Today, I’m taking a lesson from locusts. They’re teaching me what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trying to explain in 1939 through his classic book Life Together. Locusts are grasshoppers. They are the same species, only morphed by forced community. Here’s how Annie Dillard describes the transformation.
Swarms of locusts are ordinary grasshoppers gone berserk. If you take ordinary grasshoppers of any of several species from any of a number of the world’s dry regions—including the Rocky Mountains—and rear them in glass jars under crowded conditions, they go into the migratory phase. That is, they turn into locusts. They literally and physically change from Jekyll to Hyde before your eyes. They will even change, all alone in their jars, if you stimulate them by a rapid succession of artificial touches. Imperceptibly at first, their wings and wing-covers elongate. Their drab color heightens, then saturates more and more, until it locks at the hysterical locust yellows and pinks. Stripes and dots appear on the wing-covers; these deepen to a glittering black. They lay more egg-pods than grasshoppers. They are restless, excitable, voracious. You now have jars full of plague. Under ordinary conditions, inside the laboratory and out in the deserts, the eggs laid by these locusts produce ordinary solitary grasshoppers. Only under special conditions—such as droughts that herd them together in crowds near available food—do the grasshoppers change. They shun food and shelter and seek only the jostle and clack of their kind. Their ranks swell; the valleys teem. One fine day they take to the air.
In Life Together, his historic work on Christian community, Bonhoeffer wrote,
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone... Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.
What does Annie Dillard have to say to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? What do locusts have to do with Christian community? The locusts have not heeded the German’s warning. Their yellow, spotted, clacking Mr. Hydes only appear when conditions force them into constant community.
We are created with a need for community because we are created in the image of a communal God, but any need constantly met becomes an appetite constantly in need. Not all community is healthy, and one of the defining factors of healthy gathering is healthy solitude. We were not meant for incessant contact, like always-on news stations. We were created by a relational God, but even he withdrew from community to seek solitude.
Bonhoeffer was right; extended isolation is unhealthy. But so is nonstop connection. The healthy Christian practices rhythms of solitude and community, connection and disconnection, gathering and scattering. To practice one without the other leaves us to either deny our parentage or become a plague.