In her 1975 theological treatise Suffering, German liberation theologian Dorothee Söelle* examines the ways that suffering can knit humans beings closer together, and can draw us more fully into the process of loving. She uses the term apatheia, “the inability to suffer,” to describe the condition in which people become “so dominated by the goal of avoiding suffering that it becomes a goal to avoid human relationships and contacts altogether.”
Isolation and apathy are forms of powerlessness. Both destroy—in Söelle’s words, “We are destroyed most thoroughly by that affliction that robs us of any possibility of loving any longer. . . . The capacity we need the most [is] the capacity to keep on loving.”
If pain and suffering tempt us to become isolated and apathetic, Söelle argues, we must instead give voice to our suffering by creating “a language of lament” that might draw us into solidarity.
The theology offered by Dorothee Söelle echoes that of her rough contemporary, Hannah Arendt—who was a political theorist, rather than a theologian. One of Arendt’s most well-known assertions, from her work The Origins of Totalitarianism, is that “totalitarianism is organized loneliness,” and that the seed of loneliness is isolation: “the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of [human beings].”
Therefore, resisting the isolation that breeds loneliness is not just an emotional, psychological, or even spiritual act, but also a political one. The blogger and critic Maria Popova puts it this way: “Our insistence on belonging, community, and human connection is one of the greatest acts of courage and resistance in the face of oppression.”
*Söelle is pronounced ZERH-lah