Monday, April 21, 2014


There are few things crueler in the world than feeling alone. All the pain and suffering in the world can be endured if we have others to share the load with. Alone, those burdens are frightening and all the more terrible.

I've felt alone. I've felt alone with other people around me. I've tried to talk, to communicate, but my ignorance and anxieties make me feel limited and distanced. I've felt alone in my depression, where the illness itself works to isolate and separate me from the rest of the world, and convince me that others do not love me. I've felt alone late at night, when there's no other voices to be heard but my own, and the things that it's saying are more than I can handle. Today I felt very alone for a very long time.

In my experience, loneliness is is accompanied by hopelessness.  Odd, considering we deal with problems by ourselves all the time, and most of the time we do them with no trouble. But when I think of myself as being by myself, the situation becomes much more difficult. The difference seems to be between being alone and feeling alone. It's the difference between not having others around us but still feeling their love and support, versus feeling like we're the only ones taking on the weight of the world.

We need to know we're not alone. We need to know that others are there to help us. We need to know that what we have struggled with others have struggled with. We need to know that out there, somewhere, is someone who cares about and values us as we would like to be valued.

But sometimes it's very hard to find that.

For those of us who have had traumatic experiences, who have had problematic childhoods, or who have dealt with the isolating experiences of mental illness, it can be very hard to feel like there's someone out there who can understand us. There are many solutions to this, and I would encourage everyone who feels this to look for what works for them.

But here is something that works for me:


Yesterday morning , as I was preparing for the day, I felt very depressed. I wouldn't call it despairing, but things felt empty. I wasn't sure why I was doing anything, what it was all going towards. The future felt narrower, and I felt smaller.

In the end, what got me out of this slump was not any philosophical tract on "revolt against the face of despair" or whatever. The feeling did not suddenly go away. No medicine removed it. Instead, I was inspired by an anecdote from Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, whereby Frankl, while suffering in a concentration camp, is able to inspire himself to continue on by thinking of his wife. The quote is wonderful, as is the whole book, and is included below:
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us." 
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
Like Frankl, I thought of those I loved. I thought of my closest friends and loved ones, past and present. People who still cared for me and those who I knew no longer did but whom I still cared for nonetheless. I thought of their faces, of precious moments spent with them. I thought of wanting to make them happy, and I realized that the way to best make them happy was if I was happy, or at least as close to happy as I could be in the present moment. I could show my love for them by extending that love to myself, and willing myself to endure the suffering I was feeling now.

And that helped. The pain lessened somewhat, and what pain remained became easier to bear. It did not go away, but things became just a little bit easier, in part because I was able to take the pain and bear it in the context of something beyond myself I realized I was not alone. I was part of a larger world, filled with others who were affected, changed, by my presence and my actions. My pain became not simply something I was bearing for my own sake. It became something I bore for the sake of others as well. There's something very empowering in that.


That was just one technique. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's good to have multiple techniques at our disposal, as sometimes one does not help us but other does so.

But no matter what, we need to remember that we are not alone. Orson Welles once said that through friendships and relationships we give ourselves the illusion that we are not alone. But I think it is loneliness that is the illusion. True, each of us lives only in our own bodies. We can only ever see what it's like in our own heads, not the heads of others. And yet we do believe that others are around us (at least most of us do). We feel them and speak with them in our lives. And we care about people, and we believe they care about us, through the things they have done for us, the ways they've helped us get to where we are now. We can all think of people who have helped us. Fred Rogers made use of this to great extent in his acceptance speech for the Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, and I encourage you to watch it:

"No man is an island", as John Donne said. We are part of something much greater than ourselves. Everywhere on this world there are people like us, who see through eyes as we do, hear the world as we do, and think as we do, though their thoughts may take them to different conclusions. Whatever we feel, we can know that there are others who have felt the same. When we hurt, there are others who have hurt the same ways as well. Each of us feels and thinks and experiences in our own unique ways, but though the details may be different for each of us, the core of them is the same.

Maybe we are alone. Maybe each of us is an island. Hell, maybe Hilary Putnam is right, and we're all just brains in a vat that believe we are making these connections. I choose to believe that we're not. I choose to believe that though we may feel very alone at times, and though we may not be as close to others as we'd like to be, we're never truly alone. There are always ways for us to connect, and feel that connection, though sometimes they might be very hard to find.

I'd like to end this post with the paragraph immediately following the quote from Victor Frank's Man's Search for Meaning above:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw that truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, which his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way - an honorable way - in such a position man can, though loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

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