Readers may be surprised to know that our most popular briefing of 2015 was on the theme of “Friendship (and Loneliness).” This surprised us as well. And so, for another set of writings that stuck with us over the last year, we’ve decided to focus on the dynamics of friendship and loneliness.

From Philip Lorish, Director of Research

Perhaps the article on this topic that has occupied my mind most this year is a remarkable, meandering piece from Fenton Johnson in Harper’s titled, “Going it Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude.” Johnson’s topic is what he calls the “solitaries who formed and cultivated special relationships with the great silence, the Great Alone.” Fenton’s interest in these solitaries emerges out of the fact that he was raised near the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton resided for years and is now living an “uncoupled” existence. From his experience and his study of other solitaries, he concludes that, “counter to the avalanche of messages from our culture, I recognize celibacy not as negation but as a joyous turning inward.” Solitaries are people Merton called “mute witnesses” or “invisible expressions of love” that deny themselves certain goods in order to more deeply live into others, and Fenton’s piece highlights those goods, rendering the lives they lead both vivid and honorable.

Our common estrangement from the “Great Alone” is perhaps the root of the problem Michael J. Lewis identifies in his important essay for Commentary, “How Art Became Irrelevant.” Lewis is clear to say that, “by any measure, there is hardly an institution in the Western world so healthy as the museum today.” And yet, in his view, the arts “no longer shape in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values.” This collapse, he argues, “is the central cultural phenomenon of our day.” While this claim is clearly overstated, Lewis ties the collapse of confidence in the arts to a broader trend towards indifference within American culture, rendering museums (and, by extension, those who produce work for them), lacking any “directive from society to stress the good.” And, lacking that, “museums have by default chosen to stress the new.”

From Clay Cooke, Research Fellow

I’d like to direct our readers’ attention to a piece that we mentioned but did not officially include in Culture Briefing Volume 10: On Disability—Jean Vanier’s 2015 Templeton Prize Acceptance Speech. In this speech Vanier offers his own take on the aims and day-to-day work of the L’Arche communities before asserting that the aims and work of L’Arche conflict with the deep-seated, meritocratic logic of our late modern culture.

Sitting with the claims of Vanier’s speech provoked introspection. Have I been habituated to value others according to their talent, grit, efficiency, achievement, and ability to win? Vanier speaks of a different kind of a “school,” namely, a school of love. And in such a school it is not the powerful, accomplished, “or so-called ‘normal’ people” who are the teachers; rather it is the “weak,” “fragile,” “different,” and “disabled” who do the teaching.

Two book recommendations from Greg Thompson, Executive Director

Embodying Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones

Though published nearly twenty years ago, this is an incredibly important book for our own moment. Though our therapeutic culture can render forgiveness too cheap, Jones gives a compelling account of forgiveness for a society plagued by enormous conflict and very few moral resources for finding a way beyond it.

Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, Didier Fason

A new English translation of an important French study, this book explores the new role that moral sentiments—compassion, empathy, grief—have come to play in both our public discourse and our public policy. In a globalized world such as ours, this is an important study of the strengths and challenges of emergent forms of social reasoning.