Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Loneliness and Dunbar's Number

I have, to my lasting regret, not raved much before about David Wong, novelist and esteemed author of many Cracked articles (like this one and this one). I bought his debut book John Dies At the End just shy of a year ago now, and have since read it five or six times, because it's that good. Thanks to my folks, I have now also received and read his second novel, This Book Is Full of Spiders. I'd been slightly nervous to get it, because I liked John Dies so much I was afraid he wouldn't be able to pull off something of the same magnitude again. I had the same fear when I heard that J. K. Rowling had written a second Harry Potter book: "Please," I thought, "everything about Sorcerer's Stone was so great, and so neatly resolved, it doesn't need this -- she's obviously been pressured by the publisher or someone into cashing in on its popularity with a cheap sequel. But just in case, I'll go ahead and read this Chamber of Secrets thing." Which I then liked even better than the original. Now, I'll admit that I still like John Dies better than Spiders, but the latter put up some fierce competition, and I have a feeling that it too might eventually assume a place on the Whiskey Shelf.*

Warning: You may have a huge, invisible spider living in your skull. THIS IS NOT A METAPHOR. -- David Wong

Anyway, the reason I bring it up, aside from urging you all to go buy a copy of This Book Is Full of Spiders (and in all likelihood having some extraordinarily creative nightmares for a while), is that he cited a factoid that fascinated me. The town the book is set is has been quarantined following a zombie outbreak -- and, sidebar, it's worth noting that in a genre as old, popular, and market-saturated as zombie fiction, Wong still manages to produce something actually inventive and pretty scary -- and one of the characters is explaining something to the narrator:
"The restraint that governs human ambition isn't a lack of a unified language. It's Dunbar's number. Named after a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar. He studied primate brains, and their behavior in groups. And he found something that will change the way you think about the world. He found that the larger the primate's neocortex, the larger the communities it formed. It takes a lot of brain to process all of the relationships in a complex society, you see. When primates find themselves in groups larger than what their brains can handle, the system breaks down. Factions form. Wars break out. Now, and do pay attention, because this is crucial -- you can actually look at a primate brain and, knowing nothing else about what species in came from, you can predict how big their tribes are. 
"... The salient issue here is that every primate has a number." Marconi gestured to the crowd gathering outside the fence. "Including those primates out there. Including you and I. Based on the size of a human's neocortex, that number is about a hundred and fifty. That's how many other humans we can recognize before we max out our connections. With some variability among individuals, of course. That is our maximum capacity for sympathy." 
I stared at him. I said, "Wait, really? Like there's an actual part of our brain that dictates how many people we can tolerate before we start acting like assholes?" 
"Congratulations, now you know the single reason why the world is the way it is. You see the problem right away -- everything we do requires cooperation in groups larger than a hundred and fifty. ... So every moment of the day we urgently try to separate everyone into two groups -- those inside the sphere of sympathy and those outside. Black versus white, liberal versus conservative, Muslim versus Christian, Lakers fan versus Celtics fan. ... 
"And here is the key -- those who lie outside the circle are not human. We lack the capacity to recognize them as such. This is why you feel worse about your girlfriend cutting her finger than you do about an earthquake in Afghanistan that kills a hundred thousand people. This is what makes genocide possible."**
This got me thinking, a bad habit that I've never quite been able to shake. The book of Acts records that, at the Ascension, there were a hundred and twenty disciples (probably a round number -- given for its symbolic significance as a multiple of twelve, that being the number that Scripture typically uses to signify the chosen people of God). This lies neatly within Dunbar's number*** for social groups, as if the primitive Church had been designed to experience itself first as a tightly-knit yet expansive community -- a Church that was catholic.

The narrative thereafter shows the various ways in which the Church expanded beyond its previous boundaries of both size and composition: first her numerical expansion after Pentecost; then the evangelization of the more-or-less (but, in most Judean Jews' opinion, distinctly less) Jewish people of Samaria; then the beginnings of the mission to the Gentiles in Syria; and then, with the conversion of St. Paul, the beginnings of an evangelization of the whole Mediterranean, and the crossing from Asia to Europe, arriving at last at the center of the Empire and what had been the symbol of everything the Jews -- including the Apostles themselves -- wanted to be freed from, both politically and spiritually: Rome. As if the Holy Ghost took the Church and told her, "Alright, we're going to radically change how you relate to literally everyone in the world. So start here, where you can comfortably handle the scale of what's going on. And now a step beyond that. And now, a while later, another kind of step, beyond the previous one. And now another."

We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained
before the world unto our glory:which none of the princes of this world knew: for had
they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. -- I Corinthians 2.7-8

From one perspective, of course, the experiment failed; I don't know that Christianity is more divided against itself than any other religion, but it has shown the ill-effects of expansion: that dissolution of empathy and receptivity known, in theological language, as schism. From another perspective, the experiment was a considerable success: it will round its two thousandth year in just about twenty years more, with a continuation not only as a spirit but as a living institution at every point -- a historical fact peculiarly well symbolized (whatever one's theology of it) by the Papacy, which is the oldest continuous institution in the world.**** That the Christian religion has managed to continue to exist, and even to recollect itself from native corruptions several times, is an impressive feat, perhaps an unrivaled one.

It's a funny phenomenon to me to think of simply running out of sympathy based on the size of a group. Running out of time, energy, patience, all of that I understand from within; and I suppose that if Dunbar's number just signifies that, practically speaking, we can only manage to know so many people, it makes sense. But it very much seems as though -- whether for pragmatic reasons or for some darker cause -- what it means is that, after that threshold, we just know too damn many people, and start not merely saying "I haven't got the resources to do you justice" but in fact saying "You don't deserve for me to do you justice."

That's super weird to me. I don't know whether it's just because it's weird to anybody, or because I've dealt so much with loneliness throughout my life, or what. But it's strange, and it's tragic. It's perfectly true that that is what allows genocide to happen, and what allows us to be so callously inattentive to, or contemptuous of, others' sufferings -- particularly if those others are far away, or look or dress or speak or behave in ways that we do not recognize or do not like, or are simply a very large group (it being a curious but, it seems, generally acknowledged phenomenon that it's easier to mourn sixteen people than sixteen million).

I wonder, too, whether there is a reverse to which Dunbar's number is the obverse: whether there is some number of people we need to know intimately, a number of relationships beneath which a person simply can't function without their humanity begin to fracture. Of course, there will always be variability. And there will always be periods when we need solitude: some people need much more solitude than others, and some people even have vocations for the long term to be recluses or hermits, though even they tend to gather visitors and disciples, not infrequently against their will. But I wonder whether there is an opposite to Dunbar's number nonetheless. It'd be entertaining if that number should happen to be three.

Or -- and this is at least as likely, based on the data at my disposal -- loneliness is just A Thing That Happens, like many Things.

Now, I'm fairly fucked up, as a person: to give you the idea, about two weeks ago now, a friend of mine, a guy I've known and respected and liked for years, asked if I was going to be at the writers' group we both go to, and when I told him yes and he said he was glad because he'd been hoping I would be there, my knee-jerk reaction was to think, Did I do something wrong and he wants to talk to me about it? Did I borrow something and he needs it back? Do I owe him money? (I borrow money approximately never.) Not something like, Oh, this person likes spending time with me, how nice. That is a hypothesis that I generally only arrive at after several minutes, though I've learnt to try positing it earlier on, if only out of a spirit of adventurous experiment. So my own way of experiencing and contemplating loneliness may not be typical, or indeed noteworthy for its sanity. But, judging from my own life and what the people I know and trust the most say, loneliness does just kind of come and go in waves, even under the best circumstances, even when all of the affection that we need is being supplied by family and friends.

My suspicion is that this is one of the signs that we were made for something more and other than human company. Loneliness is kind of like being hungry; I wonder whether perhaps it is being hungry, for God. This also is Thou, neither is this Thou, as the saying goes: God is known through every created thing, and yet He is not nor resembles any created thing. And as painful as it often is -- and it's been biting especially deep of late, for whatever reason -- there is also a strangely clean feeling to loneliness sometimes. Something that faintly resembles the feeling you get when you look up at the sky on a day when there isn't a cloud in sight, and just stare into the deserted blue.

I do think it rather interesting that the saints, the great paragons of supernatural love, have made use of both methods -- solitude on the one hand, and society far beyond Dunbar's number on the other. In a woman like Lady Julian of Norwich, we find a recluse, immured from the world as if already buried (neither is this Thou), yet whose overflowing charity and grace still guide and inspire Christians to this day.

"The Holy Ghost never urgeth any thing against charity, for if He were
to do so, He would contradict His own nature; for He is all charity."

At the other extreme, as it were, we have a figure like Blessed Mother Teresa: untiring and unresting, having traveled halfway around the world (from Albania to Ireland to India) for no other purpose than to pour herself out for others, herself secretly brimful of the darkness and pain of the Passion, yet giving every single person a smile, a prayer, a touch, making some gesture of love however small, for the sake of loving every person as Jesus -- loving Jesus in every person (this also is Thou).

"We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The
poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty."

And the extremes meet, as any introvert who's attended a party knows well. (As Joey Prever put it once, "Everybody came over! It was great! That was three hours ago! They won't leave!") Not only can company be solitude, whether said company is in excess of a hundred and fifty people or not. It's also true that solitude can be company: not just that solitude is a relaxing break, but that there is a quality in solitude that can be as enriching and positive as a supportive, affectionate friend. It isn't always there; or, more likely, I'm not always tuned in enough to notice it. But hey. That could mean that -- just as, by training or talent or Divine grace, some people exceed the Dunbar number and care about more than a hundred and fifty people -- so too, maybe, the opposite of the Dunbar number, under the same conditions of nature or of grace, might be zero.

Hmm. This will require some beard-stroking, and possibly a raised eyebrow.

*For those not already acquainted with my personal blend of bibliomania and alcoholism: I was tired of having to get up and walk all three and a half feet from my desk to my bookshelves whenever I needed to reference something while writing, so I took an old wooden whiskey crate that I liked and makeshifted it into a bookcase for the works I use most frequently, whether for use or pleasure. Books on the Whiskey Shelf are accordingly those I most highly esteem. Most of them, other than John Dies At the End, are books that I've been familiar with for several years at least and read many times over. (Because I arranged them alphabetically by author, this means that Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling is sitting right next to The Silmarillion, which I imagine must be a novel experience for both of them.)

**This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It, pp. 295-296.

***Dunbar's number has been disputed, with some scholars setting it significantly higher. A generally accepted range, according to infallible Wikipedia, lies between 100 and 250.

****Unless the claims of the Japanese Emperors are true, in which case they predate the Bishops of Rome by about 660 years. Which I admit would be pretty awesome.


  1. Your whiskey crate idea may be just the solution my disorganization needs.

    I do think that loneliness can point towards God - he's the only one who can know us completely and intimately enough so as to put our longings to rest. It's a similar case for romantic longings as well; they can be the impetus for awakening yearnings that outstrip what a merely human lover would be capable of satisfying.

  2. Very interesting about the Dunbar number. It also makes me think of how large the mind of God is if he can have a tribe of Billions! He knows each one of us intimately and on a personal level. There's also the angels in heaven which no one can really number.