a being, “alone, oneself and nameless.”

We see reflections of this empty loneliness in our society. Language becomes gibberish for “does anyone actually hear my words?” I create myself out of my imagination and desires, for who sees me as I am? We are afraid of anyone who is different, different in appearance, different in outlook or values. What is different is a threat. We hide behind a clamor of words to avoid meeting people where they are. We are becoming more and more isolated in smaller and smaller groups. We enclose ourselves in that solitary cell where, as Nelson Mandela wrote, “there is only one’s mind.”

We were created for communion, and we are drifting farther and farther from what we were created for. How did we get here? Can we find our way back? Can I actually meet another person? Is communion possible or only another illusion? In future articles I hope to take a closer look at these questions.


[1] Cf. “The Fellowship of the Rings”, chap. 7

[2] ““The Trinity is absolute unity insofar as the three divine Persons are pure relationality.” Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate”,  para. 54

[3] Gen. 1, 26-27

[4] Gen. 2, 18

[5] Nelson Mandela, “The Long Walk to Freedom”

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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