Loneliness and Our Connection to Others

A personal reflection on loneliness and balancing solitude and relationships.

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Cairns on Peaks Island
Peaks Island Cairns

There was this article posted in The Guardian that demonstrates the soul baring desperation that underlies loneliness, even in the midst of all the accoutrement of adulthood and family and work. It got me contemplating loneliness and considering my own relationship to it. Read the article, it’s good.

A warning: I’m about to spelunk into some serious naval-gazing.

I’ve lived for a number of years in relative solitude and had grown fairly accustomed to the sense of loneliness — to the point where I even fought internally against the concept of a long-term relationship and had to come to grips with the entirely wonderful idea that someone could be in my life unto marriage, that someone would be there every single day, loving me, forcing me to temper my long suffering loneliness into an entwinement that yes, would entail compromise and the sacrifice of idealistic, boyish visions of self-sufficiency.

Why had I so deeply resigned/consigned myself to perpetual loneliness? I think it was a manner of coping with who I was as a person. Even as a lad, I’ve always had “eclectic” tastes, meaning that I can be somewhat withdrawn, stubborn, and judgmental, and as I grew older, I refused to capitulate to the demeaning standard of bullshit that popular society deemed acceptable.

Given my personality, therefore, I had determined that I was destined for eternal loneliness, and thus sought for reconciliation with my natural state of being. Creative writingwithout a capitalistic purpose–had become an entrenched part of my existence (though my professional development has since necessitated some trimming of that sort of writing). An affection for mysticism has been part of this eclectic tendency. I like the philosophers of Zen, Sufiism, and holistic integralism of various Bohemian sorts. I fell in love with the passionate, drunken spirit-mind writing of Dostoevsky, Winterson, RumiDelillo, Pynchon, and whomever I happened to be reading at the moment. I found succor in running and hiking and reading and playing my djembe — activities that required no other to manifest enjoyment. I further discovered that going out to bars and clubs wasn’t about looking for sex or a soul-mate or any other person at all — it was about finding myself, and enjoying myself, and inviting others to come along for the ride.

Along this journey, from stubborn, eclectic individualism to marriage and a career, I’ve discovered that loneliness can be productive and beautiful, even as it dredges out a hollow in my heart. But I also rebel against the notion that artistic creativity is only produced from independent pursuits, and that things of beauty can only be created, Phoenix-like, out of despair. [Think of all of those poets of modernity, who killed themselves, seemingly out of creative consummation.] Rather, I think that what is created from the harmony and dissonance of relationships is simply different, and must be appreciated in it’s own context, apart and distinct from that which is a creation of loneliness. Times have changed, I believe, in the artistic sphere. Call it the Age of Aquarius or call it what you will, but there are too many talented and interesting individuals out there vying for attention for singular artists to dominate any one field in the manner Shakespeare, Picasso, and Davis once did. In some sense, the reality that has always been everpresent yet understated is becoming more definitive of our formal social reality: we are all artists, creating every single moment anew out of the materials of what has come before.

This freedom, this burden, of creative synthesis and production means that we all must become comfortable with the sense of loneliness and detachment from the hustle and bustle of everyday surface society. Otherwise, we will be unable to define ourselves, and we will become lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the concerns of others. Finding yourself necessitates two paradoxical movements:

  • stepping away from society and social media and other outlets* (self-knowledge and spiritual understanding)
  • stepping into society and social media and other outlets (knowledge of others and sharing)

*a definition: by social media and other outlets, I mean any mechanism by which we can connect to other people, whether Facebook, the pub, or speed dating

A balance must therefore be discovered, a balance that is difficult for us to achieve. A balance between being comfortable with loneliness, and being comfortable compromising with others in ongoing relationships. A comfort with solitude, and a comfort in being around others. A comfort with poetry, and a comfort with Twitter. A comfort with knowing ourselves, and a comfort in constantly redefining ourselves.

The hardest thing, perhaps, is to truly know yourself in a crowd of people who don’t know themselves. Or maybe the hardest thing is to truly know another person when you don’t really know yourself. Or maybe it’s all the same problem, and the solution lies right before us.

The MLK Memorial and Me

In February, I went to a conference in D.C. My wife came down to join me afterwards. We don’t get out much, and I’ve barely seen much of my East Coast environs, barring last year’s visit to Philly. At the top of our list of things to see was the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was the newest memorial, and also slightly controversial.

As we approached the memorial, we read quotations from MLK’s speeches that are engraved along a wall that leads up to his statue. We then walked around the central monument, which depicts MLK with his arms crossed, embedded in a chunk of granite mountain that appears to have slid forward from its face (Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope). His hands are sinewy and strong, veins bulging, and his eyes gaze stoically across the water. There is a sense of calm and might, but also a deep sense of tragedy. The unfinished look of the overall work contributes to this sense.

We took our obligatory picture, and then my wife asked if I could take her picture in front of one of the quotations we had passed earlier along the wall.

“It reminds me of you,” she said, somewhat shyly. We walked back over and I took her picture in front of the quotation, which reads:

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their heads.”

She seemed to feel that the reason why I am a teacher and work hard each and every day related to something like the sentiment expressed in that quotation. I couldn’t quite see myself in it, however.

This post is my explanation of why.

A little further down the wall, I saw another quotation that did speak deeply to me and about what I am passionately committed to in my work:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalty must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

I took a picture of this one as well. We then walked away from the MLK memorial towards the Roosevelt memorial, which is a long, meandering wall and pathway of red stone with various niches and spaces for reflection along the way. Quotations from F.D.R. are sprinkled next to reflective pools, waterfalls, and scattered stones. But it was a quote in a little niche from his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, that reached out most to me. And it links together in theme with that quotation from MLK:

“The structure of world peace can not be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation . . . It must be a peace that rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”

This theme of common purpose, of a struggle for a global, overarching vision through cooperative effort, is what drives me and motivates me to do the work that I do. I was flattered by my wife’s belief that I do what I do because of a deep-seated passion for social justice, but there was a cognitive dissonance I didn’t feel comfortable with in that first quote. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it seems to have to do with some underlying sense of martyrdom (“I have the audacity to believe. . .”), a stance of personal virtue, nobility, and provocation that I don’t fully identify with.

A passion for a moral mission, bordering at times on the messianic, is a trait of some that enter into teaching or social service as a profession. It is common for teachers to speak of teaching as a “calling,” as if they have been drawn into the vocation by a force beyond their ken. I am frequently talked to by others who are not teachers as if I have forsaken the realm of mere mortals and ascended into an alien sainthood, given the wary respect and sympathy attributed to a monk — that is, with an incredulous, I-would-never-do-that-myself-but-god-bless-you sort of attitude.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Teaching is a profession. It is a career. And yes, it is a tough one, and it is especially tough when teaching special education in a high needs school in an impoverished inner city area. But I moved into this tough career not simply because I wanted to make my world a better place (yes, I am an idealist), but because I wanted — purely selfishly — to develop myself as a leader and a person, to learn firsthand the ground level effects of political and policy decisions, and become a part of something much greater than myself.

I have no illusions that I am changing the world simply because I may impact a handful of childrens’ lives in the confines of one classroom. I realize this is sacrilegious to say. This is critically important work and the impact on one child’s life cannot be diminished. But I believe strongly that the larger system within which we work impacts our nation’s future ever more greatly. We can change the world by working together with others to alter aspects of that system we work and live within. Teachers, parents, children, policymakers, state legislatures, mayors, citizens, these are the people that collectively can change the world. I want to learn to look beyond my individual self and work towards a common, global purpose.

This is why the second quotation from MLK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation spoke to me. I’d like to think that I as an individual can influence great change, but realistically speaking, I know that whatever impact I can have on my own is nothing in comparison to what we can achieve when we work together.

Book Review: Sometimes We Walk Alone

Sometimes We Walk AloneSometimes We Walk Alone by Ankur Shah

A delightful travelogue that carries the reader on a journey through the self, in search of the heart of love. Ankur Shah’s notes on his journey through Gujarat, following in the footsteps of Gandhi, are spiritual, simultaneously brooding and ecstatic. He peppers his narrative of events with introspection on modern existence and its travails, but never loses his focus on the very real and tangible beauty of the everyday, the glory of the hospitality of strangers, the wonder and joy of food bestowed by friends never before known until that moment, and the everpresent internal struggle between ego and non-violence. This is a tale that can thrill pilgrims of any stripe. And most importantly–introduce the uninitiated to the teachings of Gandhi.

View all my reviews

Hallowed Lives

To possess something of depth, there must be a relevant soul-searching ream of pain, as what has built up and calcified is scooped out, cleared out, cut out. Leaving the space for the blueprint of something new. In the erection of new life structures, you think of the manner in which windows will capture light, the space needed to sustain love. Policies are put into place, expectations are clearly set. From out of the hollows of your aching heart are formed crystals, that when dug up form the diamond terrace of your realized dreams.

The people in our lives are designed to mold us into who we want to be. To support, construct, motivate. If we are not here to enact something better, than what would be the point? Together, pressing the clay of our vision into higher planes.

All that exists is a matter of process, timing, development. We must wait, patiently, for the universe to unfold into itself, riding the waves of our suffering as we hollow our lives in preparation for the future.

The Race of the Waterfall

Us humans, we short-sightedly cling to each other like life rafts as we hurtle towards precipitous falls, as if we would be the ones to save each other. In the frenzy of the lip of the unseen, everything comes apart, and we find our fingers empty, our eyes filled with spray. It would have been better to have been beholden to the void before we fell. It would have been better to have been still, drowned already in the inevitable, serene in the knowing that there is no saving grace beyond the embrace of emptiness.

Who can blame us, in our cataclysmic euphoria of need? In our poverty of vision, we claim what is given to us as desirable. Whatever can make us feel good, temporarily, whatever can numb our feeling, temporarily, day by day until one day we find that we are nostalgic monsters, a distant alien force that must be fought tooth and nail by the oncoming generation. We wake up perhaps at the vertiginous pinnacle of that final descent into nothingness to find that we have become parasites, aging attachés of complacency, selfishly clinging to mythological ideals that w0uld label us heroes, label us entitled, label us good and whole and pure.

What matters, at that point, our pride? When our whole life flashes before our mind’s eye, it is the things we did when no one else was looking that is replayed. How did we comport ourselves then? Were we free? Were we ashamed? Were we utilitarian, were we idle? What has defined our integrity in our lives? Who are we? What is it that we have done to the world, to ourselves, to each other?

How do we carry ourselves as our world falls about us, and our hands grasp out into emptiness, and we find that there is nothing to support us but the quantifiable pull of gravity?

The Power of Prayer

It was September, 1975. Gunhild prayed every morning and every night, and often throughout the day as well. She would pray for all those that she knew, starting with her immediate loved ones, extending onward to personages known only through the news whom she considered to be “good”, such as the President. All of her known world, essentially, was included in her daily prayers. She was living alone at the time, having moved out of her sister Helga’s apartment in Los Angeles after the earthquake in 1971. Gunhild was terrified of earthquakes, and would often warn my parents about the impending “Big One,” much in the same way she was always warning us of the coming of the apocalyptic end of days, for which she was joyously awaiting the advent of The Rapture.

At this time she was probably living in Tuscon, although she may have been in Albuquerque, St Petersburg, Dallas, or Chicago. Helga referred to her sister as a “gypsy”, and true to this title, Gunhild seemed to have an aversion to settling for too long in any one place. Fiercely independent, and also terrified of airplanes, Gunhild traveled by train or Greyhound wherever she went. She eventually settled mostly in Tuscon, as her allergies seemed the least affected by the climate there, and there weren’t any earthquakes.

Anyway, to get back to the story, to that September day, wherever she was. She was in her apartment alone, and she had just got back from running an errand. She was walking from one room to another when she heard a voice tell her to “pray for the President.” She walked around looking for the source of the voice, but the radio was off, and no one was there. She thought to herself, “but I’ve already prayed for the President today.” But she shrugged and decided that it certainly couldn’t hurt. So she kneeled down right then and there and prayed for the President, for his safety, for his health, for his wellbeing.

Later she turned on the radio, and heard that an assassination attempt had just been made on President Ford in Sacramento. The would-be assassin, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, had pulled out a Colt .45 on Ford, but strangely, though the weapon’s magazine had rounds in it, there were none in the firing chamber. Almost as if one part of her wanted to kill the President, but another side of her didn’t really want to shoot him. She later told The Sacramento Bee that she had deliberately ejected the bullet that morning from the chamber, and the police found the .45 bullet laying on her bathroom floor. She didn’t plead in her own defense and was sentenced to life.

My grandmother was not one to lie, by the way. If she says that she heard a voice say “pray for the President,” then she heard it. She also was not one prone to any sort of silliness or flights of fancy, at least not until the onset of Parkinson’s in her late 90s, at which point such flights were quite understandable.

There is no doubt in my mind that the “voice” that my grandmother heard so audibly and forcibly came from within. It was a warning of intuition so sharp and immediate that she heard it as sourced outside of herself. This story makes me wonder about the power of prayer; it has been fairly well established by medical science that at the very least, prayer can heal simply through the placebo effect of calming the patient and providing a community of support. But what about the power of prayer to directly influence, psychically, the actions of another, even that of a complete stranger?

Stay tuned for more of my grandmother’s tales of the paranormal.