Friday, December 19, 2008
As I was sitting in Mrs. Bird’s stuffy second grade classroom one day, I began to feel very, very lonely. I felt like no one really knew me, really understood me, as I yearned to be known and understood. And then I realized…I was completely alone.
I felt an unpleasant, deep aching in my belly and heart, and I began to search for something or someone who could be my constant companion. I quickly spotted the pink elephant patch on my jeans that my mother had recently sewn on. I began to whisper to the elephant, telling her how alone and lonely I felt, and how I hoped that she could be my friend. And she listened. I don’t think I had a particularly long relationship with her, but it was very significant, and this is one of my most vivid memories from my childhood.
About 16 years later, I was in the process of searching for an apartment in New York City. I spent the entire month of August pounding the pavement of neighborhood after neighborhood in the 100 degree plus throbbing heat. It was an eye-opening experience, navigating by myself through this process of deciding where I wanted to live, and with whom.
One evening, I was feeling especially lonely and frustrated after a long day of looking at places that were either too expensive; located in parts of the city that I considered inconvenient, unhip, or overly hectic; inhabited by strange people who I could not imagine living with; required walking up 4 flights of stairs because there was no elevator in the building; or were just plain disgusting. As I walked down the crowded sidewalk of this immense city, full of unknowns, I called my dad for advice.
At this point in my life, I still considered my dad to be a nearly infallible source of truth and wisdom, so I was sure that whatever he had to say would be extremely helpful. And that evening we had a conversation that I will never forget. He told me plainly, “No one is ever going to look out for your best interest like you are.” And that is something that I had never really thought about before, at least not consciously, and certainly not out loud. I had some suspicions about this, sure, but I carefully avoided analyzing it too thoroughly, for fear of what I might find out. But in this pivotal moment, these suspicions became solidified in my conscious mind, and I realized that I was really alone in this world.
Over three years have passed since that conversation and now I live in Fairfield, Iowa. Last weekend I saw a fabulous musician named Ellis play at Café Paradiso, a coffee shop here in town. Ellis was an exuberant, dynamic performer who sang her heart out with fearless authenticity. And between songs she continually cracked jokes, and then laughed loudly and uncontrollably at them, along with the audience, who also roared with laughter.
With these jokes, as with her songs, she poignantly described the human condition with an intimacy and vulnerability that spoke directly to the core of my being. At one point in the show, she was talking about how we are not alone because we have people in our lives to share with, yet we are always alone because it’s the nature of this human journey that we are all on. And then she was laughing about how “all of our experiences are so similar…so very similar…oh God, are they ever similar.” And I burst out laughing because it’s so true! The human condition is the human condition is the human condition. And we are all grappling with the same fundamental questions, feeling the same spectrum of emotions, perceiving the same illusion of duality and separateness, living in the same paradoxical Universe, and experiencing what it’s like to live in a human body on Planet Earth.
Through the years, I have found little correlation between aloneness and loneliness. Sometimes I am completely alone, and not lonely at all. I have spent three full days holed up in my New York City apartment, without seeing another human being, writing and writing and writing about my travels, and have felt very connected. And I have lain all alone on the gorgeous Caribbean beaches of Costa Rica, feeling the radiant warmth of the hot sun all over my body, and the soft, firm, supportive sandy Earth beneath me, and I have felt at one with the Universe.
And sometimes I am with a multitude of other people, and yet I feel completely isolated. I have sat on the New York City subway, staring at the masses of unfamiliar faces, all avoiding eye contact with me and with one another, and felt like an alien visiting from another planet. And I have sat in Annapurna, the dining hall at my university, and felt like there was a wall around me that no one could ever penetrate in order to reach me.
There have been a few precious moments in my life when I have truly felt what is meant by the word “Oneness.” During certain sacred rituals and ceremonies, such as my yoga practice and various Native American traditions, I have reached states in which I felt fully connected and at one with all of existence. But these experiences have been quite rare, and I feel saddened and disheartened by their elusive nature. In the barren desert of years between these indescribably exquisite experiences, I have often felt overpowering hopelessness, isolation, and deep, dark depression.
I am still grappling with these overwhelming emotions, still coming to terms with my humanity, and staring, mystified, at the illusion of my separation from the All. Perhaps it’s only my Self that I yearn to know deeply, and in knowing this, I will know everything and feel completely connected with everything in the Universe. And maybe then, and only then, will I truly know that there is no such thing as “alone.”