In a crowded café in northern Illinois, I sipped coffee and gazed out of windows blurred with drizzle. I was kept afloat by caffeine, but desperate for real rest. It had been gray and raining for days, a mild but sordid winter. The allure of snowdrifts and blustery college days had once been enchanting, but this drab, chilly world just piled on to an even deeper disappointment.

Harley Manifold, Echoes, oil on Belgian linen

When I arrived at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school an hour outside Chicago, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I knew what I needed: a good community. And this college seemed to guarantee I’d get it. Most universities portray their campuses as communal havens, but Wheaton attracted me with its explicitly Christian model. I imagined that by Christmas of my freshman year I would be deeply embedded in a community of like-minded peers. Yet months passed and there I was, an isolate with society teeming all around me. It seemed like we were all living in a world of personas, prepped and pretty and “spiritual,” smiling and interacting, but never connecting. I was a performer in an endless play, and our masks were never discarded to show our true faces. My acknowledged need for community became confused with a quest for validation from other people, from God, and even from myself. The desire for intimacy was shortchanged by a toxic demand for approval without the vulnerability of real relationships. My world resembled the one social media offers: an ideal façade hiding the underlying sin.

Over time my expectations of communal life at Wheaton began to fade. Phrases like “flourishing community” and “vibrant, intentional living” turned into wispy fairy tales. I had wanted it to revolve around my needs, and it failed. That dreary day I was forced to ask myself an honest question: “Does anyone here know who I really am? And does anyone here feel known by me?

In my loneliness, I was hardly alone. In January 2019 NBC reported that the average American has only one close friend, and today’s teenagers and college students are the loneliest of any age group. Countless college students drift through the whole four years without disclosing themselves to another person, only to find themselves thrust out into a larger world also lacking community. The typical college environment, billed as a very social space, is not actually well suited to encourage relational flourishing. Contemporary universities, particularly ones with high academic standards, tend to revolve around competition, image, and merit by default, functioning as more of a social ladder than a social community.

Of course no university wishes its students to be lonely. Some colleges do make special efforts to grapple with student isolation. Cornell University has the Chesterton House, an intentional community of students and recent grads seeking to share life and ideas together. Wheaton is home to the Shalom House, a multiethnic group intended to traverse cultural differences and live together in Christ. Well-funded student-life programming at any number of schools at least attempts to realize the neatly packaged, joy-filled communal experience they advertise. Rather than blaming universities for failing to deliver on these ideal visions, we would do better to recognize that the problem of loneliness and disconnection strikes a deeper nerve.

Harley Manifold, Summer Shade, oil on board

In the spring of my sophomore year, during a personal low of isolation, the Wheaton philosophy department offered a special course on existentialism. Along with twenty other students, I read some of the best literature in the world reckoning with loneliness, love, God, shame, and death. For us the class was not just an academic exercise, but a personal opportunity to grapple with the fundamental pains and potential of existence.

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest dominated the course. This hefty, complex novel revolves around a simple problem: inner “aloneness” and the addictions people use to cope with it. The book hit me like a hammer. In describing a main character’s spiritual condition, Wallace writes, “Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young.”

Wallace describes how drug addicts seek to recover from their isolation and addiction through twelve-step groups. These programs demand brutal honesty, recognizing one’s “rock bottom” condition, submitting to God (or a “higher power”) and walking through the struggle to healing arm in arm.

In my loneliness, I was hardly alone.

Most of us agreed that this is not the traditional approach to community, either in secular or evangelical cultures. College campuses and churches are not generally portrayed as spaces for addicts in recovery. Nonetheless, the class had me wondering what addictions in our own lives might be blocking the deep connections we longed for. Social media is one common culprit. “Sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends,” writes Jean Twenge in a 2017 Atlantic article, but the data show instead “a lonely, dislocated generation.” Teens experience heightened feelings of isolation while spending inordinate amounts of time online, feeling left out and disconnected despite being so digitally “in touch” with their peers.

Another hazard of the internet is unlimited access to pornography. Wallace himself, writing in the late nineties, foresaw the explosion of porn online. While it’s often not talked about openly, particularly at a religious campus such as Wheaton, porn addiction is poisoning relationships across the board. In my own life and in the lives of some of the people dearest to me, I’ve seen the pain and distortion it can cause. Both men and women are increasingly viewing it – not only in replacement for romantic vulnerability, but to somehow make up for a general lack of human intimacy. My classmates and I viewed it because we were already feeling disconnected in some inarticulable way. In this way, addictions and coping mechanisms, engaged in to evoke the illusion of security and intimacy, increase the isolation.

Though the course on existentialism was revelatory, it didn’t bring us all the way into community with each other. But it did plot a milestone in my understanding of loneliness. And the questions of addiction, isolation, and God we wrestled with unexpectedly led me back to the story of Adam and Eve. While familiar with the story, I had never plumbed its complexities and psychological depth until I encountered a small painting in the hallway of a campus building. The painting was Adam and Eve Are Banished from Paradise by Marc Chagall, a Jewish artist from the twentieth century who specialized in flowing, colorful pictures. It depicts the distraught figures of the first couple, bowed under the sword of an angel as they make their way east of Eden and into the world, having lost the interactive presence of God and their open trust in each other. In its essence, the painting communicates a deep loneliness and rejection, capturing the scope of the story with just a few brush strokes. These people, I thought, are us.

Addictions and coping mechanisms only increase isolation.

Like Adam and Eve and the addicts in Infinite Jest, we each have something shameful to hide, and we’re afraid to show it for fear of rejection. The communities formed among such people can look cheery on the outside, but remain fragile and insecure, riddled with gossip and judgments. When there’s pressure to perform such as there is on college campuses, students will very likely opt for these unhealthy outlets over deeper human connections, and the few connections they do manage will be tainted with pretense. As John Coe and Todd Hall write in their 2010 book Psychology of the Spirit, “A false self that is hiding and covering, pretending to be shiny, cannot really love or be loved, for it is not the actual self that is present but a phantom of a self.” Jesus himself spoke of the impulse to hide: “For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:20). When my question changed from “Why is there loneliness on campuses?” to “Why are we so bent on hiding from each other?” a world of insight opened to me.

Harley Manifold, Summer Sun, oil on Belgian linen

My isolation at Wheaton taught me that I’ve always been a “hider.” My politeness and courtesy growing up gave me a reputation as a “good guy,” but in college the shell I’d worn for so long ended up suffocating any real personality and joy. Eventually, even family, religion, and personal interests couldn’t overcome the failures, weaknesses, and wounds of my inner life. There’s a limit to how long a person can “dress up” for others and for God. Sooner or later the real mess has to surface. Yet it is in the light that everything can change. The words of 1 John point the way: “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

To give and receive genuine love takes grueling honesty and penitence. What exactly did I have to repent of? While subtle and hard to unmask, my sin was shutting myself off to love I hadn’t “earned.” It was an inverted self-absorption. I had to learn the humility to receive grace, and in turn be able to give it. It was here, in my brokenness, that I found true communion.

There was a group of juniors who lived together in an apartment near campus. One of them, Noah, simply began inviting me over. These guys weren’t part of an intentional program and were notably different in personality and interests, but they acted as a brotherly unit, and hospitably included me. I learned to listen to their problems and pains instead of focusing on my own. I started to love other human beings as they are. I experienced Christ through these people. With time and grace, I found myself a new person.

Sooner or later the real mess has to surface.

A year later we were all groomsmen in Noah’s wedding. The day honored the bond Noah and his wife, Rebecca, had built during their time at Wheaton, extending from the mutual support of our community. As an isolated freshman, wondering what I was doing in life, I had never dreamed of being part of such a sacred moment. I reflected on how far God had taken me.

Our little band of brethren reminded each other of a great truth that needs retelling in our sad and lonely age. Christianity teaches that through Jesus we are absolved of all sin, and so no longer have any need to hide. Those who behold the gospel without hiding behind a wall of shame or self-righteousness are risen to a new life and given the spirit of God to develop a character able to love others as we are first loved. College promised me community, but it was God who delivered it.