Psalm 55

"For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it...But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend."

At the heart of Psalm 55 is a betrayal. A close friend has caused the wound. Yes, in Psalm 55 the poet is surrounding by many enemies, but the betrayal of a friend is the cut that goes the deepest. 

There's a paradox that we rarely talk about when it comes to Western individualism. We decry individualism and wax on romantically that humans are relational and social creatures. We crave intimacy and connection. That's true, of course, but it raises a question: Then why do we keep choosing individualism over community? If there is a deep hunger and need within us why is this pull toward relationship and community so weak and ineffective? 

Responses to this paradox are varied. Perhaps we're just wholly powerless against the cultural forces arrayed against us and pushing us apart. Perhaps we've been completely hoodwinked by marketing strategies or proxies for intimacy, like social media, that fail to fully satisfy. 

I agree that there are forces, cultural and technological, that are pushing us apart. But I think it's also true, though rarely admitted, that there is something in us that wants to build fences around our backyards. As Robert Frost once wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors." There is a deep desire within us to erect walls and cut off the world. We aren't just passively being pulled into individualism. We actively seek it out. And this desire, the desire to avoid community, is rarely noticed or commented upon.

Why might we desire to avoid community? Well, Psalm 55 has an answer. People hurt us. People aren't safe. Communities let us down. 

Basically, I think one of the big reasons people withdraw from community into individualistic practices is because it maximizes both your agency and safety. We lament how people now live behind closed doors and have replaced true community with social media and streaming services. But we regularly fail to ask the harder question: If this is such a shitty trade why is everyone making it? I think one of the reasons is that such a lifestyle reduces the harm others can do to you. True, such a life isn't all that happy and fulfilling, but some big bad stuff that potentially can happen to you has been effectively removed. And as evolutionary psychologists will tell you, the brain didn't evolve to make you happy. The brain evolved to keep you safe. 

So, what are we to do with this jolly news?

Well, first of all, it raises the bar on community. If you call people to your community you better make sure that it's healthy and safe. And if you're a friend, spouse, or parent your responsibility to "first, do no harm" should be at the top of your moral concerns. 

But the other thing I would say here is that we need a safe harbor in the midst of the storms of human relationships. I'll say it sharply: All the calls for more community, relationship, and intimacy regularly ignore just how dangerous and damaging people can be. Yes, we need community, desperately so, but we need something else that can heal, guard, support, and protect our hearts when people let us down. This is the sermon of Psalm 55. The poet experiences a deep, wounding betrayal. So where does he turn?
Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you.

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