Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and social critic, is often remembered as one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. In his autobiography, Russell reflected on his own death, pointedly referring to that moment as the “night of nothingness.” He notes, “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”(1)
In dramatic contrast are the equally pointed words of another great mind who spoke centuries earlier. As the apostle Paul looked with anticipation toward his own death, he explained, “To me, to live is Christ, to die is gain… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”(2)
The distinction is striking. And yet, their words seem to express a common and underlying sense of alienation, though clearly interpreted in two different ways. For Russell, alienation is expressed through his grim vision of nothingness as he looks at the fleetingness of life and the finality of death. The apostle Paul, on the other hand, seems to give voice to a deep, abiding awareness of alienation that comes from sensing himself a stranger in this world, wholly anticipating another.
In fact, across cultures and throughout history this sense of alienation has been expressed by many and interpreted in a myriad of ways. For some, a deep sense of isolation and estrangement becomes a thief of meaning and hope. Why am I here? Does my life hold any purpose? As one chorus resonates over and over: “You and I, we live and die. The world’s still spinning round and we don’t know why. We don’t know why. Don’t know why…”
Still for others, it is a simple sense that they are not quite at home—even in the midst of connection, beauty, or homecoming; theirs is a longing to be reunited with something from which they now feel cut off. If beauty is to the spirit what food is to the body, it is a strange food, for it only leaves more hunger in its wake. A walk through the woods, a glimpse of something hopeful, or a haunting melody can trigger a pang of longing, the awareness of being so close, yet far away, separated from the whole.
For me it seems most logical that this common sense of alienation and pining for more in this world points to the conclusion that we were indeed made for another. The eloquent reasoning of C.S. Lewis sets forth this assertion. “We want something else,” he writes, “which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it…to become part of it…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do no make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”(3)
Perhaps our sense of alienation is a rumor we do well to entertain. Could it not be a small sign that another kingdom exists, perhaps one even hidden in our own midst, with a door that’s been opened for us? What if your instinctive hunger for wholeness is itself a sign that such a table exists? And Christ’s words resound in the great corridors of hope: Go out into the streets and the lanes and invite them to the banquet that my house may be filled.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, vol. 2 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968) 159.
(2) Philippians 1:21-23
(3) C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 25.