Am I alone in this world?
A question loaded with implications and one that has plagued me for as long as I remember. It has plagued me through the best of times and the worst of times. It has plagued me through my most intimate relationships and through prolonged periods of singleness. It has plagued me while traveling alone and while surrounded by large groups of people. It has plagued me in the seconds before I fall asleep and in the moments just after I wake.
But before I even attempt to answer the question, why is it important? Why does the mere thought, “Am I alone,” incite such anxiety within us? We humans are pretty rational creatures, so there must be some rational explanation for why we have this great fear that the answer might, in fact, be “yes.”
First of all, we know from experience that some (if not the majority) of our most fulfilling moments in life have come about either in the presence or as a result of others. We have experienced feelings of true emotional and physical connection with another, we have been supported and provided support in times of need, and we have shared encounters with others that simply would not be the same if we had experienced them alone. We feel grateful for these experiences and recognize how sub-ideal it would be not to have them anymore.
Secondly, we understand that life just works better when we have others around us. It sometimes feels as if the world is made for couples with the ubiquitous 2 for 1 specials and Costco-esque shopping opportunities. After all, no sane individual can eat three pounds of blueberries before they go rotten no matter how many cancer-fighting antioxidants they might have. Our jokes are funnier when others are around to laugh at them. Activities like eating out at a restaurant or going to the cinema are much more comfortable in the presence of another. Taxis are cheaper when we share them with others. We can comfortably fall asleep in the lap of another while waiting at the departure gate for our plane to take off, and if we need to use the bathroom, we don’t have to lug all of our luggage with us across the airport.
Thirdly, from a pure Darwinian survival of the fittest perspective, our chances of continued existence on this earth are greatly increased if we have another. If we get sick or have an accident, having a companion can be the difference between life and death. A partner can give us CPR, a partner can call an ambulance, and a partner can literally or figuratively talk us back from the edge.
Next, emotional well being, lower stress levels, and lower heart rates may all be associated with having a companion. Similar to having a dog, being in the presence of another can remove us from the stresses of being in our own head. From life experience, I know that caring more about others is much more rewarding and stress mitigating than caring about myself (even if I don’t always act like I know it). Being in love has taught me this. And of course, there is the ability of the other to comfort us during difficult situations. Even if the other person is unable to change the circumstances of a situation, simply being told “everything is okay” or being on the receiving end of a gigantic hug can be all the difference.
And finally, there is that good old procreation thing. It has been in our nature since our early ancestors appeared on earth 1-2 million years ago to be extremely adamant about passing on our genes on to the next generation before we die. Whether it be for reasons of the ego or because we have some unselfish inclination to help the species extend its existence, I will never be sure. But having a partner makes that process a bit more seamless and a whole lot more socially acceptable.
So yea, it seems pretty reasonable that the question, “Am I alone in this world?” might bring on the kind of anxiety that it does.
But loneliness is not all bad. In fact, some pretty smart people have advised me that it is the gateway to personal growth and that I will never be able to be in a truly loving relationship if I don’t know how to be alone. Being alone (and I’m not just talking about being alone for a few hours on a Saturday morning as we get our lives back together after a big Friday night or while we have a cappuccino and read the New York Times) can give us the space we need to experience peace of mind. It can give us the freedom to be creative. It can liberate us from feelings of envy, greed, and lust that we often experience when we closely observe the situations of our fellow human beings. It can liberate us from distractions so we can think, process, and reflect. It can give us an incentive go out of our comfort zone and truly experience the world through our own eyes. And to be frank, sometimes other people just stress me out. Nothing personal, but other humans have all sorts of needs and desires, and sometimes, I would just rather not have to deal with them.
So now on to the matter at hand.
“Am I alone in the world?”
The way I see it, this question can be answered in six different ways.
Am I in the presence of at least one other human being right now? Yes = not alone. No = alone.
What is my relationship status? Serious relationship or married = not alone. Everyone else = alone.
I may be physically alone right now, but if I so desired, could I have company, either physically or virtually? Would someone pick up my call to talk to me? Would someone answer my text if I sent one? Would someone meet me at a bar for a drink? Yes = not alone. No = alone.
Do I feel emotionally connected to another? Can I show affection for another and have it be returned. Do others respond to my “emotional bids” (i.e. either explicit or implicit calls for love and support) and do I respond to others? Yes = not alone. Not = alone.
Do the people around me and in my life see me as I truly am? Do they see me for the real me? Have they experienced my vulnerability? Do they see past my song-and-dance and the barriers that my ego puts up? Do they see through to the loving, generous, fun-loving individual that is underneath? Yes = not alone. No = alone.
This one is particularly tricky because sometimes (or really, always) we don’t even know who we truly are. And for me personally, this one is intensely complicated because even in my most vulnerable moments, I find that my ego still holds something back. It is almost like a controlled vulnerability, as I read the other person to determine how I should be vulnerable, instead of just actually being vulnerable in the true sense of the world. I don’t believe it is manipulative as it sounds, but I do believe other people can sometimes sense this, and it can prevent them from feeling truly close to me and from fully seeing me for who I am.
Do I truly accept others for the way they are and do they accept me for the way I am? Do I love others in my life unconditionally and do others love me unconditionally? No = alone. Yes = not alone.
Another very tricky one because other than a parents love for a child (which I have not yet experienced myself from a parent’s perspective), I can’t think of any love that is truly unconditional. In my own experience, there always seems to be conditions on love with Condition #1 being I won’t love you unless you love me
So, for most of us, the question “Am I alone?” is difficult to answer with any sort of conviction because the answers to the questions above (especially #4, 5, and 6) are not binary and are constantly changing. One minute, we may feel incredibly connected to and understood by those around us, and the next minute, we may feel that there is not a single other soul out there who can even begin to grasp what we are going through. Even if external circumstances don’t necessarily change, our brain chemistry is such that consistent answers to these questions are very hard to come by.
And for me personally, I find the loneliest times to be when the answers above point to contradicting conclusions. Specifically, I feel the most lonely when I feel lonely IN SPITE OF being surrounded by a ton of friends or having a romantic partner. When I am physically alone, it is easy to understand why I feel lonely. But when I am not physically alone, and I still feel alone, it throws me off my rocker. It is extremely disconcerting, and only serves to strengthen the discomfort of this emotion we call loneliness.
So, as I have gotten older and experienced a few more things in life, it has become clear to me that the quality of “aloneness” has nothing to do with the number of people around. It might have something to do with the quality of the people around. Or maybe more accurately, it reflects the quality of our relationships with the people that are either around or with the people that are not around. I feel way less alone knowing there is a friend across the world who “gets it” and “gets me” than a guy standing next to me who cannot even begin to understand what I am going through. Carl Jung said, “Loneliness doesn’t come from having no one around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that are important to you.”
So now really on to the matter at hand.
“Am I alone in this world?”
Yes and no. Yes, because factually, I am an individual. I am alone in the physical space that I occupy. And when I go to bed at night and close my eyes, even if there is someone lying next to me, the fact remains that I am alone in my mind and in the darkness that my eyes can see. And no. No, because I am not going it alone in this world. I share the planet with 7 billion other humans, and if I play my cards right, I can serve as pillars of support for many of them, and in turn be served myself. I have access to the infinite love of others and by being truly vulnerable (not just pretend vulnerable like I have a tendency to do), I can be truly “gotten.”
Paul Tillich put it nicely when he said, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone.”
So next time, when I am feeling a bit lonely, whether I am in an empty room or in the middle of Times Square/Lan Kwai Fang/Roppongi on a Saturday night, maybe I’ll just do a little re-framing of the emotion. I will call it “solitude” rather than “loneliness.” And with the re-framing, maybe I can bask in the glory of my loneliness, or at the very least, take comfort in the knowledge that any discomfort associated with this emotion will eventually pass.