Our souls are molded not so much by the imprints of biology or schooling or status — at least not primarily — but rather by the trials and tribulations and sorrows of loneliness. The only story that truly matters in a person’s history is the one about their loneliness. Through it springs every other major tale: the pleasures and disappointments in work and love, family and friends, spirituality and art. No other story skirts so close to pure psychic DNA — no other story means as much.
And yet, sadly, these are the stories that are least told, both to ourselves and to our closest loved ones. Many a man has lain in a fallow grave without heaving any true understanding of his own condition to rest at another’s feet. The tragedy is two-fold: that we don’t have the skill or compassion to excavate and that the target of our affections has entrenched denial and forgetfulness at the heart of their self-defense.
The declaration of loneliness is an act periled with social shame. So much so that most of us can barely bear to think of ourselves as lonely. Instead, we distract ourselves with ephemeral and peddled cures. Some of us distract ourselves with work and curiosity, or similar vices. Others with church and community: the local PTA or synagogue. Most of us find friends and lovers and take solace in bickering and other familiar dramas.
Occasionally, the terror slips through our crude defenses. Most of us can scrape by for years – some lucky ones for decades – before such an event occurs. But when it does, we are encountered by the poverty of our worldly trophies and learned routines. Usually this brief malaise ceases as soon as we manage to find and throw ourselves into anything or anyone new.
For others, an unmistakable pattern emerges and begins to infuse itself deep into one’s entire psyche. For what modes of transportation are fleet enough to outpace this frantic cat-and-mouse game? Like the inexorable dripping that eventually forms labyrinthic caves and caverns, this incessant call-and-answer becomes a steady tempo through which to meter out life.
To trace the path of loneliness is to gaze at the secret moments in life – all the pain and disappointment tempered with imperfect and unsatisfactory reactions. And yet, I think that is the kindest and most intimate act one can perform for another. We can never, by definition, really be with someone in their loneliness. But we can take solace in the a posteriori telling and expression of such.
That said, it is also the most difficult act one can undertake. No one freely admits weakness and even when prodded, the bravest of us have the hardest time talking about the moments they’ve lost courage. Moreover, we know that others are attracted by displays of strength, not existential tragedy. What fool or fatalistic oaf would risk answering immediately truthfully and tip the balance of respect to an exit stage left?
Thus, when deliberately gazing at someone else, we can only guess at the preceding rain and sorrows that have formed the caverns and fractures that lie buried forlorn and forsaken. If we are astute and trustworthy, we may begin the long intermittent process of digging and sifting and studying.
There is a certain spell of calculation to the task; a certain open and inquisitive nature that serves to impart context and temperament. But as explorers blundering down one keyhole or another, attempting to construct a cartography of our lover’s histories and accidents, we risk carelessly displacing undisturbed and fragile grounds. Worse yet – much like the tourist who attempts to see all of Paris in a weekend – in our rush to understand everything at once, we inevitably end up with a one-dimensional caricature. A map, perhaps, but one that charts only a race from start to end.
You see, the most important qualities in a person, and the ones we fall in love with, are the small ones. The way they breathe when lying in slumber, perhaps, or how they furrow their eyebrows ever-so-slightly while chewing on a difficult composition – mayhap even the way they’ve learned to bend down in speaking with children or lightly brush the shoulders of conversation partners.
Over time, and with study, we learn to interpret these signs. For example, the way a person kisses is indicative of how they’d prefer to give and receive. And the way they sit betrays awareness of space and sensitivity to strangers. Listen to the strength of their heartbeat after dancing, perhaps, and compare it to the tempo avant and après lovemaking.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can know three layers of a person. The first, and most shallow, is the bibliographic layer of facts and timelines, family and education. The second is the realm of movement and emotion – how they perceive and orient themselves to the world, their natural rhythm in life – how much room they have for people and what they’d like those people to do to them. The last and least evident layer is the one of recurrent boredom and barely audible fears.
The last layer is tricky to describe. There are innumerably more novels about the first than the second; and still innumerably more about the second than the third. As they say in journalism, the average journalist reports the facts; the capable their meaning; and the truly skilled, what was left unsaid.
If you put my feet to the fire, I suppose the way I’d put it is thus: imagine a friend or loved one. Now, remove them from their lives: what would they think about and how would they act with no external stimulus? That is to say, if they had no work, no one around, nothing else to do, or future to attend to. In short, a state of forced boredom. How do they play with themselves? What then become their preoccupations? Naturally, one drifts towards the past – which portions and why?
These are, by their nature, private and guarded moments – not to mention, in practice, exceedingly rare and fleeting – the tempo of such as critical as the content. The best we can do as observers is to seek out proxies. We look for echoes of loneliness in how they are now. In surveying the formations of a subterranean labyrinth, there are a million hypothetical past reactions, but only one true sequence of events.
Getting at the “true sequence of events” is part skill and part art. Part skill because the true history has long been forgotten and our lossy reconstruction draws upon both volleyed questions and deft interpretation. All three layers are tightly interwoven and it takes a sensitive eye to begin to spot the incision and inflection points.
And part of it is art because we choose how to mold our disparate understandings of a person into a unified psychic whole. The “truthful” interpretation fades in importance to our intensely personal one – the one that determines the shared space through which our narratives intertwine and repurpose one another.
Just as every play can be interpreted as a story about status, every event in a life can be portrayed as a story about loneliness. And these are the tales that we can barely stand to tell in relationships and to our closest loved ones. Partly because in some senses it is saying “You aren’t enough,” but more so because we don’t even know how to begin expressing ourselves. It’s not a simple “I’m lonely.” It’s an overwhelming sense — that no matter how perfect everything is, there will still be a gaping hole, a sense of ethereal unease. And how can one explain that when we’re all suffering? It is not something to be cured, just something to be nursed.
There are years and even decades where the spotlight we win for ourselves is so bright, one has to squint to see. But light can only be sustained for so long and it is many an old and wizened man who stares back at his life and wonders where all the time went. The function loneliness serves for those of us sensitive enough to hear its cries is one of caution. It is not a reminder to be considerate to our fellow actors, but rather a warning that in the end, when the lights dim, we return home alone.
Each of our journeys is our own to keep. That might be the saddest and most tender truth about humans. And yet, we’re drawn to each other for comfort and understanding. In an almost obsessive and manic way we cling to friends and lovers and sometimes feel like our very souls ache when they at times inevitably leave.
My interpretation of such is fragile. Sometimes I forget how beautiful other people are. And sometimes I don’t want to be reminded of the fact. Yet, being drawn back again and again, I find myself always tracing the contours of their soul and catching glimpses of myself in their very peaks. Hope does indeed spring eternal.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.