Eleanor Rigby is essentially a book about loneliness, which seems pretty apropos to me given the current state of our culture. In this story Liz, our heroine, is re-united with the child she gave up at birth and has the chance to examine not only her loneliness, but her escape from it into a relationship with her son.
Loneliness is a glaring part of modern society. In fact, I recently read that four times as many Americans describe themselves as lonely now than did in 1957. Did you read that? Four times!?! Something has gone very, very wrong with my generation. However, Liz doesn’t suffer from this loneliness the way I imagine most of us do. Most of us suffer from loneliness not because there is nobody who would love us, but because we don’t take the time to be loved. Our autonomy is more important than our relationships – the things we do and the accomplishments we claim are more important to us than being truly known. We’re busy and independent and ashamed of the idea that we might need other people in order to truly be alive. And so we’re living in a culture of loneliness – not because there’s no one around or because people are repulsed by us – but simply because we don’t take the time or make the effort to know and be known.
Liz is lonely because she’s so incredibly plain that no one takes notice of her. I doubt many of us are really that plain, though I sometimes wonder if we settle for our hurried, independent loneliness because deep down, we’re afraid that if we opened ourselves to know and be known, we’d get the same response Liz gets from the world – we fear that no one would take notice. The pain of our purposeful, self-induced loneliness is somehow less than the potential pain of a loneliness we didn’t invite.
The book struck me as not just a look at the loneliness we inflict on ourselves and each other, but an examination of another kind of loneliness – the loneliness of man without a god. Consider this:
Liz and her son have a rather random conversation about zombies that turns suddenly inward:
“When you become a zombie, your soul vanishes. There’s no
heaven or hell for you – there’s absolutely nothing – which is why zombies are
so terrifying. Your relationship to the profound is taken away from you,
and there’s no hope of retrieving it.”
I feel a lot of that right now… that my relationship to the profound has suddenly been severed without my permission… but we’ll get back to that.
Liz’s son, Jeremy, has MS. He is young, yet deteriorating very quickly. He often has visions which would probably freak most people out, but which Liz sees as beautiful. She says they’re they one thing that’s really his, which I appreciate because I can really identify with it. All the people I love have one thing that’s really theirs and that one thing always makes my heart jump just a little bit. Anyhow, as the story plays out, Jeremy has a series of visions that tell a story about a group of farmers. The farmers believe that the world is going to end, so they don’t bother sowing their grain. They set fire to their seeds and their wives destroy all the preserves and dried food they’d been storing for the winter.
But then, a voice speaks from the sky and the farmers find out the world isn’t ending – not right away, anyhow. The voice told the farmers there was a gift awaiting them, but they were going to have to get through the winter before they received it. By then it was too late to plant any seeds, so the farmers didn’t know what to do.
They fell to their knees and prayed for some sort of sign to tell them they hadn’t been abandoned by the voice. They received a sign, but it wasn’t what they’d hoped for. Instead of a response, bones fell from the sky. It was a message telling them that they’d been forsaken. Jeremy said that their only salvation lied in placing their faith in the voice who had forsaken them.
That was where the vision ended, with the farmers being forsaken, yet clinging to a hope in the one who had forsaken them. I think this speaks to our need to believe in something… and to the devastation of losing our relationship to the profound. I think, in a way, it shows not only how lonely we all are for each other, but how lonely we are for the divine – that we’re willing to place our faith in the very thing that’s forsaken us simply for that relationship to the profound. And it shows the hopelessness and loneliness we experience when that relationship is severed.
I feel a lot of this right now… that my only hope is to place my faith in the one who’s forsaken me. And I just can’t do it. Believe me, I’ve been trying, but I just can’t You might be thinking that I just don’t want to accept God’s will or I’m just being selfish and wanting what I want – or any number of things that the church has fed you about people without faith. But whatever character flaws people try to blame my lack of faith on, the truth is this: there just isn’t anything left for me to believe in, at least not right now. You might think my break in faith is rebellion or an act of anger, but the truth is that I’m just as heartbroken over my lack of faith as you are. The loss of this relationship to the profound is one of the loneliest things I have ever experienced.
The loss of the relationship to the profound is the loss of any faith that something cares for you – that something is looking out for you, that something has plans to prosper and not to harm you. It is an intense sense of aloneness. It means there is nothing to cry out to in the darkness and nothing to live for in the light. There is nothing to guide, no standard to measure things against. It is just you, floating out there alone, waiting to see if the next current will carry you or drown you. It is paralyzing.
But like the zombies and the farmers, our relationship to the profound isn’t something we just wake up and decide to sever – it is something that is severed for us, even though I don’t know what severs it. So many people of faith say that your relationship to your god is a matter of choice. It is what you make it. But I think they say this because they’ve never been to that place where they simply can’t believe. Not won’t. Can’t. There is a crucial difference. Belief cannot be willed or conjured; it is or it isn’t. Even the Bible says that faith itself is a gift from God – from it’s rendition of the profound.
Knowing that this relationship to the profound is a gift and that we can’t force it, no matter how hard we try, somehow makes the loss of this relationship worse. There’s nothing we can do to get it back. But unlike the zombies, we know what we’ve lost and it is hard not to mourn or be angry over that loss. The loneliness from the profound is intensified by the desire to have my faith back – I wonder, is there something divine, but it doesn’t want me to see it? And if so, why not? Why single me out? And if there isn’t something divine, what’s the point of all this? And which is worse – that there may be nothing at all or that there may be a god that has hidden itself from my heart, even though my heart still seeks? That feeling, I think, is the loneliest feeling of man; the feeling that the profound is out there and revealing itself… but not to you. Knowing that your relationship to the profound is gone and your innocence of that relationship is gone is horrible – but it is that much more horrible when you see the reality that those around you are capable of holding on to it, but it’s been taken from you. It is a feeling of being singled out; lonely; alone.
But anyhow, I think the book makes the point that we don’t just feel lonely in this world of other people. We feel lonely on a larger scale – on the scale of meaning and faith and darkness and light – on the scale of the profound. Coupland has said before that his generation was the first one in America raised without god. In a world that offers so little to believe in, his commentary on our loneliness from the gods seems appropriate.