We learned from the Beatles that Eleanor Rigby “keeps her face in a jar by the door.” Clearly the Fab Four thought that was not a good thing to do. But what were they critiquing? Was it where Eleanor kept her face? Or that she had a “face to meet the faces that we meet” at all? Should we wear the same face all the time? Is one of our faces the “true” one?
Whether or not there’s noise when a tree falls in the forest, a more pertinent question for us is whether or not we have a face, a personality, when no one is around to experience it. This is why Eleanor Rigby’s plight haunts us still. We know she’s out there. We don’t want to become her. We fear that she is faceless. We fear that for ourselves.
Most of us wish perhaps that we were like the stone imagined by Emily Dickinson,
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Perhaps we wish to be,
. . . independent as the Sun
In our hearts, however, we know very well that we are creatures dependent upon others of our kind. And that’s scary.
Interactions Are Us
In the Nineteenth Century, US prisons adopted the practice of solitary confinement, depriving a prisoner of visual stimulation and human contact. At the time, the idea was that a prisoner with some “alone time” would reflect on his or her misdeeds and come out a better person. It was quickly noticed, however, that instead of becoming a moral paragon, prisoners in solitary confinement began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness.
After this discovery, the practice was for the most part discontinued until the late-Twentieth Century, when US prisons began to transition from a rehabilitation model to one of retribution. Now we know that being alone hurts . . . a lot. And that’s why prisons do it. (There are in the US today something on the order of 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement at any given time.)
We people don’t like being alone for extended periods. It drives us crazy. Therefore, when we are alone, those of us not under arrest find ways to simulate human interaction—TV, social media, perhaps even writing a letter. We are social creatures. We need human interaction. We need an excuse to put our faces on.
Skip the Sermon
My father died recently, and my mother found herself alone after sixty-five years of companionship. She wonders aloud: should she give up and leave her face in the jar by the door? Is it disloyal of her not to do so? She no longer feels like Emily Dickinson’s independent little stone. She feels the full weight of dependency.
My prescription for my mother (and Eleanor Rigby) is . . . Go to church! Or bowling. Or a book club. Something. Father McKenzie’s message (or disconnected ramblings about a book) may not be much to text home about, but the coffee, wine, or potluck involved might just be the ticket.
A member of my congregation recently brought me one of those graphics called a bubble cloud, generated by a questionnaire concerning what was important to a Christian congregation near my humanist congregation. The most-used word? “Community.” And the congregation I serve would would have the same big bubble, “community.” In their case “Christ” and in our case “reason” would be tiny little bubbles compared with the true reason we gather as congregations, community.
Human interaction reminds us to pull our faces out of that jar.
Bowling with Father McKenzie
As the Beatles knew, denizens of post-industrial countries may exist in utter isolation. We often shop in anonymous supermarkets rather than bustling markets. We buy clothing off a hanger, not from the source of the craft. As Robert D. Putnam pointed out, many of us bowl alone.
I don’t think any of us has an “authentic” or “true” face. We adjust the faces we pull from the jar according to the circumstances of our interactions. We have a “going to a funeral” face. We have a “going to the theatre” face, and so on. These are constructed in the bustle of human relationships. Without the bustle, we don’t bother. And that’s not good for us.
Perhaps Eleanor—and all the lonely people—should share a selfie. Not a bad first step in getting that face out of the jar by the door and spiffed up a bit. Then? Go to church. Or temple or mosque or . . . a bowling team. Perhaps even chat with Father McKenzie. Who knows what he knows when he’s not pontificating . . .