“A fine line separates the weary recluse from the fearful hermit. Finer still is the line between hermit and bitter misanthrope.” So wrote Dean Koontz in Velocity.
Koontz’s words carry some weight, especially if they are read in the context of a complex social phenomenon in Japan, known as Hikikomori (meaning “pulling inward, being confined”) which has a disturbingly high prevalence. Social, economic and educational factors have combined to produce the perfect storm of reclusive, withdrawn adolescents and young (mainly) men in their twenties and beyond. Driven by a desire to ‘escape’ from an increasingly complex and unforgiving society, swathes of highly talented individuals drop off the radar screen, perhaps to emerge later at an unspecified date…….or perhaps not – nobody can predict how each story will unfold.
So the modern-day secular hermit of Japanese culture is widely accepted to be a negative influence – on both the individual and society as a whole. Youngsters, instead of being drawn towards something positive, are instead retreating from the negative, disengaging and becoming progressively more narcissistic; this introspection is very far removed from the healthy reflection we can all benefit from.
As I watched a documentary on the Hikikomori the other day, I was struck by the sheer desperation that was all-pervasive. The eremitical life, as lived out in this almost nihilistic context, was certainly not a force for good. But it got me thinking nonetheless.
These modern-day hermits are very far removed from the faith-driven hermits of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoist among others. There is scant comparison between the Hikikomori and the Carthusian, Camaldolese, or some expressions of the Cistercian way of life for example. That great Cistercian writer and one-time hermit Thomas Merton points towards a positive and constructive expression of solitary living; drawn towards a deeper, more authentic experience of the divine, Merton was a spiritual dynamo whose corpus of work has made an indelible impact on the life of Christians, as well as those of other faiths who understand the value of the contemplative life.
What seems clear, at least to me, is that wider society certainly does need to embrace the best aspects of the eremitical life – selflessness, solitude, reflection and contemplative prayer. And it needn’t be that this approach to life is an all-or-nothing one; we can incorporate the contemplative in to our daily lives, no matter how hectic they may be. So yes, we need to take one the mindset of the hermit, but not the Hikikomori. A difficult task, but spiritually very rewarding nonetheless.
And I’ll leave you with some words from Merton himself, written in New Seeds of Contemplation: “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny….To work out our identity in God.”