I came across this painting, Edward Hopper’s Automat, about a month ago in a book about developing one’s observational skills. And in the last week, I’ve led two different discussion groups on what we can see here and what it evokes in us.
Hopper’s paintings, in general, show people who are isolated from each other, set in stark, simple locations. None capture a sense of aloneness and detachment better than this one.
A woman, smartly dressed, sits by herself at a table. She holds a coffee cup in one ungloved hand while she stares downward in contemplation. The large glass window behind her reflects only overhead lights – no image of the room of her can be seen. It looks like the darkness behind her is about to swallow her.
Like the droop of her hat, loneliness seems to weigh upon her.
I’ve been thinking, recently, about how narratives reflect the deep desires of our hearts. John Steinbeck wrote, “A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last… the strange and foreign is not interesting – only the deeply personal and familiar.”
The pang produced by the aching solitude of this woman touches on everyone’s desire to be connected to and valued by others. And as I thought about narratives that play on the positive side of this need, I remembered one of my favorite tropes in films: the gathering of the team.
Think of The Magnificent Seven, that classic western, or a heist movie, or any superhero alliance. There’s such a satisfaction in seeing a dissimilar group of talented individuals come together for what otherwise would be an impossible task.
That’s the combination that every human longs for. We want to know that we are valued for who we are, that our particular blend of traits and skills matters. But we’re not after a gold star or a pat on the back. We want to belong to something bigger, a purpose grander or more glorious than anything we could attempt on our own.
When a story evokes a longing like this, it points to the True Story: God’s redemptive work through Christ.
So, I’m not surprised to see the gathering of the team in the gospels. Here, a motley gang of disparate individuals are brought together, person-by-person, for a purpose far greater than they could have imagined:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. John 15:16
And later, in the letters of Paul, we see our longings fulfilled in a vision of the church as a binding together of different gifts, service and working (1 Cor. 12:4-6) in order to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1: 10, ESV)
People yearn for connection today as much as I have seen in my lifetime. Social media and the pandemic have accentuated disconnectedness. The bright lights of our technological automat still leave people fending off the darkness, alone.
Will we, as the church, be able to show what it truly means to belong?
Lord, you have called us to yourself. And in that calling we find ourselves bound in love to other followers. Help us to so display your fruit that the lonely of the world will come and be satisfied in you.
Reader: when have you most experienced the antidote to loneliness?